Friday, October 24, 2008

Travels with Charley in Search of America

Finished Travels with Charley in Search of America by John Steinbeck. One of Steinbeck's last books, this is the story of the road trip he took around the United States in 1960 with his standard poodle Charley. Reading the first hundred pages of this book I couldn't shake the feeling that I was reading something by E. B. White. The tone and subjects of this book are very similar to those found in The Essays of E. B. White. I do not mention this as a criticism, just as a point of interest. I love White's essays, some of which feature the many dachshunds he owned over the years. I guess I just found the similarities surprising. The only other Steinbeck that I have read is Of Mice and Men, a book I expected to be thoroughly depressed by. My daughter read it for her Introduction to Literature course, freshman year in high school. I read it when she did and really enjoyed it.

In Travels with Charley Steinbeck sets out to see what America is like at the time. He tries his best to stick to small towns and secondary roads. Many topics are interesting forshadowings of problems we have today. Perhaps the most interesting was his observation of young black children being escorted to school by federal marshals while being jeered at by a group of white women in New Orleans. Steinbeck was so revolted by this experience that he bypassed all the other sights he had planned to see in the area and went off to be by himself. As I was reading this the telephone rang. It was Gus from the Ann Arbor Obama campaign headquarters. I had signed up to volunteer, but had not done so yet. Gus was calling to ask me if I'd be willing to contact a list of local volunteers to match them up with canvassing, phone bank and "Get Out the Vote" opportunities. I'd said no before to telephone work, feeling awkward and shy about it. Somehow at that moment it seemed the best possible thing that I could do. I agreed to call the 20 people on the list that he provided. The next night I called eight before going to College Night with my daughter. The following night I called twelve while recovering from a root canal. It wasn't much, but I'm not sure I would have gotten involved if it hadn't been for Steinbeck at that moment.

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