Saturday, October 14, 2017

Travels with Charley

In Search of America. An absolutely delightful read by John Steinbeck. In preparation for writing another book, Steinbeck, who hadn't really travelled in America for 25 years, was afraid he had lost the pulse of how Americans outside New York thought, felt, acted. He was an American author, writing about Americans, and felt he was working from memory. So he equipped a heavy-duty truck with a camper top, took his blue standard poodle named Charley with him, and set out to discover America anew. The interstate system was just going in, and besides, you can't see the country or meet the people that way. He stuck to back roads, pulling in to likely shady spots for the night, asking permission of the owners if they could be found. He hit local diners for news, occasionally stayed at motor lodges, and called his wife once a week.

The book veered out of "delightful" territory when Steinbeck and Charley got to the South. He went there intentionally, knowing he wouldn't like what he would see, but wanting to try to understand. It was 1960; the height of the Civil Rights movement. In New Orleans, the integration of an elementary school was in the news. Not really because of the children involved, but because of a group of women who gathered every morning and evening to shout abuse at the children. They apparently were dubbed "cheerleaders" by the press and hordes of people came to watch them scream insults at the tiny black girl who attended the school and the equally small white girl and her frightened father who walked her in to attend school with a girl of color. And everywhere Steinbeck went in the South, Charley, who sat tall in the seat next to him, was mistaken for a negro. Only of course, they didn't say "negro". The use of the n-word, which was copious, made me cringe each time. As did some of the arguments of the day, ("Why, their schools are better than ours; why would they want to go to a white school?" and "I might invite him to dinner but I wouldn't want my sister to marry him.").  This is how Steinbeck found us in 1960 and he lays it out in unflinching detail. In spite of all the effort, the prayers, the hopes, it seems we've come little farther in the intervening half-century. Sad.

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