Last modified: 03.09.2013

This blog entry is at face value simply about a book I recently reread. More profoundly the reading of this book also opens up to a reflection upon how literature, fiction, music, and art may influence or inspire mobilities research. However, let me get to the book. Many years ago I read John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley – in search of America’ as a school boy. I remember loving Steinbeck’s universe of daydreamers and low-life existences in his books on ‘Tortilla Flats’ and ‘Cannery Row’. But this book was different. I remember thinking that such detailed observational skills and eye to detail was rather impressive. Since then I have become a mobilities scholar with a big interest in the situational, concrete and detailed dimensions of human mobility. Moreover, I also have a rim of Americana craze running in my veins. So when I stumbled over Steinbeck’s ‘Travels with Charley’ in a bookstore in Montreal earlier this year I had no second thoughts; time had come for a rereading. The version I am referring to and quoting from in this blog post is the Steinbeck Centennial Edition: John Steinbeck (1962/2002) Travels With Charley – in Search of America, New York: Penguin Books.

The book has been named the only autobiography by Steinbeck and this is true in the sense that the book is both a meticulous and timely ‘reading’ of America through the eyes of one of the worlds’ best novelists. However, it also testifies to the person that Steinbeck was and the values and sentiments he held high. The real interesting thing in the context of the MM blog is though the planning and execution of a road trip besides the ordinary. The book is about how a student of American society realizes that he is out of touch with that society and takes to the road to re-engage the culture and places of his nation. But it is also the very humoristic narration of a man and his dog experiencing America by car. The thing is that Charley, who is his travelling companion, is a puddle! And may I add not an ordinary puddle … this is where Steinbeck uses the narrative technique of having the interaction and dialogue with Charley as the triggering and unfolding of the story. Surely humans often project quite some human capacities and dimensions into their pets and this is certainly no exception. So the empathy and wisdom of Charley is, in Steinbeck’s understanding, more than compensatory for its lack of human intelligence and reasoning.

The second key element in this road story is the re-build truck that Steinbeck fills with books, papers, writing equipment, food, and drinks in order to both be able to write down all the impressions along the road as well as to be able to host the various characters that he meets on the road. The truck is modified into carrying a small cabin. In no small irony he names to truck ‘Rocinante’ which is the name of Don Quixote’s horse. In preparing the trip Steinbeck also talks to friends and family where many are advising him not to go since he would never mange to hide his identity as the famous author (who by the way later was to win the Nobel prize in literature). His attempt to re-experience American culture incognito was deemed hopeless as most people told him he was too famous. However, writes Steinbeck, not once was he recognized as the famous author and his trip was perceived by his fellow consociates of the road as just an expression of the urge to road trip. There are more methodological reflections about the almost ethnographic method applied in the book that readers with interest herein would enjoy. The trip was taken in September 1960 and the route was reaching from New York State up to the very north of Maine and then across the continent to California, down south to the border and back across the continent riding up through the deep south back to the outset in New York.

But my real intent with this blog entry is of course to share some of the brilliant observations and reflection that Steinbeck makes in this mobile story. I cannot possible do justice to the many fine observations and quotes worthy or being re-produced. Rather I have picked a selection based upon a ‘mobilities reading’ of the book. The real understanding of the book must be based on a full read-through by your-self. The first of these reflections concerns the ‘urge to travel’ or the ‘travel bug’ as some would call it. Here is the very opening of the book where Steinbeck ponders on the restlessness and urges to move that he finds in himself as well as deep in his fellow Americans:

‘When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked. Four hoarse blats of a ship’s whistle still raise the hair on my neck and set my feet to tapping. The sound of a jet, an engine warming up, even the clopping of shod hooves on pavements brings on the ancient shudder, the dry mouth and vacant eye, the hot palms and the churn of stomach high up under the rib cage. In other words, I don’t improve; in further words, once a bum always a bum. I fear the disease is incurable. I set this matter down not to instruct others but to inform myself’ (p.3)

Thus informed about the urge and the motives for travelling, that may not be rational nor clearheaded, we see that Steinbeck share the restlessness and drive to experience society with his fellow Americans (and this readily has become a cliché that road movies and stories testify to). On the issue of planning a trip he continues to say:

‘Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process; a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different for all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us’ (p. 3)

Here we both find the point about the beginning of trips really to be prior to the actual movement, as well there is an almost ANT-type ring to the point about that we don’t take the trip; it takes us! Another almost classic theme is that of maps:

‘For weeks I had studied maps, large-scale and small, but maps are not reality at all – they can be tyrants. I know people who are so immersed in road maps that they never see the countryside they pass through, and others who, having traced a route, are held to it as though held by flanged wheels to rails’ (p. 20)

The issues of ‘maps’ and mapping is important as always and in this small quote one cannot help to think what Steinbeck would have written had he known about GPS and mobile apps guiding the movements of billions today. Steinbeck saw and experienced the post-war urban development of American society that today is known under the label ‘sprawl’ … and this is his story hereof:

‘Eventually I had come out of the tree-hidden roads and do my best to bypass the cities. Hartford and Providence and such are big cities, bustling with manufacturing, lousy with traffic. It takes far longer to go through cities than to drive several hundred miles. And in the intricate traffic pattern, as you try to find your way through, there’s no possibility of seeing anything. But now I have been through hundreds of towns and cities in every climate and against every kind of scenery, and of course they are all different. And the people have points of difference, but in some ways they are alike. American cities are like badger holes, ringed with trash – all of them – surrounded by piles of wrecked and rusting automobiles, and almost smothered with rubbish’ (p. 22)

