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?