“What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” – Travels with Charley: In Search of America

My Steinbeck summer was when I was 14 years old. In my teen years I was someone who latched onto authors and read a bunch of books by that person in great gulps. I had done that earlier with Beverly Cleary, the Hardy Boys, Arthur Conan Doyle‘s Sherlock Holmes and later with Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the big names of American literature.

The first two books I read by John Steinbeck were Tortilla Flat and Cannery Row which I really liked – especially Cannery Row with its bums and biology. After I read about Steinbeck and looked at some criticism, I went into The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and the more famous titles.

But the Steinbeck summer was the year I read his new book of 1962, Travels with Charley: In Search of America which is not a novel, but a travel book about a 1960 road trip with his French standard poodle, Charley, around the United States.

I think the idea of exploring the country in an on-the-road way appeals to many Americans, especially young ones.
Steinbeck wanted to see firsthand the country he was writing about it and to understand “what Americans are like today.”

John Steinbeck traveled across the country is a customized camper (which he dubbed “Rocinante” after the horse of Don Quixote). He drove from Long Island, New York, and roughly followed the outer border of the United States, from Maine to the Pacific Northwest, down into his native Salinas Valley in California, across to Texas, up through the Deep South, and then back to New York. It was a journey of about 10,000 miles.

Steinbeck knew he was dying and Steinbeck’s wife didn’t want him to attempt it because of his heart condition.

Steinbeck writes: “Could it be that Americans are a restless people, a mobile people, never satisfied with where they are as a matter of selection? The pioneers, the immigrants who people the continent, were the restless ones in Europe. The steady rooted ones stayed home and are still there.”

He was 58 years old in 1960 and was also nearing the end of his career. He had planned on leaving after Labor Day from his home in Sag Harbor along with Charley. Besides companionship, Charley serves as a literary device because he has “conversations” with the dog along the way. I remember that particular Labor Day because of Hurricane Donna which hit NY and my home in NJ.

Travels with Charley in Search of America was published several months before Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. The book reached #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list in October. In the Steinbeck novel The Pastures of Heaven, one of the characters says that Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes as one of the single greatest works of English literature it inspired his own choice for a title.

There is some controversy about how much of the book actually occurred on the trip. Some critics assumed some of it was fiction from a writer of fiction. Steinbeck was not all that pleased with the America and Americans he found on the road. Add his bad health and his inability to recapture his youthful “spirit of the knight-errant,” and you could read the book as a downer. But, I like it. I really liked the idea of the trip and I bought into the whole thing.

I never got to do my own cross-country journey. I did make my way from Mexico to Northern California with my wife years ago and we included some Steinbeck stops like Salinas, Monterey, and Cannery Row. At 147 11th Street in Pacific Grove there is a cottage built by Steinbeck’s father as a summer home. Steinbeck returned repeatedly throughout his life there. We were told that one of the pine trees in the yard was planted when Steinbeck was a child, and he always felt a connection to it.


Steinbeck lived in this cottage periodically from 1930-1936 with his first wife, Carol, as he struggled to become a successful writer.

He returned again to the house to live at various times in the 1940s. He began work on Of Mice and Menat the cottage. That manuscript was nearly finished when Steinbeck’s dog, Toby, chewed up the only copy of the book.

Toby was an English setter and my dog that Steinbeck summer was an English setter named Lucky.

After Toby chewed up the longhand manuscript of Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck wrote to his agent, “The poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”

He also wrote about testing out his writing by reading to his dogs.

“I’ve always tried out my material on my dogs first. You know, with Angel, he sits there and listens and I get the feeling he understands everything. But with Charley, I always felt he was just waiting to get a word in edgewise. Years ago, when my setter chewed up the manuscript of Of Mice and Men, I said at the time that the dog must have been an excellent literary critic. Time is the only critic without ambition.

Steinbeck rewrote the book and claimed that it was a good exercise in harsh editing and that probably what remained was the best of what he had written. The book was published in 1937.

Steinbeck left me plenty to read for the next few years. There were ones I read but didn’t really like very much like Cup of Gold,  and The Pastures of Heaven (1932). I ended up teaching: The Red Pony, The Pearl and Of Mice and Men. And there were ones I read because I wanted to have read the whole canon: The Log from the Sea of Cortez, East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) and much later, The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights (1976).