When I was a kid in school, I remember reading a section of The Red Pony out of my reading textbook (big pet peeve of mine, now - reading textbooks). All I remember was hating it. In junior high, I believe, I also did a paper on Steinbeck and chose The Pearl, The Red Pony (go figure), and one other that I can't even remember. I apparently have blocked them from my memory, because I don't remember a word from any of them. Again, left me with a bad taste in my mouth. I deliberately read the Cliff Notes when it came time to read Grapes of Wrath. (shame on me).
When I was eighteen, I stayed with my brother and my sister-in-law for a couple of months before I went away to college. "Have you ever read East of Eden?" My sister-in-law asked once, when we were talking books. "No." I kind of cringed. "You really ought to. It's wonderful. We have it right here."
Since they were nice enough to offer me their hospitality, I decided to give it a try, and to this day, I still count it as one of my favorite books. It really is beautiful. But it was the last Steinbeck book I picked up for sixteen years. Several months ago, we were at dinner at our friends' house, and Christie started saying "Oh, I love Steinbeck. Don't you?" That old feeling of semi-nausea crept into my stomach. I have no idea why, since I loved East of Eden, but I think I had convinced myself that it was his one masterpiece. She promptly offered to loan me Travels With Charley, and it has sat patiently on my bookshelf ever since -- until yesterday, when I decided I'd better get it back to her (sorry, Christie).
It is beautiful. I highly recommend it. It is more of a travel diary. Steinbeck, in fear of succumbing to old age, decides it is time that he takes a trip across country, because as an American writer, he was ashamed that he had become unfamiliar with America. He couldn't really get intimate with people if he travelled with someone else, it changes the way people relate to you, so he journeyed alone in a pick up truck with a camper in the back.....and his dog Charley, a full-size french poodle (who seems to have very redeeming qualities, even if he is a poodle). The way Steinbeck describes locales, expounds on his beliefs, and captures the spirit of the people he meets and the places he goes is indescribable. Here is just the first page...
My plan was clear, concise, reasonable, I think. For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country. I, an American writer, writing about America was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy resevoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal. My memories were distorted by twenty-five intervening years.
So I admit that I was wrong....and I thought I'd plug it, since it is one of Steinbeck's lesser known works.