The rest of this quote goes on to note that the wasteful landscapes are symptoms of a sickness in society that ultimately will lead to environmental destruction. Steinbeck draws a line to the Indian village which (accordingly) was abandoned when becoming too filthy. But as he notes; we have no place to which to move! A theme that is recurrent in the book is the status of representation and the power of the narratives:

‘On the long journey doubts were often my companions. I’ve always admired those reporters who can descend in an area, talk to key people, ask key questions, take samplings of opinions, and then set down an orderly report very much like a road map. I envy this technique and at the same time I do not trust it as a mirror of reality. I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style. In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself’ (p. 59-60)

This quote seems easy to insert into the contemporary debate on ‘more than representational’ accounts of the world and the issue of perspective. A theme dear to my interest (and to which I have written about elsewhere) is the semiotics of road signs and any other sign orchestrating mobilities. On this topic Steinbeck says:

‘But now for the first time I became aware that each state had also its individual prose style, made sharply evident in its highway signs. Crossing state lines one is aware of this change of language. The New England states use a terse form of instruction, a tight-tipped, laconic style sheet, wasting no words and few letters. New York State shouts at you the whole time. Do this. Do that. Squeeze left. Squeeze right. Every few feet an imperious command. In Ohio the signs are more benign. They offer friendly advice, and are more like suggestions. Some states use a turgid style which can get you lost with the greatest ease. These are states which tell you what you may expect to find in the way of road conditions ahead, while others let you find out for yourself. Nearly all have abandoned the adverb for the adjective. Drive Slow. Drive Safe’ (p. 62)

There is a sensitivity to details almost at the level of Erving Goffman in these readings of how mobilities semiotics are significant if we are to capture the different cultures and attempts to stage mobilities. The embedding of the mobile subject into such ‘systems’ affording and creating mobility is probably best described in this quote where Steinbeck find himself, his travel mate, and his converted truck to be enrolled into a vast traffic machine:

‘I sought out U.S. 90, a wide gash of a super-highway, multiple lane carrier of the nation’s goods. Rocinante bucketed along. The minimum speed on this road was greater than any I had previously driven … Instructions screamed at me from the road once: “Do not stop! No stopping, Maintain speed!”. Trucks as long as freighters went roaring by, delivering a wind into the blow of a fist. These great roads are wonderful for moving goods but not for inspection of a countryside. You are bound to the wheel and your eyes to the car ahead and to the rear-view mirror for the car behind and the side mirror for the car or truck about to pass, and at the same time you must read all the signs for fear you may miss some instructions or orders. No roadside stands selling squash juice, no antique stores, no farm products or factory outlets. When we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing’ (p. 70)

The now well recognized critique of motorway spaces as ‘non-places’ is predominant in this quote as is the nation-building dimension of the Interstate Highway System, but also the awareness to embodied mobilities and the enrollment of the car driver’s body and senses into a vast assemblage of mobilities. In this section of the book there are many observations on truckers and motorway spaces that are worthy of a mobilities scholar, but space and time prevents me from showing more. Rather there is this interesting observation on mobilities design a bit further into the book:

‘The nature of the road describes the nature of travel. The straightness of the way, the swish of traffic, the unbroken speed are hypnotic, and while miles peel off an imperceptible exhaustion sets in. Day and night are one. The setting sun is neither an invitation nor a command to stop, for the traffic rolls constantly’ (p. 89)

This echoes both the writings of the German phenomenologist Otto Friedric Bollnow in his ‘Human Space’ (1963) as well as the deliria-filled description of ‘Astral America’ made by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard in his seminal book ‘America’ (1986). I could go on picking from this truly amazing treasure chest of mobilities insights, but I must bring this to a close (and I guess the point has been made – it is a book worth reading). The last theme I will pick upon is the way that Steinbeck describes the vast and anonymous spaces of homogenous moving entities. What I elsewhere described by the metaphor of ‘the river’:

‘First the traffic struck me like a tidal wave and carried me along, a bit of shiny flotsam bounded in front by a gasoline truck half a block long. Behind me was an enormous cement mixer on wheels, its big howitzer revolving as it proceeded. On my right was what I judged to be an atomic cannon. As usual I panicked and got lost … All I saw was as river of trucks; all I heard was a roar of motors’ (p. 99-100)

However, in this quote Steinbeck manages to describe the flow of the ‘river’ from the point of view of the mobile subject emeshed hereinto. Thus he captures both the ‘river’ and the ‘ballet’ perspective to stay with my own metaphors again testifying to the level of perceptiveness in Steinbeck. I realize that many of the quotes may be understood as rather critical of post-war urbanization and its effects. But I think the underlying tone of the book is one of great love and affection to a nation that is so vast and expansive that even an experienced writer and traveler as Steinbeck is in need of re-experiencing it once in a while – and yet still not capture a fixed image of America, but rather a fuzzy and nomadic notion of a restless culture.

Steinbeck vividly displays the racial tensions of the North/South states, the increasing imprint of mass industrialization of the agricultural sector, the vast impacts of infrastructures and car-spaces, and many, many other signs of post-war modernization of American society – and often with a very critical voice The real treat though (at least for mobilities scholars) is the deep sensitivity to travelling sensations, interaction detail and dynamics, places and not at least how the country presents itself to the traveler … this is a prime piece of mobile ethnography and should be a ‘must read’ in all classes working their heads around the meaning of moving. Next to these explicit points of value to students of societies on the move are the implications of the role that literature and art may play as inspirational force for mobilities research – but that’s another story, and another blog entry. For now I can only encourage you to go searching for America guided by Steinbeck and Charley. You won’t be disappointed

… but you will get food for thought!

/ Ole B. Jensen