Raluca Tanasescu



“A journey is like marriage. The certain way to be wrong is to think you control it.” – John Steinbeck


In 1768, Laurence Sterne gave a very thorough classification of travelers in his A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy:


“…the whole circle of travellers may be reduced to the following heads: Idle Travellers, Inquisitive Travellers, Lying Travellers, Proud Travellers, Vain Travellers, Splenetic Travellers. Then follow: The Travellers of Necessity, The Delinquent and Felonious Traveller, The Unfortunate and Innocent Traveller, The Simple Traveller, And last of all (if you please) The Sentimental Traveller…” (Sterne, 40-41).


The traveler is thus a head, which means that travel is very much related to our mind and soul. More than one hundred fifty years later, Romanian novelist Garabet Ibrăileanu, was talking about other types of travelers, in his novel Adela—the book traveler and the erotic traveler. Literary critic Antonio Patras relates the two journeys to the evolution stages of the male character towards his own personalism. (Patras, 177)


However, although tourism in the Old World began as an imitation of the epic and was given more impetus by the Baconian notion that travel educates modern tourism in America was actively promoted by the conditions of the twentieth-century train and boat travel, but emerging from journeys by car.


The American tourist became the icon of mass tourism of the post-war age—a tourism, which was commonly perceived as exogenous to “real” life, lacking in depth and seriousness, and unworthy of serious intellectual or scientific concern. In his highly influential book, Dean MacCannell suggests that it was mass tourism that led to the custom of travel as a search for “authenticity,” which ironically made contemporary travelers do the same things while touring. In this context, instead of aligning himself with the anti-establishment writers like Jack Kerouac or Paul Bowles, or to the representatives of the emerging New Journalism, who rebelled against any homogenized form of experience, Steinbeck left on a journey in which his final outcome was to know better the country that was experiencing mass tourism, consumerism, pollution, and sameness.


Interestingly enough, the period 1945-1960 predates the dates commonly given for the beginning of post-modernity (Harvey, 1991; Katz and Kirby, 1991). Despite this, there are many common threads between the world of the post-war counterculture and the characteristics of postmodernism. The lack of faith in established ‘truths’ and traditions, including those associated with space and place, is strikingly similar to the refusal of authority in post-modern culture. Steinbeck’s nonfiction does not qualify as postmodern, nor does it belong to the post-war counterculture. Sherril’s contention is that post-war American narratives of domestic travel, novels with road plots and non-fictional journeys roughly in the Travels With Charley tradition, constitute a reappearance and significant transformation of the old literary form of the picaresque narrative (Goluboff, 213). Steinbeck’s travel narrative collides strikingly with the narrative of the Beats or of the New Journalists – his travel is autobiographical, his vision focuses away from himself. Travels with Charley is a combination of picaresque adventure and highway narrative set in modern times and initiated by an individual who simply wants to ‘kill’ the monster, to conquer his land by getting to know it better. At the middle of the century, he establishes a new direction in travel writing which will be continued by writers likes William Least Heat-Moon, by environmentalists or nature travel writers like John McPhee and Peter Matthiessen or by the more recent authors of digital communities on travel.


Steinbeck’s picaresque quest takes the form of travel and never ceases. At the same time, the urge to travel levels the periods of his life, while the reason why he does it clearly differentiates him from his Beat fellows, whose inner and outer worlds would very often collide:


“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years describe me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would clam my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility would do the job. Nothing has worked. […] I fear the disease is incurable.” (Steinbeck, 1)


He does not run away from anything, neither does he protest against in economy, politics, and economies, or migratory patterns, on the contrary, he accepts and tries to understand them, while also incorporating them into his writing; however traveling means liberation and a sense of freedom. His journey is a quest, yet it is very carefully planned in advance; however, he finds that “we do not take a trip; a trip takes us (Steinbeck, 2). The technicalities of his journey are predictable and dealt with in advance, but he knows that no  two journeys are alike. Moreover, the journey does not take him away from the world, neither does it portray a world of exiles, but its purpose is integration, wholeness, and meaning.


