Book review: In America — Travels with John Steinbeck

In 1960, novelist John Steinbeck took to the byways of America to rediscover his native land. Geert Mak’s retracing of his tyre-tracks gives a fresh perspective to his travels.  compares the two odysseys.

Book review: In America — Travels with John Steinbeck

BY SEPTEMBER of 1960, John Steinbeck was 58-years-old and estimated to be the world’s third-most bestselling writer (“based on the number of books sold and titles translated”).

The author of some 15 novels, including such classics as Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, East of Eden, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece, The Grapes of Wrath, his starkly realistic work vividly evoked Depression-era existence and gave a humane voice to some of society’s most downtrodden and down-at-heel.

As well as placing him in the highest echelons of America’s literary firmament, these books would soon also see him immortalised with the 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature.

However, with old age on his horizon, the new decade’s dawn found him in precarious health. A series of heart-related seizures had weakened him severely, “his speech sometimes slurred and his fingers regularly turned numb. Of his once so robust constitution, little was left by 1960.”

Ever the contrarian, and in reaction to his fading powers, he concocted a grand — and, to some minds, foolhardy — plan: to travel by back-roads across the land he had once known so intimately, and to reconnect with, record, and attempt to understand an America in the throes of social and political change, a place that had become virtually unrecognisable over barely the span of a generation.

“I just want to look and listen. What I’ll get I need badly — a re-knowledge of my own country, its speeches, its views, its attitudes and its changes,” he wrote to friends. “It’s long overdue, very long. New York is not America.”

And so, on the morning of September 23, in the wake of a hurricane that had blown through Long Island’s Sag Harbor, he set out, accompanied by Charley, his faithful French-born Standard Poodle, in a specially modified camper van named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse, to go tilting at 16,000km and nearly 40 states worth of metaphorical windmills.

His timing, it turned out, was perfect, and the resulting book, Travels with Charley, was among the most charming and affecting of his entire career. The post-War baby boom had seen a population explosion, and a shift in attitude had somehow steered society away from focusing on simple survival and towards all the plastic comforts that money could buy.

The American Dream defined itself now as a home in the suburbs, a new car every other year, and the sort of rhapsodic picket-fence existence depicted so perfectly by Norman Rockwell in The Saturday Evening Post.

In delightfully conversational fashion, Steinbeck gazed on that world afresh, even while measuring the details against how things had been in poorer and more simple days. Happy to bask in the beauty and pleasures that he happened across, neither did he flinch in the face of upset or horror.

In America is acclaimed Dutch journalist Geert Mak’s personal pilgrimage, a fantasy of sorts made real. Steinbeck’s travelogue had already inspired him to research and write his smash hit, In Europe, the best known of half a dozen non-fiction volumes he has penned, and it seemed only natural that it should provide the impetus for his next, and arguably even more ambitious, project.

And so, half a century to the day that Steinbeck set on his way, Mak follows the same road out of Sag Harbor, determined to not only retrace some old footsteps but also to make sense of what America has become and in what direction it might be heading.

Accompanied by his wife rather than a poodle, and behind the wheel of a silver Jeep Liberty, he follows a route north through New England, swinging west through the likes of Illinois, Michigan, and Montana to Washington, then down the Pacific coast to Steinbeck’s birthplace, Salinas, California. From here, swinging back east across the Mojave Desert, on to Texas and Louisiana, before the long slow traipse

back up through the southern states to the finish line.

His journey is not unique: at least three other journalists have hit on the same idea at the same time — “In truth it was too obvious not to be picked up by someone else” — though all have different agendas in play and different projects in mind. And it quickly becomes apparent that Mak is planning no mere rehash of an old story but an in-depth consideration of America in terms of history, sociology, geography, ethnic diversity, and religion, and also the innumerable ways in which it, and its inhabitants, differ from a Europe undergoing dramatic changes of its own.

Steinbeck is a thread that runs through the narrative, but there are entire chapters where he is referred to only barely in passing. Instead, considerable tracts of text are taken up with meticulously researched analyses of history, politics, statistics and a plethora of references to travellers, explorers and philosophers, including the likes of Dickens, Santayana, innumerable presidents, Gustave de Beaumont and, almost relentlessly, Alexis de Tocqueville.

Mak’s cold foreign eye proves invaluable, as does the fact that even thousands of miles along he remains in roughly equal parts enamoured of America’s lure and repulsed by its failures. But even though he does display a light touch, and is erudite enough to keep the fact-chapters from being baked too dry, it is always a relief when Steinbeck resurfaces and gets to take hold once again of the narrative.

Recent years have seen the actual facts of Steinbeck’s journey with Charley called into question. Whether or not the yarns he spins, the conversations recounted, and the details of daily road were quite as factual as the non-fiction claim pushed so successfully by the publisher’s marketing department, is something that matters to some readers more than others. Ultimately, he was a novelist of exceptional standard, a master of crafting fiction to expose essential truths.

A line from the 1962 John Wayne/James Stewart classic, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, may be borrowed as a kind of credo: “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

What he offers in Travels with Charley are impressionistic sense-depictions that fixate in vignette form on varied pockets of a sprawling country and which, by slow and carefully manipulated accumulation, present a portrait of an America charging headlong into new expression. His instinct for pacing, editing, and selective focus, and his nearly immaculate ability to conjure character even from landscape certainly contribute to the essential readability of, and enduring fascination for, a book that still holds such appeal all these decades later.

Geert Mak’s In America lacks the sheer pleasure of Steinbeck’s evocative prose and essential sense of belonging, but then that is surely not this book’s mission. What we get instead, both in the tracing of Steinbeck’s tyre-tracks and in the journalistic desire to decipher a whole picture from the plethora of small brush strokes, is context.

Where Steinbeck strives for human connections in the towns, wilderness, coastlines, and prairies he and his companion, Charley, pass through, Mak attempts, though facts and comparisons, to understand their reason for existence, and their place in Steinbeck’s story, while also taking ample time to contemplate his own impressions and expectations of people and places, and the myth of American exceptionalism that he gets to encounter.

The result is a fine book indeed, valuable on a social and literary reference level, fascinating in its structured historical indulgences and, perhaps most importantly, as a travelogue thoroughly entertaining and enlightening.

In America — Travels with John Steinbeck

Geert Mak

(translated by Liz Waters)

Vintage, €14.60; Kindle, €10.00

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