Traveling Through America

September is coming to an end and it’s time to discuss the book that was spun for me through The Classic Club Spin #24

I was very fortunate to get to read one of the books that had been on my TBR for a very long time by an author whom I admired and whose books had defined my formative years. I speak of none other than John Steinbeck and one of his last books, Travels with Charley.

In 1960, after recuperating from a heart attack, against the explicit instructions of his Doctors, John Steinbeck set off to explore America again. As a writer of people, he felt that he had lately lost touch with his own country and its people, about whom he had written prolifically at one time and he set out to correct this miss! He started with meticulously organizing for the road trip, which included a customized Camper which he named Rocinante , furnishing it with all the books and maps he could not possibly need, stocking up food and other essential supplies and then choosing a traveling partner, his 10 year old, extremely pragmatic French Poodle – Charley. The trip started from a ferry at Long Island which was to take Charley, Rocinante and him to Connecticut from where he would start his actual “road” trip. He drove through Maine, New York, Buffalo, Chicago, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Dakota, then onto Montana, through Seattle and Oregon and California, Salinas where he grew up. He then headed back home via Texas and Virginia and then New Orleans where heart sickened, he proclaimed that his journey was technically over and he was just now heading home. He saw Niagara Falls and drove through Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast and the Yellowstone Park. He met small store clerks and motel owners who yearned to take off like he did and he spoke to migrant farmers who came over from Canada to help out during the autumn pickings and the supervisor of a ranch who would be seduced away from the wild beauties of the land to a secure albeit boring job in the city, at the behest of his young wife who wanted luxuries.  He wrote of the “plastic” culture that decorated each motel and of the upwardly mobile aspirations of the people he met. He drank coffee and whiskey with strangers in a trailer park and spoke to them about the country, the upcoming elections and their aspirations. He was saddened by the people at Sauk Centre, the home town of Sinclair Lewis who failed to appreciate his genius and at one time had treated him as pariah until his death, made the town a lucrative tourist destination. And finally, he was completely heartbroken by the hatred and venom he witnessed from people opposing a newly integrated school. He felt that his journey ended with this episode and he drove home to New York summarizing that the country and it’s people had changed dramatically, moving directionless, away from all that which was real and good into an industrialized and material living frenzy, that did not brood well for the future.

John Steinbeck as always is deeply observant of human nature and the book is replete with many insightful and in some ways prophetic remarks. On watching migrant farmers from Mexico, India , Philippines work on the crops, he is reminded of the lessons in history where Carthaginians hired mercenaries to fight their wars; Americans bring in migrant laborers to do the hard work and he hopes that one day, they are not overwhelmed by the hardier race, in mighty foretelling of the future. He captures narratives from people who are comfortable living in mobile homes and not worried about not having roots, for they are convinced that obsession with building roots stops progress and moving forward. He muses “Perhaps we have overrated roots as a psychic need. Maybe the greater the urge, the deeper and more ancient the is the need, the will, the hunger to be somewhere else  The wonderful thing about the author is his ability to see two sides of the story; while he misses the more personalized way of doing things prior to the industrial boom, he also acknowledges that “I know that it was a rare home that baked good bread in the old days.” and therefore nostalgia is presented with a pinch of salt. The rediscovery of America is always sombre, but there is much humour that only a master craftsman like Steinbeck can bring to a book, that is a difficult narrative – his conversations with Charley are downright hilarious, filled with laugh out loud moments. Charley is an intelligent dog and Steinbeck never forgets this fact in his 4-month long journey and the intellectual parley’s he engages in with him. His sense of irony is equally powerful when describing a quiet and enjoyable Thanksgiving, at a Texas millionaire’s place, talking a dig that the incorrect representation of Texas as loud and ostentatious. The language is flowing and despite being a travelogue, not once is the reader exhausted wondering when this journey will end. In fact, his description of the landscapes he covers is vivid and lyrical that brings alive the places and the reader is swept away with them! There is so much I can say about this book, that to end, I would only say that I read some essays which state that Steinbeck took several artistic liberties in writing this book, and this work is more fictional in nature. Be that as it may, his insights about life and humanity holds good now as it did 60 years ago and his deep heartbreak at people not being able to internalize respect for fellow creatures and the mad race of consumerism holds true today more than ever!  

