Travels With Charley

Just finished John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. About halfway through I started jotting down stuff that struck me as particularly insightful, to share here. I’m sure the first half of the book was equally quotable, but I’m too lazy to go back through it and look for particulars.

Actually, there was one early passage that I did search out:

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. The mountains of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use. In this, if in no other way, we can see the wild and reckless exuberance of our production, and waste seems to be the index. Driving along I thought how in France or Italy every item of these throw-out things would have been saved and used for something. This is not said in criticism of one system or the other but I do wonder whether there will come a time when we can no longer afford our wastefulness — chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea. When an Indian village became too deep in its own filth, the inhabitants moved. And we have no place to which to move.”

That was written in 1961. We’ve gotten better at disposing of our waste, but we’re producing more of it than ever before. Makes you wonder where the tipping point will be.

On urban growth and lamenting lost beauty:

This sounds as though I bemoan an older time, which is the preoccupation of the old, or cultivate an opposition to change, which is the currency of the rich and stupid.”

It was that last bit that caught my interest, because somehow I’d missed the connection before. It’s true though: nearly all the people I’ve known who are steadfastly opposed to change — the “same = good, different = bad” philosophy — are people who’d been born into a certain level of wealth and exist in a state of determined stagnation. They cling to whatever cultural circumstance their ancestors accumulated their wealth in, instead of continuing to grow and thrive in a changing world. Most end up with less than they started with, or with nothing at all, because they won’t adapt, and they tend to blame their lost prosperity on the people who are adapting and thriving.

On creativity vs criticism:

In all ages, rich, energetic, and successful nations, when they have carved their place in the world, have felt hunger for art, for culture, even for learning and beauty. The Texas cities shoot upward and outward. The colleges are heavy with gifts and endowments. Theaters and symphony orchestras sprout overnight. In any huge and boisterous surge of energy and enthusiasm there must be errors and miscalculations, even breach of judgment and taste. And there is always the non-productive brotherhood of critics to disparage and to satirize, to view with horror and contempt.”

That passage was one of many that made me wish I’d read this book years ago, because it wasn’t until very recently that I began to realize that the people who are doing all the criticizing are the ones who aren’t creating anything of their own. “The non-productive brotherhood of critics,” what an apt description.

This was my favorite:

When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not welcome witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble.”

This is stone cold truth. It’s pretty much the story of my life, but I only came to recognize and understand it in the past couple of years.

I think I’m going to have to reread the rest of Steinbeck’s books. Other than “Travels With Charley” I haven’t read anything of his since high school, and I think I’d enjoy them more now. He seemed like someone I’d love to spend an afternoon conversing with; he saw straight to the truth of things and wasn’t afraid to talk about it. And he seemed like someone who wouldn’t have considered it a waste of his time to spend an afternoon conversing with a stranger .

I think I want to be John Steinbeck when I grow up, but without all the drinking and violence and with more gardening.

Also I think there might be a few more road trips in the future for the kids and me. Their world has been much smaller, so far, than mine was at their age, and I don’t want them to fall into the small-minded thinking habits that little isolated towns tend to encourage. They need to see giant redwoods and the Grand Canyon and immense waterfalls and elegant, timeless architecture: creation on a grand scale. They need to experience the kind of awe and wonder that changes a person forever.

Guess it’s time to update the To Do list. That new mud room might have to wait.

Categories: books, Life, Road trip, Travel | Tags: | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Travels With Charley

  1. Dee

    What he said was true to an extent. Not all people are worthless, not all of our culture is hopeless. Search until you find friends worth having and then your immediate culture is joyful, and you no longer dwell on the difficulties in the world which will always exist.


  2. Anonymous

    I think I need to read it. Sounds like my kind of thinking.


  3. Debora

    Dee — Very true!

    Anon — It’s a wonderful book.


  4. PB

    Time to think.


  5. Thumbs up to the road trip idea! My fondest memories of family time are road trips. Actually, I wasn’t so fond of it then, but looking back, I’m just so glad my parents made the effort.

    So….I’ve been working on East of Eden for 13 months. I’ll put this on the list next.


  6. Debora

    PB — Always!

    Elizabeth — In ’07 the kids and I spent a month driving from CA to Georgia and back, with lots of stops along the way (Carlsbad Caverns was the coolest thing ever); we created some awesome memories on that trip. When I was a kid we traveled around almost constantly, and there were aspects of that life that I hope my own kids will get to experience to some extent. I’m thinking the Grand Canyon, soonish.

    I haven’t read East of Eden, is it good?


  7. I think I want to be John Steinbeck when I grow up, but without all the drinking and violence and with more gardening.>>

    Good plan.


    • Debora

      Thanks. All I have to do now is write a few brilliant, profound novels that speak unforgettably to the American soul. Piece of cake, I’m on it!

      I like your blog. Your children are adorable. :^)


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