In the early 1960’s famed writer, John Steinbeck, took his camper and his trusty French Poodle Charley, and explored America. Beginning on the east coast and heading across the northern states, Steinbeck encountered the natural beauty of our country and also it’s people. It’s an interesting memoir and brought me back to times when national pride was still in the heart of America’s people.
From start to finish, I found no strangers. If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively. But these are my people and this is my country. If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself. If I were to prepare one immaculately inspected generality it would be this: For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed.
The latter part of the book involves his travels through the South, on the way back to the east coast. The racism he encounters leaves him troubled and he shares his conversations with racist white people and also with a young black man he meets. He encountered none of this his whole journey across the northern states. I suppose it’s because there were very few people of color living in those areas at the time. Growing up in North Dakota, the first black person I encountered enrolled in my middle school. I was raised to be color-blind as far as people were concerned, and I never felt any divide based on skin color, even after I moved to New York City and regularly associated with people of all stripes. I eventually moved back to North Dakota and raised my children here. Today there are far more people of color in the community and integration is pretty seamless. I know racism does exist to some extent here, but we never encountered it in our school or social circles. The stories I hear typically involve some worker who migrated here from the South. They learn pretty quickly that we don’t tolerate that kind of behavior. My son attended a school in Florida last year and had two black roommates. He’s a good-natured kid, and it took most of the year to realize that his roommates were taking advantage of him because he was white. Their subtle comments about “white people,” were unfortunate, and my son and I had a long talk about racism as a result. But above all, I didn’t want him to change the way he viewed people of color because of this experience. Today, that’s so important. Hypersensitivity has brought about labels due to misconceptions of racism and erased possible relationships into racial division.
I bring all this up because of Steinbeck’s experience with racism in the South. What he experienced probably wouldn’t happen today, but racism still exists. Hopefully it declines with each new generation until eventually it’s gone. But it won’t if we continue to point fingers instead of building relationships. It’s in the knowing of others that we recognize our similarities – that we all love our kids and that comfortable place we call home.
4 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1962
Amazon Book Preview of Travels With Charley