This rant is the first of many, hopefully, but unfortunately it’s not a happy one. I promise I love books, I love good literature… this just wasn’t it. Let me know if you agree, disagree, or think I’m off my rocker! :)
I did not begin Travels With Charley with a particular love for Steinbeck, but I have finished it with a rather distinct dislike for him. It’s not merely that most of the book involves him plying random strangers with drink and believing it fosters more unity than drunkenness, or that he decided the best way to understand America was by abandoning his responsibilities and normal life–a life he admitted himself happy in and mournful to leave behind, particularly his wife–for an exercise in homelessness that turned me away from him. Both of these things do contribute, however, as does his seeming preoccupation with vulgarity as entertainment.
The majority of my distaste, however, stems from the majority of the conclusions he draws as he travels. Here I must indeed draw a caveat, because on occasion some of his thoughts approach greatness and I would in no way seek to detract from those ideas which hold truth–regardless of how surrounded they are with misconceptions. I would also point out that I am in no way in favor of racism, the Cheerleaders or other ilk of that time. Continuing to dislike Steinbeck’s work despite his similar stance on the issue does make me feel a little guilty–but one can easily not be racist and still be wrong and unlikable.
I suppose–no, more than suppose. One of my main complaints against his ‘conclusions’ is that they come across as simply an exercise in contradictions: people aren’t opinionated enough politically, it must mean they’re scared of something or repressing their feelings–no wait, it’s a pity we get so stirred up about things. I don’t detest change, nor am I one to complain about a city changing–no wait, this city is too different, we’ve suffocated ourselves with progress and it must stop. I’m not bigoted or racist and I will not discriminate–but darn those Texans, they’re hardworking and generous and richly successful so they must be disgusting to me. Hah.
The more I think about it, my feelings towards Travels With Charley and my feelings towards modern art have a general sort of similarity. One thing I have come to understand about modern and post modern art, beyond its love affair with abstraction and such, is that the creator seems loathe to say anything definite about or through their work. Steinbeck seems to have a similar view. He cannot settle on any one thing as having enduring meaning–it must always be in flux, at the whim of the reader. At the beginning of the book, Steinbeck bemoans that nothing remains constant, that there is no eternal. He then spends the entirety of it seemingly proving this, growing more despondent and pessimistic at each encounter. I can only shake my head in wonder and confusion. If a world without constancy gives you nothing but turmoil then why would you ignore the possibility that you were wrong to begin with and search instead to find eternal truth? Also, if you missed your wife so much through the trip and knew at the beginning this would be so–and if you already believed at the beginning you would not find anything different than what you did–then why would you leave her behind and put yourself through this?
I’ve heard that one only appreciates modern art when they bring themselves to the painting as well, experiencing the art with the artist and forming an individual, often subjective (and they are different things) understanding of the piece. I am by no means an academic, but I do feel I know some things to bring to a painting or book–but I seem to find myself more often than not scratching my head and thinking ‘now, what is it you’re trying to say again? Tell me straight, so we can have a conversation about it.’
And really, who decides that pretending to be homeless will give you the best impression of America and America the best impression of you? Homelessness is not an adventure, it’s not a joyride, it’s hard, and heartbreaking!
Gah! All of this pent up frustration makes me feel like I must accept his view of things, that he is somehow secretly right. But he isn’t, so here are some Truths–long lasting, eternal capital T Truths he almost held onto to finish things up.
- “What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.” Yes. Our trials, our hard times in life make us realize and recognize better when we have been blessed.
- “A sad soul can kill you quicker, far quicker, than a germ.” Yes. Even some medical studies have shown that heartache and emotional distress cause severe physical health issues. Being at peace and happy goes a long way towards a long life.
- “I’m in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love. And it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” This one you can disagree with, it’s only here in jest. Montana isn’t definitively the most lovable state–but I do love it.
- “I don’t believe anyone is a nothing. There has to be something inside, if only to keep the skin from collapsing.” Every single human being–every single one–has value. Regardless of what they do with their life, they have value simply because they are alive. Even John Steinbeck, for all that I don’t like him, I have to love him. He is human, he lived and breathed and died and tried to make sense of life. That has value.
Thanks for letting me rant and God Bless,