To understand Steinbeck’s writing, especially Grapes of Wrath (1939), Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research (1941), or Travels with Charley, In Search of America (1957), it is vital to understand his background, the country in which he grew up and which he wrote about. “More perhaps than any other contemporary American writer, except William Faulkner, his writing has grown out of a special region […] that contains such polar extremes as the hard materialism of Salinas and the bohemianism of the Peninsula.”, says Freeman Champney in his review of Steinbeck’s travels (Champney, 347). Indeed, the author was born in and heavily influenced by the Western culture in Central California (Salinas Valley), by the clash between the culturally pretentious and affluent Carmel-by-the-Sea (originally a writers and artists colony) and the bohemian-writer-artist class in Big Sur. He was also aware and familiar with the culture of the highway, represented by the scenic Pacific Highway, which goes from Blaine, Washington, on the United States–Canada border, through Oregon to the Siskiyou Mountains of Northwestern California, then through San Francisco to San Diego in Southern California.


His background and life do not qualify him as a picaresque hero, a roguish guy from a low social class—Steinbeck was not an intellectual, but a quite typical middle-class American with an extraordinary unique gift for writing, as well as a spokesman for an usually inarticulate majority, maybe the last representative American to speak with an authentic voice rather than one processed by image-making media. He was not living by his wits in a corrupt society—at the beginning of the book, he describes his life as being quite comfortable: a cottage on the hill, a loving wife, a twenty-two-foot cabin boat called Fayre Eleyne. Nor is he an anti-hero—on the contrary, he sets out on a journey which is meant to make him get closer to his land, his nation, and his nation’s values, in a period in which the quest for authenticity was an endeavor for alienated outsiders—“This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me.” (Steinbeck, 209) Zelinsky (1973) described mobility as one of the four defining characteristics of ‘American’ character and how this characteristic was reflected in a landscape of highways and strip developments. However, in a decade in which the Beat mobility meant resistance to the ‘establishment’, Steinbeck embarks on a neo-transcendentalist journey towards self-fulfillment, which is, however, an option only for those privileged by at least a modicum of economic and social security.


“Thus I discovered 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 reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and the 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.” (Steinbeck, 5)


Unlike many traveler drivers, who leave behind them the suffocating city, either grimy and industrial or bourgeois and restrictive, to seek a truer self, free and independent, amidst the simplicity or the grandeur of nature and of those who live closer to nature, in 1960, Steinbeck did not choose a comfortable and/or unworthy ride, but one which could help him hear the accents of various people in various parts of the country so that his writing could improve. He decided in midlife that he needed to reacquaint himself with his country, so he got into a camper with his dog, Charley, and spent many months traveling throughout the United States. After searing the nation’s awareness with Grapes of Wrath, touching a deep chord that was still vibrating in the American spirit before the WWII, after his fascinating trip across the Gulf of California, described in Sea of Cortez: A Leisurely Journal of Travel and Research, Steinbeck leaves on a picaresque quest for genuine America, driven by epic impetus—to conquer once and for all the land he has written so much about, but also by the desire to be fully knowledgeable. Moreover, in the tradition of travel writing, Steinbeck successfully dramatizes the engagement between the self and the world[1].


We have established so far that Steinbeck does not drive the highway to sameness. But he does travel the highways built by the changes in technology, at the same time musing about their ineffectiveness and aggressiveness:


“From the beginning of my journey, I had avoided the great high-speed slashes of concrete and tar called “thruways” or “super-highways.” […] I sought out U.S. 90, a wide gash of super-highway, multiple-lane carrier of the nation’s goods. […] Instructions screamed at me from the road once: “Do not stop! No stopping. Mountain speed.” Trucks as long as freighters went roaring by, delivering a wind like the blow of a fist. […] When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing.” (Steinbeck, 90)



His road trip makes use of the most modern gadgets and devices: he outfitted Rocinante, the “three-quarter-ton pickup truck equipped with miniature ship’s cabin” as a sort of land yacht and set off from his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with his French poodle, Charley, to drive cross-country. He is mindful of Rocinante’s materiality, of the stultifying labor involved in its manufacture and of the intrinsic worth and essential dignity of its technology:


“…a fast, comfortable vehicle, mounting a camper top—a little house with double bed, a four-burner stove, a heater, refrigerator and lights operating on butane, a chemical toilet, closet space, windows screened against insects—exactly what I wanted.” (Steinbeck 7)


He chooses the name on purpose and makes a direct allusion to Cervantes’s novel—“I named it Rocinante, which you will remember was the name of Don Quixote’s horse ” (Steinbeck, 7), but does not display it on the side of the camper, as it “would cause curiosity and inquiry in some places.” (Steinbeck 7) He takes again distance from the Beat writers, whose cars would display day-glow paint or graffiti – he does not want to elude the boundaries of mainstream culture, nor does he want to penetrate people’s consciousness, but to make America’s speech contaminate his writing.


