Throughout is no question that the society at

Throughout the mid 1900s, John Steinbeck was considered an
esteemed American writer amongst those of the nation. Having written heavily
about the American spirit and national identity in his works up until this
point, Steinbeck decides he should revisit the country closely and reconnect
with his roots. In this way, Travels with
Charley is a piece of travel writing by John Steinbeck of his accounts of
his various revelations and encounters in over 20 states with his French poodle
Charley and his beloved truck, Rocinante.

            The purpose
of travel for Steinbeck was to come to an understanding of what America is and
represents as he, “discovered that I did not know my own country” (5). After
having read this piece, Steinbeck’s genuine unfamiliarity with the America that
he witnessed spoke to me. His rather critical view towards current society was
unsettling, yet I believe this points to the fact that societies constantly
change and evolve, and time spent away from it highlights this change to a
greater extent just as Steinbeck had seen. In my opinion, one underlying factor
that contributed to the author’s many findings was the period in which he led
his travel. The year 1960 was a time of both social and political unrest in the
nation, with the dawn of civil rights movements and the ongoing wars including
the Cold War and Vietnam War. Amidst this, Steinbeck may have been exposed to
the state of the nation in an unsparing way. The truth that was disclosed to
him throughout his trip across America is the major subject I would like to
discuss.

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            It is no
question that the society at a given time reveals much about the cultural and
societal issues that are prevalent in that area. However, Steinbeck offers an
interesting insight into the definition of truth, and contends that the same
truth is not accessible to all people even if they are evaluating the same
matter. Subsequently, a traveler from another state may have a different
perspective from a local, just as a foreigner in another country has a
different experience compared to a citizen. Therefore Steinbeck’s journey to
seek for the truth may perhaps have been the lack thereof. While passing Maine,
he recalls the conversation he had with a travel critic on the plane back to
America from their trip to Prague. They had “brought home two cities, two
truths” and Steinbeck states that “for this reason I cannot commend this
account as an America that you will find. So much there is to see, but our
morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes” (77). Here,
the author illustrates the idea that the same actions result in entirely
different experiences, and therefore truth is inconsistent between individuals
due to its subjective nature. For this reason, he asserts that the America he
sees will most likely not be one that each one of us will see. This fact allows
individuals to connect with a particular location in a way that is unique to
them and is the reason why this intangible connection is incomprehensible for
outsiders. During the trip when Steinbeck fulfills his childhood dream by
visiting Fargo, North Dakota, he was taken aback by how far reality was from
the image he constructed in his mind. Despite this, he “found with joy that the
fact of Fargo had in no way disturbed by mind’s picture of it” (136). I think
he is suggesting that the view you hold towards a particular place can stay
with you to the extent that the truth does not affect you.

            As he makes
his way back home, he stops as Louisiana where he witnesses the racial
segregation firsthand. He scoped out a public event held at a school where two
African American children were admitted, and were now being screamed at by a
massive crowd. Steinbeck was disgusted by the atmosphere and the dehumanizing
way in which these African Americans were being tortured. However, he comments
that “I, more than most people from the so-called North, am kept out of real
and emotional understanding of the agony . . . because of the nature of my
experience” (245). By this, he is referring to his inability to understand the
truth of this racial segregation issue because he never experienced life in this
specific context. Societal issues as esoteric as racial prejudice can therefore
only be understood to its full extent by a minority. Although deeply saddened
by this invisible barrier, Steinbeck indicates that there will always be a
situation in which we do not hold the right to know the truth because those
should be protected for people of that context.           

            Steinbeck
set out on this national trip with the intention of discovering what America of
the 1960s was. He begins to question, “if there is indeed an American image
built of truth rather than reflecting either hostility or wishful thinking,
what is this image” (244)? Throughout his travels, he was exposed to myriads of
truth, including some of the darker sides of America and acknowledged that the
nation has growth to undergo. While he sought out various major flaws of the
country and its peoples, he came to conclude that one thing was certain; that
there must be a factor that brings the nation together which could explain this
unity. With America being extremely multicultural and practicing influence over
one another extensively, it seems Steinbeck found it challenging to describe the
American identity. Perhaps he was inferring that the figure of America was the
one without a distinct identity. It is clear that the author does become
disillusioned with some of the truth that he learns, yet he states that the
Americans’ ability to come together is a quality unique to this nation. Thus,
he concludes by providing a reflection about trips that “people don’t take
trips—trips take people” (274). This
great American trip took Steinbeck on a journey for the truth and when he did
find it, he states his journey was over before the trip. I believe that he is
expressing the fact that a trip can take an individual on both a physical and
mental journey in which all people return with shared yet different experiences
of a single truth.

 

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