John Steinbeck loved to travel, so much so that he felt his passion was akin to a disease. Near the beginning of TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY he wrote, "I fear the disease is incurable."
As readers we should give thanks for his belief, because his account of traveling across the United States in 1960 is an incomparable personal memoir as well as a wonderful portrait of America.
Steinbeck took his French poodle, Charles le Chien or Charley, as his companion. Charley was an invaluable sidekick: an attentive listener when Steinbeck wanted to talk, and quite good at starting conversations with strangers.
He traveled from Maine to California, and along the way, fell in love with Montana and was appalled by the racism he discovered in New Orleans. He observed that progress quite often looks like destruction.
He stuck to the back roads and stopped in country towns most of the time because he wanted to see as much of the country and meet as many people as possible. And, oh, the people he met, from a gypsy actor who performed live Shakespeare to a young man in Montana who studied hairdressing in the hopes of moving to New York City.
TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY is a fascinating portrayal of both America in 1960 and its author who learned that he traveled "not so much to see but to tell afterward."
Reviewed by Judith Handschuh on February 4, 2002