Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Rating: 4 out of 5.
travels with charley book cover

John Steinbeck, 1962

I read Charley about ten years ago, and refreshed my memory by reading the Wikipedia article.  In my reading, I learned that Steinbeck seems to have fabricated many parts of his memoir.  There has been considerable scrutiny of the book, some within the last ten years, comparing Steinbeck’s personal diaries and letters to events in the memoir, and it was judged by some contemporaries and even by his son to have been embellished or even largely fabricated – although Steinbeck did make a cross-country road trip.

As regular readers know, ever since James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (2003), which I loved, was alleged to be substantially fiction, I have taken memoir with a grain of salt. Frey’s book came out while I was a bookseller, and I personally recommended it to my customers based on my high opinion of the quality of the work and the courage of the author, so the 2006 allegations of untruth were jarring.

I didn’t have as much invested in Charley, obviously. Steinbeck’s book was much less of a personal revelation; essentially it was a travelogue, of the late 1950s / early 1960s – my favorite literary vintage.  Had I read the book as a novel I would have enjoyed it no less, with the exception of one intriguing interlude with takes place near an unnamed lake in Michigan.  I speculated as to which lake Steinbeck would have visited on his pass through our state; he chronicled a conversation with a laconic farmer or fisherman, and I liked to imagine that farmer was one of my bachelor great-uncles who farmed in Alger, Michigan at that time.

In the end, regardless of the level of poetic license taken by Steinbeck, who was, after all, a writer of fiction, this book is worth your time. Whether they are largely factual or highly romanticized, Steinbeck crafts interesting and engaging portraits of people and places in the United States during the middle of the 20th century.

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