When I first arrived in New York City, this most portrayed American city appeared intimidating with its never-ending concrete jungles, incessant traffic and an overwhelmingly fast-paced populace. It made me wonder, is this the land of the free? Is this what America is like? Fast-forward a couple decades when the United States finds itself polarized, divided and void of compassion, insecure about its future. In times like these, I was looking for its identity. An identity forged by openness not oppression. A dear family member recommended reading “Travels with Charley in search of America” by John Steinbeck. It would become a starting point of how we got here.
Steinbeck’s travelogue is comprised of simple ingredients: a man and his best friend, a three-quarter-ton pick up truck, and the wide and open roads of America. His best friend, a poodle named Charley is a main character in this non-fiction novel. His pick up truck Rocinante loads a little camper designed for housing. The duo is road tripping across rural America, sleeping wherever Rocinante finds a parking spot and a theme of this philosophical journey is to engage strangers in conversation over a cup of coffee. While this adventure takes place in the America of the 1960s, it is somehow a timeless reflection of America’s soul. In somber passages, Steinbeck describes the struggle of Black Americans for equality. In more uplifting parts, he paints an American identity imbued in the spirit of tall, green Sequoias, who have seen all of history’s main events – free of discrimination. It’s a book about America, the beautiful, the ugly and the never-finished. Much as Steinbeck didn’t know his country in the 1960s, I don’t know my country in the 2020s:
“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 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”
Nevertheless, acknowledging a lack of knowledge is the first step in learning. “Travels with Charley in search of America” is an important piece of American literature. Its authentic historical account, its poetic beauty and the felt tragedy that is this great American democracy live on in our generation. What will we learn from it?