40 pages 1 hour read

John Steinbeck

Travels With Charley

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1962

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Summary and Study Guide


Published in 1962, Travels With Charley: In Search of America is a narrative travelogue by John Steinbeck. The book follows a cross-country road trip the author took with his dog, a brown poodle named Charley. They travel in a camper-style pickup truck named Rosinante, which Steinbeck had custom built for the trip. Steinbeck embarked on the journey because he felt disconnected from the larger picture of American life after years of living in New York and traveling primarily to other countries. In addition, he was in his sixties and saw the trip as a way to ease aging, a fate he feared immensely. Living in a quiet, upscale part of Long Island, he envisioned his wife becoming his caretaker as he descended into feeble weakness. In Travels With Charley, Steinbeck explores themes related to aging and adapting to a changing world, the concept of a journey, and toughness of character.

Steinbeck became famous for writing about the experience of average Americans, particularly during the Great Depression. Thus, while he isn’t known as a nonfiction writer, his ability to synthesize complex topics into thought-provoking prose makes Travels With Charley a valuable look into the mid-20th-century American milieu. His skill in describing landscapes and the emotions they evoke is particularly valuable in this context. As a nonfiction travelogue, the book’s authenticity has been questioned, but nevertheless, Travels With Charley is a classic piece of American literature by one of the country’s most celebrated authors. Like most of Steinbeck’s books, Travels With Charley was immensely popular. It has been reprinted several times.

This guide is based on the 2012 Penguin Classics 50th-Anniversary Edition of the book.

Content Warning: This guide references the book’s depictions of anti-Black racism and the Southern white response to the civil rights movement. The book uses outdated language to refer to Black and Indigenous Americans and includes the N-word when quoting white locals Steinbeck interacted with in the South; the guide doesn’t reproduce this language, however. While the book only touches on Indigenous issues, certain scenes could be viewed as minimizing the impact of white settlement in the West, which some may find upsetting.


The story is in chronological order. Steinbeck sets out on the journey in the fall of 1959 and drives a route that essentially outlines the US. His start is delayed by Hurricane Donna, an event that frames the book’s first dramatic action, in which Steinbeck embarks on a dangerous swim to save his boat. When he leaves on the trip, he first travels north to New England and spends much time on a side trip toward the coast of Maine to visit a friend of a friend in Deer Isle. Next, he heads back across Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, where he and Charley meet several local New Englanders, though Steinbeck finds the people of the area particularly hard to engage since they aren’t accustomed to small talk. He plans to travel through a bit of Canada north of New York but is turned away because he doesn’t have Charley’s vaccination records.

Having spent more time in New England than he intended, Steinbeck hightails it to Chicago to meet his wife, a side trip that he notes the book doesn’t detail because he didn’t think it fit the story’s structure. Resuming his journey, he covers the rest of the Midwest in much the same way as New England, interspersing evocative descriptions of landscapes and towns with transcripts of conversations with locals and his impressions of his experiences. He touches on various subjects, including progress, old age, politics, and what it means to be American.

After crossing the northern part of the country, Steinbeck turns south from Seattle and drives down the coast toward his home state, California. He writes in depth about the majesty and permanence of the redwood forests. Upon arriving in his hometown, Salinas, he’s disappointed to see that, like most of the country, it has become a large, manicured town, much different from the rural frontier outpost where he grew up. He reconnects with family and old friends, some of whom beg him to return home permanently, but he doesn’t consider the area home any longer; it has changed too much.

Steinbeck then treks eastward across the Southwest and South, stopping in his wife’s native Texas for Thanksgiving. He comes face to face with the grisly reality of anti-civil rights movement protests in New Orleans, which make him despair about the future of the South. After leaving the South, he feels his journey has reached its limit and quickly makes his way back to New York, the place that truly feels like home.

Although Steinbeck never reaches any deep conclusions about America, Travels With Charley gives an overview of what life in the mid-20th-century US was like. In addition, the book explores many topics at the forefront of Americans’ minds during that period.

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