The Restless Ones and Uneasy Permanence: Steinbeck on America, Mobile Homes, and Rootlessness

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On his travels with his dog Charley across America, John Steinbeck has a few moments in his journey when he is truly astonished by things he discovers for the first time. The wonder he has, which he records in Travels With Charley, prompts him to ask questions and look deeper into what he has found. More importantly, the questions he asks help him to reflect on what American is or has become. Like a Socrates of the road, Steinbeck learns about himself and his country by way of speaking to different people and “speculating.”   One of the things he discovers, which prompts him to reflection deeply on the nature of America and himself, is the mobile home.

Steinbeck discovers his first mobile homes when he is traveling on “roads out of manufacturing centers”(95). These mobile homes “comprise one of my generalities” about America. Steinbeck notes his first encounters with these mobile homes:

Early in my travels I had become aware of these new things under the sun, of their great numbers, and since they occur in increasing numbers all over the nation, observation of them and perhaps some speculation is in order. (95)

Steinbeck is prompted by the sheer mass of spaces to speculate further. He sees in the mobile home park a kind of paradox of rootlessness and their “uneasy permanence.” To understand it better, he “talks to the managers and the dwellers in this new kind of housing”(95).

But before he does, he discusses the meaning of “uneasy permanence.” He points out that “the fact that the homes can be moved does not mean that they move”(96).   He is astonished at this new way of life:

Sometimes their owners stay for years in one place, plant gardens, build little walls on cinder blocks, put out awnings and garden furniture. It is a whole way of life that is new to me. (96)

He tries to find words for what he calls a mobile home “revolution”:

It seemed to me a revolution in living and on rapid increase. Why did a family choose to live in a home? Well, it was comfortable, compact, easy to clean, easy to heat”(97).

Steinbeck zeroes in on the new feature of these homes: privacy. It solves problems to leave the spaces one grew up in for any place in America:

Each family has a privacy it never had before. The old folks are not irritated by crying babies. The mother-in-law problem is abated because the new daughter has a privacy she never had and a place of her own in which to build the structure of the family. When they move away, and nearly all Americans move away, or want to, they do not leave unused and therefore useless rooms. Relations between the generations are greatly improved. (99)

But in one of his recorded conversations with mobile home owners, Steinbeck notes that the biggest challenge to these good things is…rootlessness. He is astonished at their indifference to rootlessness and pushes them to discuss it. While drinking with them, he drops the question about this topic:

Sipping a highball after dinner, hearing the rushing water in the electric dishwasher in the kitchen, I brought up a question that had puzzled me. There were good, thoughtful, intelligent people. I said, “One of our most treasured feelings concerns roots, growing up rooted in some soil or some community.” How did they feel about raising their children without roots? Was it good or bad? Would they miss it or not? (100)

The response to this question, by a husband and wife, shows Steinbeck that they don’t mind being rootless. The husband, whose father was an immigrant from Italy, notes that his father “cut his roots away and came to America” and migrated from place to place and job to job. His wife is also the daughter of immigrant parents; Irish immigrants.

Steinbeck asks her if she misses “some kind of permanence?” Her response is telling since it tells the story of America, a country that is always on the move:

“Who’s got permanence? Factory closes down, you move on. Good times and things opening up, you move where it’s better. You got roots you sit and starve. You take the pioneers in the history books. They were movers. Take up land, sell it, move on…How many kids in America stay in the place where they were born, if they can get out?”(101)

After leaving them, he reflects on what they told him and he learns about himself and a lesson or two about America:

Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who peopled the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there. But every one of us, except the Negroes forced here as slaves, are descended from the resltless ones, the wayward ones who were not content to stay home. Wouldn’t it be unusual if we had not inherited this tendency? And the fact is we have. But that’s the short view. What are roots and how long do we have them? (103)

Steinbeck concludes his musing with two speculations that begin with “maybe” and “perhaps.” These speculations suggest that the Americans tap into a primal need to be “elsewhere”:

Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else. (104)

He tells us that “Charley,” his dog, has no answer. And this suggests that Steinbeck has to live on with the mystery of American rootlessness and the desire to move and be “elsewhere.” It is a part of himself and he sees this need in his conversations with mobile home owners.