Steinbeck does not leave alone, which breaks the convention according to which travel writers journey in solitude. But he doesn’t look for a human companion, like many of the Beatniks, because “two or more people disturb the ecologic complex of an area. I had to go alone and I had to be self-contained, a kind of casual turtle carrying his house on the back.” (Steinbeck 6) He sets out in search of America in the company of his French poodle, Charley, maybe also looking for some protection. Charley is his Sancho Panza, but sometimes an annoying one for not appreciating the magnificence of redwoods or for baring his teeth and barking fiercely at bears in Yellowstone National Park—“For the first time in his life, Charley resisted reason.” (Steinbeck 163)


He would stay at campgrounds and reconnect himself with the country by talking to the locals he met along the way. Avoiding most of the tourist sights, Steinbeck sought out the mundane, funny, depressing and beautiful corners of what he describes as “this monster land.” (Steinbeck 6) He leaves his home in Sag Harbor, Maine, and sets west through New England, Midwest, and Mississippi to the West Coast, then back towards East to Texas. He drinks a toast with migrant workers in Maine, shares a pew with the faithful in Vermont, enthuses over cheese in Wisconsin and is appalled by the horrendous racism at the school gates of New Orleans. He ponders about burgers, trailer parks and truck drivers, and muses a lot about dogs.


The only reference he makes about his own consciousness is when he speaks about his need to reimmerse himself in the materiality of American experience. He fascinated by the exterior world, by the variety of characters he meets, most of them middle-class people, by the dialects and differences in voiced languages. Breakfast with truckers was one of his delights in all states. Forever on the move, truckers are the kind of people that particularly appeal to his restless nature. But in Maine he discovers that New England’s taciturnity reaches perfection at breakfast time. In the Midwest, he finds friendlier people, then he discovers the friendly company of a great fraternity who live on wheels.


Unlike the picaresque novels, Steinbeck is rather a spectator than a participant or a front-line observer. He is not a vagabond, but he has a pre-planned itinerary, even if he doesn’t like maps:


“For weeks I had studied maps, large-scale and small, but maps are not reality at all—they can be tyrants. I know people who are so immersed in road maps that they never see the countryside they pass through, and others who, having traced a route, are held to it as though held by flanged wheels to rails.” (Steinbeck 23)



None of his books can be fully understood unless the characters are seen to develop in relationship to the places in which they move. Travels with Charley makes no exception: “as long as he follows the Canadian border towards the occident, Steinbeck’s reactions are eager, and interested, but when he turns from Seattle, he begins to yawn. Later, still, while levanting from Salinas to Texas, he transmits his boredom by repeating tiresome, old jokes about the size of the lone star state, its cowboy boots, chauvinism, and so on” Francis J. Thompson maintains in his review (Thompson 60). The places that Steinbeck sees provoke him to everything but boredom, a state of mind that would qualify him as postmodernist. Steinbeck’s musings on Texans and his Texan relatives’ habits are more related to his Californian origins and to how Californians perceive their co-nationals. On the other hand, all his travels are narrated with a sometimes sardonic, but usually urchin-like directness that is both poignant and humorous. This objective but good-humored, engaging reportage is combined with a critical acumen that is both perceptively ironic and endearing.


