Monday, May 30, 2011

Travels With Charley

NPR is broadcasting a series called Travels with Mike in tribute to the 50 year anniversary of John Steinbeck starting his cross-country trek that culminated in his last major work, Travels with Charley. Steinbeck’s traveling companion was Charley, a Standard Poodle. Travels with Mike is produced by John Biewen of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University. “Mike” is his microphone used for recording interviews and observations as he retraces Steinbeck’s journey (bit of a cheesy title, if you ask me).

You can decide on the overall value of Biewen’s project, but there were three aspects to the project and its treatment that disappointed me:

1) In retracing Steinbeck’s path, Biewen skips the New England leg altogether (a personal affront!) and I guess believes that Long Island is representative enough of the Northeast that no further exploration is required.

2) The only folks interviewed in Biewen’s trip were artists, musicians, photographers, craftworkers and the like. Even recounting Steinbeck’s observations of the segregated 1961 South was done through interviewing a musician. Are there no farmers, foresters, shopkeepers or dentists left out there in vast America? Apparently Biewen doesn’t know of any.

3) Biewen’s treatment hits all the PC topics: race relations, environmentalism, Native American spirituality, urban sprawl and homosexuality. Not that Steinbeck didn’t of course; Travels with Charley is not a light family summer vacation travelogue but provides serious observations and commentary on America in the early 1960s. But Biewen’s interviewees come across as rather hand-picked with scripts on-the-ready.

Having said all that, I really do appreciate any exploration of Steinbeck’s last work. Steinbeck doesn’t attempt pat answers to the situations and circumstances he encountered in his travels. To my mind he offers many more questions than answers; questions worth exploring and requiring discussion in the 21th century.

My perspective is probably forged through first reading Travels with Charley when I was 15 or 16 years old. It was not required reading in English class but rather appeared on a suggested Summer Reading list sent out by my Massachusetts high school. I was not a particularly strong academic in my high school years, but I was an avid reader and took the school’s suggested list as an opportunity for exploring topics I might not have otherwise sought out. Travels with Charley made a lasting impression on me, more so than Steinbeck’s novels (but as I’ve said elsewhere, I’m a non-fiction kind of guy anyway). It gave me an entire set of adult questions to carry into my college years and beyond that helped shape how I defined myself and how I approached the world I encountered.

The NPR/Biewen piece is well worth hearing. But read the original – rinse and repeat.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Bad news:

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Yes, I've been aware of vague allegations of Steinbeck's fictional content in the past. Even the Travels with Mike piece referes to this, but doesn't dwell on it. These two articles you cite speak of the allegations as virtual facts - and I imagine they very well could be. So maybe it turns out that I like fiction better than I thought?