One wonders what he would make of terms like “trailer trash” and a comedic show like Trailer Park Boys.   Would Steinbeck see something less profound and amusing? Would he find an “uneasy permanence” dwelling in this show or something else?  Are they living out their desire to live elsewhere?

 

John Steinbeck, Marc Maron & Walter Benjamin on Driving, Distraction, and Reflection

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Over the years, I have driven thousands of miles across the United States. And I have always looked at these journeys – with all of those hours behind the wheel – as opportunities for me to think and reflect on all kinds of things. To be sure, some of my best thoughts have come to me while driving. I would (and have) often make it an imperative to have my tape recorder or mp3 recorder on while I drive because I don’t want to miss the thought while it happens.   I was pleasantly surprised to find – most recently – that John Steinbeck has a beautifully written passage in Travels With Charley where he writes on the topic of driving, distraction, and thought.   And between John Steinbeck and the Jewish-American comedian Marc Maron (whose autobiography, Attempting Normal, I have also been reading), I find interesting similarities and contrasts between the types of thinking one does when one is driving a car and distracted.   The differences, especially, show us how the worlds they inhabit differ in content and character. The differences between them, however, come together in the fact that the association of driving with distraction and thinking is essential.

I have written on distraction, thought, and comedy vis-à-vis Rodolph Gashe’s reflections on Immanuel Kant’s claim that “literature” is not thought but distraction and on Walter Benjamin’s words on distraction. I entitled these posts “The Distracted Schlemiel: Empirical Consciousness, Reading and Distraction.”   I’d like to briefly recount Benjamin’s philosophical account of distraction in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” It gives us a means of addressing the autobiographical-fictional-accounts of Steinbeck and Maron on driving, distraction, and thought.

At the very end of his essay, Benjamin shares his greatest thought on the new way we have of relating to the world in the “age of mechanical reproduction.” His reading of distraction is largely positive; he associates it with “habit” and a new means of dealing with “perceptual shock”:

For the tasks which face the human apparatus of perception at the turning point of history cannot be solved by optical means, that is, by contemplation, alone. They are mastered by habit, under the guidance of tactile appropriation. (240, Illuminations)

And what better form of “tactile appropriation” is there, for Americans today, than driving a car? Benjamin notes that the “distracted person (who we are, for arguments sake, calling the-person-who-drives-a-car) can form habits.”   These habits – the habits of a kind of thinking on the go – provides a “solution” to the problem of modern perception. And he goes so far as to liken this kind of distraction to the modern artists distraction while painting:

More, the ability to master certain tasks in a state of distraction proves that their solution has become a matter of habit. Distraction as provided by art provides a covert control of the extent to which new tasks have become soluble by apperception. (240)

Benjamin goes on to argue that this kind of distraction can “mobilize the masses” and suggests that the best medium for this isn’t driving so much as watching films:

Reception in a state of distraction, which is increasingly noticeably in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in apperception, finds in the film its true means of exercise. (240)

The last lines of Benjamin’s essay point out that what the public does, when watching a film, is not a form of contemplation. Rather, it is a form of “absent minded” examination:

The public is an examiner, but an absent-minded one. (241)

Taking Benjamin’s point to heart, I’d like to apply what he says to driving rather than movie going.   Steinbeck’s account of distraction and the thought it evokes, while driving, is exceptional in this regard. He goes right to the core of what Benjamin calls “habit” and “absent minded” examination. Steinbeck even coins a phrase “machine-like unconscious” to describe this state. Because it is so important, I’ll quote it at length:

If one has driven a car over many years, as I have, nearly all reactions have become automatic. One does not think about what to do. Nearly all the driving technique is deeply buried in a machine-like unconscious. This being so, a large area of the conscious mind is left free for thinking. (94)

Steinbeck now turns to the content of these thoughts:

What do people think about when they drive? On short trips perhaps of the arrival at a destination or memory of events at the place of departure. But there is left, particularly on very long trips, a large area for day dreaming or even, God help us, for thought. (94)

As one can see, “day dreaming,” which Freud associates with the artist, is mentioned side-by-side with thought. They are both absent-minded activities. However, Steinbeck reels it in by pointing out that most of his distracted day drams and thoughts have a practical dimension. He “plans houses” he will never build; “gardens I will never plant” and a “method for pumping the soft silt and decayed shells from the bottom of my bay up to my point of land at Sag Harbor (where he lived), of leaching out the salt, thus making a rich and productive soil”(94). He also notes how he has “created turtle traps” and “detailed letters he has never sent.”

Reflecting on these practical thoughts/day drams, he notes that he doesn’t know whether or not he will do this in reality but, at the very least, it comes to him as a possibility.   He also notes how, as the radio was going, his “memory” of “times and places, complete with characters and stage sets” was “stimulated.” In other words, the distraction moved from memory to fiction.   It also leads to him “projecting future scenes” that will “never take place.”   Steinbeck points out, many times, he would “write short stories” in his mind while he drove. He would “chuckle” at his “own humor” and be “saddened or stimulated by structure or content”(94).

In his final reflections, Steinbeck points out how he can “only suspect” that the “loveless” driver will dream of women, the “lonely” driver will dream of people, and the “childless” driver will dream of children. He then goes on to ask himself whether the driver will imagine regrets and go over what should have been done or said. In relation to this, Steinbeck says that he sees this “potential” in his “own mind” but can only “suspect it in others,” but he “will never know, for no one tells”(95). To be sure, the greatest secret is to be found in this “potential.” To be sure, even though Steinbeck, as we can see, discusses many things he thinks about while driving, he doesn’t discuss these darker things. He leaves them out of his text.   This habit (“potential”) and its content are his secret, one that his readers will have to guess at.

That said, it’s fascinating to see a contemporary comedian like Marc Maron doing what Steinbeck doesn’t do: he addresses these kinds of thoughts in his text. What Maron thinks about when he drives is an open secret. Writing about what he used to think about when he was driving between comedy gigs, Maron notes how, in his distraction, he thought about how he had failed and what he could have done differently:

I drove everywhere to do gigs anywhere: Pancho Villa’s in Leominster, Franks in Franklin, Cranston Bowl in Cranston, Rhode Island, Captain Nicks in Ogunquit, Maine…Most of the time I drove home for hours half drunk, chain-smoking in my car and reliving my set. I always felt like I had survived something, that the simple fact that I made it through the show meant I was victorious. But the war wasn’t over yet: The next battle was in the car, the war with myself. I’m not funny enough, that joke didn’t work, why can’t I stop sweating, fuck those people, I need more jokes, where the fuck am I, shit I don’t have a map. I’ll never forget the electricity of postperformance elation and self-flagellation, flying through the New England countryside at night in my VW Golf. Not romantic. (13)

Maron’s thoughts show us what a schlemiel-comedian thinks about while he drives home.   He discloses what Steinbeck would like to hide away and perhaps that makes all the difference. And it provides us with something to think about. Driving – and the distraction that goes along with us – leads us to think and reflect on ourselves, about how things are, how they were, and how they could be. This kind of thinking becomes what Benjamin would call an “absent-minded” habit. But the question Maron and Steinbeck were preoccupied with was what one should report about what happens in the car while we are driving.   Today, in a culture that does a lot of it’s thinking in cars or in distracted transit, this content has a personal urgency that is of great interest to all of us because, after all, we all do it. It’s a modern habit that is not simply superficial; it informs who we are and gives us a moment to take account of the real and possible past, present, and future. It allows us to drift into things we regret and things we would like to do to make life better (even though most of these thoughts, as Steinbeck correctly notes, will never make it to reality).   To be sure, our absent-mindedness, while driving from one place to another, makes for the best reflection.

“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….