For Steinbeck, travel is illuminating and the perfect opportunity to find inspiration in observation of the natural world; he also wrote frequently about the importance of seeing. He differed from many other major writers of his time in not spending his apprenticeship abroad, but instead living on and writing about his native soil in California, which made many critics, among which most notably Edmund Wilson, consider him a minor, regional writer. However, heavily influenced by marine biologist Edward F. Ricketts, Steinbeck would become the only major author of his time who was an ecologist in his thought and writings. Travels with Charley contains musings on the destructive effects of submarines on the environment—“I wish I could like submarines, for then I might find them beautiful, but they are designed for destruction. […] when I see them I remember burned men pulled from the oil-slicked sea.”  (Steinbeck 21), on pollution in America’s cities and effects of consumerism—“American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash—all of them—surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish. Everything we use comes in boxes, cartons, bins, the so-called packaging we love so much.” (Steinbeck 26), on water and air pollution—‘traffic-choked streets’, ‘skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry’, ‘the air smells of chemicals, the rivers are choked and poisoned’. Sights and vistas, such as the autumnal colors of the forests in Vermont, are equally important to the narrative as the religious, political, and social issues. Shifting climatic conditions often punctuate his journey and so do a significant number of other physical details, such as various textures of earth.


Going back to reshaping the picaresque tradition, the structure of the book follows the same lines: the episodic, ambulatory first-person (autobiographic) narrative concerns not a young man, but a writer in his mid-fifties (who could be regarded as an anti-hero by literary standards), who leaves home because of an ideal (in this case to conquer the language of his own country) and goes through impoverished circumstances as defined by the contemporary world (flat tires, moldy motel rooms, etc), also meeting various ruffians and meanwhile reaching his goal in the process. Unlike his literary picaresque forebears, he does not reciprocate any deceits he has along the way, but remains passive at all times and only incorporates his experience learning all the while.


Humor is yet another element that Travels with Charley shares with the picaresque narratives. It mainly comes from irony and from Steinbeck’s dialogues with Charley, as well as from the descriptions he makes of himself or of his dog – Charley is almost human and he makes “Ftt!” with his old badly grown teeth whenever he is not satisfied. Sometimes, his travel experience is not that comfortable, so he turns into an unrelenting and amused observer.


By getting to know America better, Steinbeck created a kind of travel narrative that is sympathetic to the American experience, in the tradition of his formers writings. The emerging New Journalism, a reaction, even rebellion, to the established mass circulation press and to the culture and politics that press represented, doubled by the attitude of the Beat writers in literature and by the beginnings of postmodernism, was reshaping the travel narrative of the early 20th century. In this context and on a separate note, Steinbeck’s travel non-fiction does not express rebellion against sameness, but a desire to become more familiar with his land, his nation, and the speech of his people, as language stands for a writer’s authenticity. Steinbeck reshapes the American travel writing by making use of both a contemporary kind of narrative, that of the highway, and of the revenant tradition of the picaresque novels.




Bendixen, Alefred and Hamera, Judith, The Cambridge Companion to American Travel Writing, Cambridge University Press, 2009

Benson, Jackson J., “Steinbeck and the Environment: Interdisciplinary Approaches by Susan F. Beegel; Susan Shillinglaw; Wesley N. Tiffney,; Elaine Steinbeck”, South Atlantic Review, Vol. 62, No. 4 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 73-76

Blanton, Casey, Travel Writing: The Self and the World, New York, Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1997

Champney, Freeman, “John Steinbeck, Californian”, The Antioch Review, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Autumn, 1947), pp. 345-362

Goluboff, Benjamin, American Studies, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Spring 2001), pp. 212-213.

Harvey, David, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Wiley-Blackwell, 1991

Katz, Cindi and Kirby, Andrew, “In the Nature of Things: The Environment and Everyday Life”, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 3 (1991), pp. 259-271

Patras, Antonio, Ibraileanu. Catre o teorie a personalitatii, Bucuresti, Cartea Romaneasca, 2007

Ridgeway, James, “The New Journalism”, American Libraries, Vol. 2, No. 6 (Jun., 1971), pp. 585-592

Sherrill, Rowland A., Road-Book America: Contemporary Culture and the New Picaresque, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2000

Steinbeck, John, Travels with Charley, in Search of America, Penguin, 1980

Thompson, Francis J., “Travels with Charley, In Search of America, by John Steinbeck”, The Florida Historical Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Jul., 1963), pp. 59-60

Zelinsky, Wilbur, The cultural geography of the United States, Englewood Cliffs, Prentice Hall, 1973




[1] A term coined by Casey Blanton in her comprehensive study Travel Writing: The Self and the World.