Travelling Through Soviet Union

In July of 1948, a writer and a photographer started on a journey for 41 days across Russia and the other Republics of Soviet Union in a quest to find out how does the common people act, “what do they serve for Dinner? Do they have parties? What food is there? What do they talk about?” . They were not interested in politics and instead try and understand the everyday Russian people if they can. They sold the idea to Herald Tribune and convinced the Soviet Embassy to give them necessary permissions and visas, and thus began A Russian Journal, by John Steinbeck and Robert Capa.

 Andrei Mylniko, In Peaceful Fields (1950)

The two geniuses started their journey with a stop at Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad and Georgia . They were assigned by the Government to help them navigate their journey’s as they visited farms, factories, nigh clubs and writer’s union dinners. They wrote about the suffocating flights where no food was served, so passenger’s carried their own food. They wrote about magnificent dinners which were put up on their honor by collective farms and farm managers and playrights. They attended local community theater and the scintillating ballet. They spoke to farmers, factory workers and the drivers who drove them around and documented everything they saw, including farms which had been burnt to the ground, by the invading armies, the complete destruction of Stalingrad and of heroic factory workers who fought to defend their factories and then went back to complete their work because the country needed their machines. They wrote about Russian music, including “popular music”, folk music and the Russian attempts at American Jazz, They spoke of the dignity of a city destroyed but still standing tall and the beauty of Georgia. They also captured the essence of the Soviet populace with characters of being cold and bureaucratic in Moscow and larger than life, boisterous people of Georgia; of women who crawl out of destroyed buildings and fix their hair on the way to work and of now demobilized soldiers working in the factory wearing their army clothes because that was all they owned. They also discover that the people in Soviet Union have the same questions that they themselves had about USSR – what do people eat, what do people wear, how do their farms work?

Konstantin Shurupov,  Azov Steel Mill (1957)

The book does what it set out to do – describe the everyday life of Russians. Steinbeck with his innate brilliance manages to convey facts, with humor and empathy with a deep understanding of mankind. Capa’s photos, black and white capture every singular detail of what it is to live everyday, work everyday and build back a life that had been brutally torn apart. The book is alive with the presence of hard and long fought battle and it comes through in every page – farms destroyed, families with pictures of son’s lost in the war, of a magnificent city called Stalingrad, destroyed to pieces, but still holding on. This book was written as the “Iron Curtain” described by Churchill was descending between the former allies of USSR and USA-England allies and before another bout of Stalin’s purges. In the introduction to the book, scholar Susan Shillinglaw states that the lives and facilities described in the book was a carefully staged act provided by the Soviet Government and all succeeding books have similar description. It may have been stage managed, the USSR government was hardly known for it’s benevolent and tolerance for any kind of dissent, but the jokes that the farm wit cracked and the dignity with which people struggled to re-build their lives cannot ever be “created” and here lies the brilliance of the two in not only being able to capture those moments and pieces, but managing to masterfully communicate the deep understanding of courage of human soul, while reporting everything factually. The book is replete with insightful observations about Soviet people; while they appreciate the cleanliness of the cities and the good working conditions of the farms, that included apartments for the workers, schools and creches for the children and a clinic, they were smart enough to be able to distinguish between what was real and unreal and this comes through in a wry statements which they make through the book “Russian people live on hope, hope that tomorrow will be better than today.” “In Russia, it is always the future that is thought of. it is crops that will be next year, it will be the comfort that will come next year” The humor of both craftsmen keeps the book from becoming a dry document with observations like “Capa says that the museum is the church of Russia” or when they kept hearing about wait till you see Georgia “We began to believe that most Russians hope that if they live very good and virtuous lives, they will not go to heaven, but to Georgia, when they die.” To end, with some lovely photographs and sparse but powerful prose, the books makes you realize that the authors had succeeded in doing, what they had set out to do, tell stories about everyday people and help realize that “Russian people are like all other people in the world. Some bad ones, there are surely, but by far the greater number are good.”

If you have not read, it is high time you did! In this world where more than ever we are dividing ourselves in us versus them, this books stands as a historical testimony to the simple thought, that folks are just folks everywhere!

Shout out to Karen for setting me on the path of this wonderful book!