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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

John Steinbeck inspires summer travel and memories of another era

“We do not take a trip. A trip takes us.”—John Steinbeck
Several bloggers have found John Steinbeck an inspiring traveling companion this summer.

Jim Terry found echoes of the four months in 1960 Steinbeck chronicled in Travels with Charley in his two-week cross-country road trip from Dallas, TX, to Watkins Glen, NY.
I found my old yellowed, cracked page paperback copy which I had read nearly fifty years ago and read it again.

Steinbeck realized he had lost touch with the country he had been writing about for thirty years. He said, "I, an America 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."
Diane, Evan, and Maia are a family on a multi-year sailing trip aboard a 40-foot catamaran. This week, upon arriving at the Sea of Cortez, they turned to Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez to describe what they are seeing and feeling:
I’ve been struggling to find the words to describe this place—beyond snippets of stories and moments out of our life. Fortunately I don’t have to. John Steinbeck did. He was here 70 years ago on a research vessel. His book is a must have for every visitor to the Sea of Cortez:
We wondered why so much of the Sea of Cortez was familiar to us…coming to it was like returning rather than visiting. Some quality there is in the whole Sea that trips a trigger of recognition so that in fantastic and exotic scenery one finds oneself nodding and saying inwardly, “Yes, I know.”

If it were lush and rich, one could understand the pull, but it is fierce and hostile and sullen. The stone mountains pile up to the sky and there is little fresh water. But we know we must go back, and we don’t know why.
The pull they feel to turn to Steinbeck as they travel is likely to be shared by many attending the 30th Annual Steinbeck Festival—Journeys: Steinbeck Around the World, which runs from August 5 to August 8 at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, CA. A Travels with Charley essay contest has already begun and continues until July 31: describe your favorite journey with your dog in 300 words or less.

The Steinbeck Festival also features talks by three authors who have been affected by Steinbeck’s travel writing: Ted Conover, author of The Routes of Man: How Roads Are Changing The World and the Way We Live Today; Thomas R. Hummel, author of A Journey Through Literary America; and Ruby Bridges, author of Through My Eyes. The talk by Bridges may prove to be the emotional high point. Fifty years ago, when Bridges was six years old, she was the first black student to enroll at the all-white William Frantz Public School in New Orleans. In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck witnessed her historic first steps into that school:
The show opened on time. Sound the sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest negro girl you ever saw, dressed in shining starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white.

The big marshals stood her on the curb and a jangle of jeering shrieks went up from behind the barricades. The little girl did not look at the howling crowd, but from the side the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big. Then the girl made a curious hop, and I think I know what it was. I think in her whole life she had not gone ten steps without skipping, but now in the middle of her first step, the weight bore her down and her little round feet took measured, reluctant steps between the tall guards. Slowly they climbed the steps and entered the school.
Ken Laird Studios offers more background on this event and the Norman Rockwell painting it inspired.

Related LOA works: John Steinbeck: Travels with Charley and Later Novels 1947–1962; John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath and Other Writings 1936–1941 (includes The Log from the Sea of Cortez)


  1. This is interesting. I was recently recalling the summer trip I took across an Eastern European a few years ago, when my only accompaniment was "The Grapes of Wrath". Not exactly as travel a book as "Travels with Charley", maybe, but it fit the landscape quite well and I found the experience to be most enjoyable...

  2. Thanks for the mention--I always find my travel is made more rich if I have a book in hand. The Log from the Sea, was a wonderful find though--Steinbeck has a great sense of humour in this book. It made me seek out several of his books I read (and forgotten) in high school.


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