John Steinbeck and his son visit President Johnson in the White House

Chasing after Steinbeck

A Dutchman's attempt to follow in the footsteps of John Steinbeck reveals more about its author than it does about the US today
December 11, 2014
In America: Travels with John Steinbeck by Geert Mak, translated by Liz Waters (Harvill Secker, £25)

In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck’s 1962 account of a journey he made across and around the United States, the author admits that one man’s account of a place is never going to convey the so-called truth of that place. A writer can “talk to key people, ask key questions, take samplings of opinions, and then set down an orderly report very like a road map,” he writes. But Steinbeck—who would be awarded the Nobel Prize the year his travelogue was published—says he has no trust in such an account as a mirror of reality. “I feel that there are too many realities,” he states plainly. He recalls the time he found himself in Prague, with the then-famous journalist and commentator Joseph Alsop. “Joe and I flew home to America in the same plane, and on the way home he told me about Prague, and his Prague had no relation to the city I had seen and heard. It just wasn’t the same place, and yet each of us was honest, neither one was a liar, both pretty good observers by any standard, and we brought home two cities, two truths.”

How, then, to compare Geert Mak’s In America: Travels with John Steinbeck with the book that inspired it? Mak is a Dutch journalist and historian; his best-known and most successful book is In Europe: Travels Through the 20th Century, published in English in 2007. In the summer of 1998, as the 20th century drew to its close, the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad asked Mak to travel across the European continent, a witness to how history had been made there; and in a sense In America attempts the same trick, though it is cloaked by Mak’s mirroring of the journey Steinbeck made in 1960.

Mak sets off in 2010, exactly 50 years after Steinbeck set off from Sag Harbor, New York, heading up into Maine before cutting west across the country’s northern states: Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Washington. On the west coast, Mak, like Steinbeck before him, heads down to San Francisco and Monterey, and then across into Arizona, New Mexico and Texas before a final stop in New Orleans. Mak discovers, somewhat to his chagrin, that he’s not the only one who’s had this idea; while still on the east coast he hears of not one but two other authors who plan to retrace Steinbeck’s trip; such are the perils of tracking a literary idol.

In 1960 Steinbeck had completed his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent; it could be argued that his best work was long in the past. The novels which made him a household name—Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath—were portraits of a vanished country. His attempt to move away from being a chronicler of the American psyche frustrated him; in the late 1950s he turned to a book he had loved as a boy, Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, and attempted a modern English translation; it would only be published, incomplete, after his death. And in his lifetime, his enduring popularity often meant critical scorn; sentiment which has not necessarily abated. Mak quotes Robert Gottlieb writing in the New York Review of Books in 2008: “The extraordinary thing about John Steinbeck is how good he can be when so much of the time he’s so bad.” But, as Mak rightly states, Steinbeck’s great value was “as a chronicler of his time. He was hugely successful at reaching the audience he had in mind, and his readers recognised themselves and their world in the tales he told.”

From the outset Mak’s journey has a rather different flavour from Steinbeck’s. Instead of a poodle, he brings his wife, because they are, as he states simply, “a well-oiled travelling machine”; it could be argued that this would be reason enough to leave her behind, if one wanted an unshielded view of the places through which one passed. And instead of the maps which bedevilled and enchanted Steinbeck, Mak—driving a brand-new Jeep with fewer than 200 miles on the clock when he picks it up at JFK airport—has “Sandy,” his GPS. He’s probably not wrong that Steinbeck—who loved a gadget—would have been in awe of Sandy. And yet, as we all have to ask ourselves these days, is travelling without getting lost really travelling at all?

