“Travels With Charley: In Search of America,” or John Steinbeck, an American Don Quixote: Take 1

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When I was in high school, I realized that to discover America I would have to go off the beaten path. I never thought of my endeavor as comic so much as adventurous.  With a journey in mind, one of the first books I really took to in high school was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.   Like the narrator of the book – who was the travel companion of the character Dean Moriarity (who was, in real life, Neal Cassidy) – I had a desire to discover America. I wanted to leave my small town in Upstate New York and find out, for myself, what America had to offer. This book spurred me to travel across country with a good friend.   And as I traveled, I also came across Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Allen Ginsburg’s poems about America.   Although I was not of the Beat Generation, I was intrigued by their reflections on the USA. I found their fictional and poetic meditations on America to reflect their “serious” adventures.  The events and experiences that happened on Kerouac and Whitman’s respective journeys were fundamentally transformational.  Would I have the same kinds of transformational experience?

Between what I found and I experienced, I found that some things just didn’t match. I was looking for something else. From my angle, their journeys were too filled with pathos (“the urge to be transformed by experiences in America”) to be believable.   As an American Jew, I know now that what I was looking for was an adventure that had comical elements of failure and not so much transformation but comical astonishment. In my American adventure, I was looking for something closer to what we find in the adventures of Sholem Aleichem or Mendel Mocher Sforim, on the one hand, or the adventures of schlemiels like Saul Bellow’s Moses Herzog, Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern, or Shalom Auslander’s Kugel as they left the city for the countryside.  The America I discovered would have to come by way of a schlemiel.   If I were to find any correlate for this in pop culture, I would have to say that National Lampoon’s Vacation might just work.  After all, Harold Ramis was behind it and knew how to bring the schlemiel into popular American culture.

When I, just last week, came across John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America, I was recently reminded that Vacation, for me at that time, wasn’t enough.  Despite seeing this film and having a lot of laughs, I knew that there was something better.   Steinbeck’s book reminded me.

It was odd that I missed the book.  In truth, I had a few friends who told me to read the book; but I never got my hands on a copy of it. My literary studies brought me elsewhere…more into modernist European literature than American literature.   It was only recently on a trip to visit my father in Upstate New York that I stumbled across a copy of the book. I found it in a small used book store in Schenectady, New York. It was in the American fiction section. I bought the book and, to my surprise, I discovered, right off the bat, that this book, unlike Kerouac or Whitman’s books, starts off on a comic note and it takes Cervantes’ Don Quixote as a model-of-sorts.

The novel, to begin with, is supposed to be based on Steinbeck’s real experiences. But as a New York Times article (from 2011) notes this claim has been heavily-disputed. Nonetheless, I’m less interested in the “truth” of the claim so much as the form it takes, which is the form of the comic adventure, and the fact that Steinbeck wrote this at a time (the early 1960s) when he felt down on his luck and alienated: two factors that often make for good Yiddish and Jewish American comic literature.   Most importantly, the novel suggests a desire not so much to discover American as to be elsewhere, which is, to be sure, a Jewish desire. The suggestion that this is not just a Greek or Spanish motif can also be found in the fact that Steinbeck dedicated this book to a Jew named Harold Guinzburg.

At the outset of the book, the narrator recalls how, when he was young, “the urge to be someplace else as on me, I was assured that by mature people that maturity would cure this itch”(3). However, as the narrator points out, although he was in middle age, “the sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavement brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye…In other words, I didn’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum”(3).

In these words, he see that, in his own eyes and in the eyes of the community, the narrator is a “bum” and a “man-child.” But he is not an aimless wanderer. To be sure, the narrator calls himself a “practical bum.” He isn’t just wandering around America: “He has a built-in garden of reasons to choose from. Next he must plan his trip in time and space, choose a direction and a destination. And last he must implement the journey”(3).

Even though he sees himself as a “practical bum,” the narrator associates himself with Don Quixote who didn’t seem to have a plan. We see this in the fact that, in choosing the name for his vehicle (he is driving, not hitchhiking) he selects the name of Don Quixote’s horse:

And because my planned trip had aroused some satiric remarks among my friends, I named it Rocinante, which you will remember was the name of Don Quixote’s horse…I was advised that the name Rocinante painted on the side of my truck in sixteenth-century Spanish script would cause curiosity and inquiry in some places. I do not know how many people recognized the name, but surely no one ever asked about it. (7)

In other words, this was the narrator’s private joke. What really brings him together with Americans, however, is not his car. It is his dog, Charley, that brings him into the world. He takes the dog with him because he had worried about traveling alone. He felt that he might be assaulted, but, ultimately, he fears the weight of desolation would kill him:

There was some genuine worry about my traveling alone, open to attack, robbery, assault. It is well known that the roads are dangerous. And here I admit I had some senseless qualms. It is some years since I have been alone, nameless, friendless without any of the safety one gets from family, friends, and accomplises. There is no reality in danger. It’s just a very lonely, helpless feeling at first – a kind of desolate feeling.(8)

And it is “for this reason” that I “took one companion on my journey – an old French gentleman poodle known as Charley. Actually his name was Charles le Chien. He was born in Bercy…and trained in French”(8). To be sure, the dog only responds to French words.

I find the dog, and its European pedigree, to be an interesting American re-writing of Don Quixote. In this version, the more rational and grounded Sancho Panza is replaced by a dog. The dog helps the narrator relate to the world and pulls him out of dreams: “Charley is a born diplomat. He prefers negotiation to fighting, and properly so, because he is very bad at fighting”(9). He fails at fighting, but he is good at relating and negotiating with others. He is a “bond with strangers. Many conversations en route began with “What degree of a dog is that?”

It is conversation that the narrator wants because, in doing so, he doesn’t simply see American and its various landscapes; rather, he experiences American by way of talking with people from around the country. Regarding this, he notes that the dog is actually not the best conversation starter; even better is than the dog is the state of “being lost.” It’s the best way to “attract attention.”

With these last words, one wonders about what Steinbeck is doing. On the one hand, he casts himself as a “practical bum” and yet, on the other hand, he casts himself as someone who must “be lost” if he is to rediscover America. It seems to be a little of both. He seems to be, like many a schlemiel or ironic figure (think of Socrates, even) someone who can act as if he is lost while not being lost. The whole point, to be sure, is to gain new experiences by way of conversation. The only way to do that is to act as if one is lost. And in this act, which is carried on with a dog, the comic journey begins.

…to be continued….

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