Travels with Steinbeck
by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

September is a time when journeys begin. Journeys for students. Journeys for teachers. Journeys for political office-seekers entering the serious home stretch toward November’s judgment day. Journeys of the spirit, tallying and toting up personal aspirations achieved and yet to be done, as the calendar and the days grow short.

And then there are the literal journeys begun in September. One of my favorite books is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley in Search of America, in which he recounts a cross-country journey begun in September 1960 accompanied only by his poodle Charley. He traveled in a pick-up truck with a large camper in its bed, generally avoiding the new interstate highways in favor of back roads and small towns. And a few cities. His stated goal was “to learn about my own country. I’ve lost the flavor and taste and sound of it. It’s been years since I have seen it ... I just want to look and listen.”

Yet he was disturbed by much of what he saw and heard, from the rootlessness of mobile, modern Americans, to the consequent loss of regional and local variations in speech and customs, to the growing consumerism fed by the media empires that were beginning to pervade and affect every aspect of life in the rosy afterglow of World War II. After the journey, he wrote to his editor that, “In all my travels, I saw very little real poverty. I mean the grinding, terrifying poorness of the Thirties. That at least was real and tangible. No, (what I saw) was a sickness, a kind of wasting disease. There were wishes but no wants … Over and over I thought we lack the pressures that make men strong and the anguish that makes men great.”

Steinbeck — the Nobel Prize-winning author who articulated the struggles and the tattered nobility of the working class in such landmark novels as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and East of Eden — also spun some magical prose in Travels with Charley, especially about the virtues of rural people and small-town folks, and the startling beauty of autumn across America. “The roadside stands were piled with golden pumpkins and russet squashes and baskets of red apples so crisp and sweet that they seemed to explode with juice when I bit into them,” he wrote of September in New England, adding, “The climate changed quickly to cold and the trees burst into color, the reds and yellows you can’t believe. It isn’t only color but a glowing, as though the leaves gobbled the light of the autumn sun and then released it slowly. There’s a quality of fire in these colors.”

Later in the account, he wonders how a Floridian “sitting on a nylon-and-aluminum chair out on a changelessly green lawn slapping mosquitoes” can possibly appreciate the soul-stirring benefits of the changing seasons. “And in the humid ever-summer, I dare his picturing mind not to go back to the shout of color, to the clean rasp of frosty air, to the smell of pine wood burning and the caressing warmth of kitchens. For how can one know color in perpetual green, and what good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?”

There’s an object lesson for 2003 in Steinbeck’s prose from 1960. For all the adversity we’re facing now — worldwide terrorism, a sluggish economy, talk of record deficits — the fact is, it’s just such troubles that build resolve and set the stage for later success, success that will come through will and sacrifice and persistence. And cooperation. The rural folks that Steinbeck extolled 43 years ago, whom he felt embodied the essence of American virtues, are the very ones who formed electric cooperatives and lighted up the countryside in the 1930s and ’40s. Americans have found a way for every problem to breed creativity, every crisis to broker self-confidence.

As 2003 is proving virtually every week, if you haven’t known drought, how can you appreciate the blessing of rain? And if you haven’t known hardship, how can you savor the bounty of plenty? Such realizations are the stuff learned on life’s journeys, whether across America, or into a new school year.



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