Revisiting Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley all these years later, the reader discovers not America, but the author. This is travelogue as confiding monologue: this is his vision of the land he loved. It’s shot through with the kind of wonderful writing that clearly startled Gottlieb. In North Dakota, “The night was loaded with omens. The grieving sky turned the little water to a dangerous metal and then the wind got up—not the gusty, rabbity wind of the seacoasts I know but a great bursting sweep of wind with nothing to inhibit it for a thousand miles in any direction.” In Oregon, the foliage of the towering redwoods “strains the sunlight to a green gold.” In Wisconsin, he comes across a valley veritably carpeted with turkeys, “a reservoir for Thanksgiving.” When he reaches Fargo, North Dakota, he’s startled at its sheer ordinariness; it’s nothing like the “blizzard-riven, heat-blasted, dust-raddled” place of his imagination; and yet that imagination would persist. “I am happy to report that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger,” he wrote.

Later, Steinbeck would come to be castigated for that romantic vision. Bill Steigerwald—one of the journalists who Mak discovered was also retracing Steinbeck’s trip—would call Travels with Charley “a 50-year-old literary fraud”; “not a true and honest account of the cross-country trip he made in the fall of 1960.” Mak is well aware of how Steinbeck bridged the gap between fact and fiction in his book. But “Steinbeck was a writer, not a journalist,” Mak reminds us; even if not every episode in Travels with Charley was strictly speaking true, the book as a whole “presented Americans of the time with new insights and gave them a fresh perspective on their country and society.”

And that, presumably, is what Mak sets out to do too; only he doesn’t succeed half as well. In America is twice as long as Travels with Charley, a ponderous 500 pages. Much of the additional material is made up of history lessons which are aimed at—well, it’s hard to say exactly. So Mak reminds us that Steinbeck set off in the autumn of 1960, just as presidential candidates John F Kennedy and Richard Nixon took part in the very first televised debate: a momentous event which would change presidential campaigning forever. But the three pages Mak uses to tell the story of the debate cover old ground: Kennedy’s aplomb under the camera’s glare, the seemingly sinister aspect of Nixon’s five o’clock shadow. “Steinbeck did not think it worth the trouble to watch the whole debate,” Mak writes; and there’s barely a mention of individual politicians in Steinbeck’s book. A weakness? A strength, rather: a book that survives the passage of time to give a flavour of an era, without the need for footnotes to explain what’s going on.

It seems pretty plain that some—if not all—of the characters Steinbeck encountered were created to serve his narrative. In the Jim Crow south—where, in New Orleans, he witnesses “the Cheerleaders,” as they call themselves, hounding black children as they are ushered by police into newly integrated schools—he meets a racist white man; an older, very humble black man; and a young black student who criticises Martin Luther King’s passive resistance. “It’s too slow,” he says to Steinbeck. “It will take too long.”

The New Orleans Mak encounters—one that has been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina—is still racially divided; that this divide persists despite the legislation of the civil rights era is more than dismaying. In the aftermath of integration, white parents simply removed their children from the system. Jarvis DeBerry, Editor of the Times-Picayune and one of the city’s most highly regarded black journalists, tells Mak simply that: “Public schools are black, private schools are white—that’s how it’s been ever since.” This is a point very much worth making; but Mak’s book, alas, never really shows us the issues facing the US with fresh eyes. It is uneasily balanced between a travelogue and a volume of potted history. Mak would have done better to drop many of his facts and figures and let the voices of those he encounters—who, over and over, speak of a lack of trust not in any particular government, but of government in general—be heard more clearly. In Paducah, Texas, the oil has dried up, the cotton doesn’t grow any more; Jimmye Taylor—voted Most Beautiful Girl in Town in 1956, and these days single-handedly putting out the Paducah Post—reveals a near-universal despair: “We don’t trust anyone any more, not even our own members of Congress. We’re all poor people, and poor people depend on really concrete things. If those fail to materialise, they become fearful and insecure.”

Steinbeck knew, it seems, that others might follow in his footsteps; and that they would see not so much the nation, but themselves reflected in it. “This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me. If an Englishman or Frenchman or Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their storied pictures would be not only different from mine but equally different from one another.” A Dutchman too, he might have said; a European social democrat who wonders at the despair he finds in the land across which he travels. Neither Mak nor Steinbeck offer an answer to despair, but it is Steinbeck who reminds the reader why the place is called America the beautiful—for all its faults.