The travelogue. Ah, the oft maligned travel novel, thrown onto the burn pile with other not-taken-seriously genres like mystery and thriller. Driven to the edges of respected literature, called unimaginative and easy, dropped first from a library’s collection and left to rot on library sale tables.
Yet, it seems like everyone wants in the action. Where did this unfair assessment come from? Is it the easily dated subject matter – an ever-changing world that has a hard time looking constant from one year to the next, let alone for the years that pass while a travelogue sits on the shelf? Is it the fact that nearly every travel novel takes on the same subjects – a jaunty and funny brush with weird foreigners, a coming of age on a long-respected trail, etc. etc?
Yes. And yes. A lot of travel literature is dated. And even more is boring and redone. I started reading travel lit by hitting the ones that did it best, big names like Bryson, Theroux and Mayle. I latched on and let the genre take me for a ride. Through reading Bill Bryson, I discovered that I wanted to become a self-made writer. Through reading Paul Theroux, I discovered that I wanted to ride across countries and meet people, if only to document their individual intricacies. Through reading Peter Mayle, I wanted to move to France. That’s all. Just move to France and live in his house.
Through all of this, I honed my tastes. I figured out the difference between good and bad travel literature. I stopped reading about one person’s trip around England because, well, I’d already exhausted that location through both Bryson and Theroux. And eventually, I stopped reading it all together, feeling the genre tapped out, unable to get excited about anyone else’s trips.
So it was with great pleasure that I returned to the genre this month by turning to one of my favorite dead Nobel Prize winning authors – John Steinbeck, and his Travels with Charley.
If there was one thing the book renewed, it was the wanderlust feeling of adventure that a travel novel can bring out. I found that old feeling of vicarious living, meeting and getting to know people from around the country right along with the author, as if acting as a resident intern assigned to proof the pages as they are being written.
And these pages, older as they might seem, are far from dated. Good travel literature touches upon more than just the sites and scenes – it frames the human condition at the point of travel. This point – the late 50s in the United States, shortly after the Interstates were designed but far before they stretched from coast to coast – is brilliantly illustrated in Steinbeck’s attempt to find the America he thought he had forgotten. After living in New York, sheltered from his people and as far away from native Salinas as possible, he sought out the real American voice.
What he found wasn’t exactly what he expected. That voice had become more disjointed, unknowing of the nation as a whole and entirely critical of the country’s direction. The direction didn’t matter – right thinking people were critical of a perceived leftism and vice versa. Steinbeck found a nation that was becoming increasingly partisan and fast-paced, dropping the old roadside stand out of sight while holding alight the big city atmosphere of Interstate travel.
Steinbeck stayed off of the Interstates, preferring the hominess of the Routes and State Highways. In this way, he saw firsthand what his nation was doing. And he did so with the ultimate in companions – a conversation starting poodle named Charley, his best friend and constant shadow.
The best parts of Travels with Charley are when Steinbeck and Charley interact. Sure, this is a book about travel – about a nation that’s rapidly evolving from Steinbeck’s past, throwing the easy lazy way out the window for the new fast-living – but it’s above all else a book about a man and his dog. Charley is more than just a poodle – he’s a character that, like many of Steinbeck’s characters, is richly described using ordinary terms. You feel an affinity towards these characters without being threatened. There’s simply no work needed to read Steinbeck. It’s all matter-of-fact, beautiful and elegant, simple in a complex way.
Well, I’m gushing and writing like a copywriter again, so I know my time must almost be up. I read Travels with Charley on a camping trip, and the slight parallel between Steinbeck’s situation and mine (we were both camping) created a sort of invisible bond. I felt as if I was traveling – even though I was sitting still, alongside the lake, pouring my heart out into the great outdoors, wishing and growing extremely jealous of everything Steinbeck was describing.
I was jealous most of all by the idea that, in leaving your station in life, you can learn more about yourself. Not just about the country, or about your era’s society, or the collective voice of your generation, but about your personal space, about your personal era and your personal voice.
Travel literature is the ultimate in literary escape. When you think about it – what else is literature supposed to be?
Corey’s BoMC is going on an indefinite hiatus since he’s busy with a baby on the way. Thanks for contributing to The Millions, Corey, and congrats!