Travel writing classics: Travels With Charley

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Travels With Charley by John Steinbeck

When Travels with Charley was published in 1962 Steinbeck was a firmly established "Giant of American Letters", as the Nobel committe described him that same year when he was awarded the Prize for Literature. Yet such a title has a heavy weight, and is most likely the reason he set out to write his best-loved piece of non-fiction in the first place.

Having spent much of his time abroad or living in New York, Steinbeck began to feel distant from the nation he'd built his reputation as a novelist on by the late 1950s. It's not surprising when you consider the remarkable social and economic changes that had and were continuing to take place across the States and the world at large.

And so in 1960, he resolved to re-discover America by setting out on a grand road trip across country with his wife's French Poodle, Charley. Though Steinbeck was most certainly sincere in his quest to reconnect with the United States, his decision to name the camper truck he drove about in "Rocinante" - after Don Quixote's horse - perhaps points at his awareness of how his ambition may have been perceived as rather lofty.

Steinbeck's observations are however not only highly engaging and readable - as one might expect from a novelist - but also informative and moving. It's a book packed with character and characters which is hard not to devour in one go. By the end he's arguably no closer to understanding his country than he was at the beginning, which is pretty much the point. Some things are too big to comprehend, too complex to make straightforward, and America in this chaotic time was one such thing. It's this apparent failure that makes it a classic - a circular journey along a road to nowhere, trying in vain to perceive the unknowable.

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