John Steinbeck

By Barnaby Conrad, March 2011

I treasure the last time I saw John Steinbeck. We met for lunch in San Francisco while he was on the final lap of driving his camper around the United States, the basis of his best-selling book Travels with Charley. We were at Enrico’s sidewalk care, and Charley, the big Poodle, sat obediently in a corner near our table. With us was Howard Gossage, the innovative advertising man who, among other things, had given the world the current rage, Beethoven sweatshirts. Oh, to have had a tape recorder and been able to catch the sound as well as the words on the following dialogue, because John growled out his sentences in ursine grunts while Howard’s congenital stammer heightened rather than hampered his wit.


“Look at that dog over there,” said John. “Yesterday in the great redwoods of Muir Woods he lifted his log on a tree that was twenty feet across, three hundred feet high and a thousand years old. Howard, Howard! What’s left in life for that poor dog?”


Howard thought of the terrible dilemma for a moment and then said, “Well, J-J-John, he could always t-t-teach!”


Nobel prize-winner John Steinbeck had a great affinity for domestic animals, as can be seen in many of his novels and short stories, but nowhere is his love and understanding of dogs more apparent than in his picaresque and picturesque Travels with Charley. I recently re-read the book and was dazzled by it and fascinated by the eponymous dog, Charley.


Early in the 1960s, Steinbeck, who had left California and was living on Long Island, New York, was feeling restless, with a growing and insistent urge to renew his acquaintance with America—all of America. Accordingly, he bough a small, one-man camper truck, which he christened Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse. He outfitted it for a long and serious hegira that would last for sixteen weeks and result in a classic literary work. At first he was going to do it all alone, but then he asked his wife if he could take along their beloved big Poodle for companionship.


“That’s a good idea,” she said. “If you get into trouble, Charley can go for help.”


“Elaine,” John answered sternly, “Charley isn’t Lassie?”


But John, at the age of 58, was somewhat worried about traveling alone off the beaten path, and he was delighted that his dog would be with him. Tough gentle in disposition, Charley was, according to Steinbeck, “a good watch dog—has a roar like a lion, designed to conceal from night-wandering strangers the fact that he couldn’t bite his way out of a cornet de papier.”


Day by day as Steinbeck prepared his camper for the long swing around America, Charley grew more excited—and more worried about being left behind; like so many watchful canine companions, he could read the signs of departure, “long before the suitcases come out.” But this time Charley would not be left behind. Finally they set out, Charley sitting in the front seat, his head almost as high as the six-foot Steinbeck.


For the next sixteen weeks the pair would travel around the United States, eating and sleeping together in the little camper, Steinbeck recording his impression of the places and people he encountered. Charley loved the traveling and would take a great interest in the scenery as well as the people and animals they encountered.


There are so many wonderful happenings in this delightful odyssey. I had not read the book in thirty years, and I was amazed at how informative, fresh, funny and often profound it is. I was sorry when Rocinante finally came to the end of its voyage of discovery, but in reading I learned a great deal about America, as well as John Steinbeck. And perhaps best of all, I came to know and love a remarkable Poodle.

Barnaby Conrad is an O. Henry Prize short story winner, artist and author of 27 books, including Matador, Hemingway's Spain, The Complete Guide to Writing Fiction and Name Dropping, the story of his San Francisco saloon. He also wrote the screenplay for John Steinbeck's Flight.

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