When he was twenty-five, working as a janitor at a Lake Tahoe lodge during a snowy winter trying to become a writer, John Steinbeck confided in a letter to a young woman that he was rather concerned about his only companion, a Airedale, had learned to swear. Steinbeck couldn’t imagine where the dog had learned such a thing. Almost a decade later, while traveling in Mexico, he wrote a letter to a friend about how wonderful Mexican dogs were. A dog he studied, which he arbitrarily called Corazon del San Pedro Martin de Gonzales and Montalba, was on his owner’s doorstep, chasing away all pigs except the owner’s pigs to protect street litter from foreign pigs. One day when a “very big old pig” defeated the dog in a brief skirmish, Steinbeck said, “Corazon went back to his door after a howl, embarrassed. He looked over to see if I had noticed, and when he saw that I had he bit the hell out of one of his own chickens. “A year after Steinbeck witnessed Corazon’s understandable bitterness at the defeat, Steinbeck found that his new setter pup had eaten half the manuscript he was working on, a draft of Of Mice and Men.” Two months to go Work, “he said to his agents, adding,” I was pretty crazy, but the poor little guy may have been critical. ” He explained that he did not discipline the puppy because he did not see the point “to punish a good dog for a woman who I am not sure is even good about”.
There have always been dogs in Steinbeck’s life – his dogs and other people’s dogs – but no dog ever had the stature of Charley, the standard poodle Steinbeck traveled with in 1960 on a trip around America that spawned his hugely popular trips with Charley.
John Steinbeck IV, the author’s younger son, once told me that he believed his father had had many of the conversations in Travels with Charley. His father, he said, was much too shy to bring so many strangers into conversation. When I went back to examine the many conversations the elder Steinbeck had had while meandering through America in a truck named Rocinante with a poodle named Charley, I realized that John IV was right. So much of the dialogues in the book, the chance conversations with random strangers met at strange moments, are just too gossipy and too comfortable. They serve the author and book too well. But I noticed one exception throughout this wonderful book. I don’t think Steinbeck made a single word out of his many conversations with Charley.
Steinbeck’s only travel companion was, as the author says, “an old French gentlemanly poodle …” Charles le Chien was, we are told, the actual name for this dog, who was born in Bercy outside Paris and trained in French has been. While Charley “mastered a little poodle English”, Steinbeck wrote, “he only responds quickly to commands in French. Otherwise he has to translate, and that slows him down. “Charley” is a good friend and travel companion and would rather travel than anything he can imagine. “
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In my brittle paperback edition of Travels with Charley from 1963, Steinbeck mentions his poodle on 103 of 275 pages. Charley is all over the author’s material world and in his head, and Steinbeck mercilessly uses Charley to unwrap his own thoughts, assess and evaluate his passing neighbors, and serve as some sort of objective correlate with the world he is in one overloaded motorhome captured peeled pickup. Charley is a pacifist dog with a roar like a lion. He is a “born diplomat” and a “mind-reading dog”. He is an aging gentleman with severe prostate and bladder problems. His crooked front teeth allow him to pronounce “the consonant F” and get him to say “Ftt” when he has to politely and apologetically request a toilet stop. “It’s my experience,” writes Steinbeck, “that Charley is more intelligent than me in some areas, and in others he is miserably ignorant.” He cannot read, cannot drive and has no understanding of math. But in his own domain, the slow, imperial smell and ointment of an area, he has no equal. “
One of the elements that make Steinbeck a great writer is his respect for life, all life, and it was under that respect that Steinbeck collected everything from stones and tide pools to dogs and people and redwood trees. There is no meanness in Steinbeck’s writing, and his respectful attention to the smallest details of existence is always accompanied by a pleasant, self-deprecating humor. The beauty of his relationship with Charley lies right there. Charley is treated with the respect a human companion would have expected, and he is also treated with the same level of ridicule a human pal would have received. When he saw a trout rising in a pool at sunset, Steinbeck wrote: “Charley saw it too and waded in and got wet, the fool. He never thinks about the future. “When Charley’s amorous attention for a Pomeranian provokes the wrath of both the clumsy dog and the clumsy and drunk owner, and Steinbeck is bitten by one and chewed by the other, he writes:” Charley viewed the whole scene as nonsense … After all, I have it done for him you’d think Charley would have come to my aid, but he doesn’t like neurotics and detests drunks. “After a particularly beautiful sermon about hellfire and brimstone in a church in New England, Steinbeck says,” It gave me a nice feeling of evil that was clear by Tuesday. I even thought about hitting Charley to please him because Charley is just a little less sinful than me. He continues: “Even at his age he’s a vain dog … when Charley is groomed, clipped, and washed, he’s just as happy with himself as a man with a good tailor or a woman who has been newly patinated by a beauty salon … A. The wealth of combed and clipped mustaches gave it the look and feel of a nineteenth century French rake … “
Various covers of “Travels with Charley”
For Steinbeck, Charley becomes the intellectual and moral yardstick by which he can judge his American fellow citizens. “Confronted with our stupidities,” writes Stenbeck, “Charley accepts them for what they are – stupidities.” At some point Steinbeck confesses in an irritated voice: “Charley forgave me in a disgustingly superior manner …”
Steinbeck has many conversations with Charley, including a deep reflection on gods and fate and loyal animals, in which he complains to the poodle, “I could tell you many stories about loyal animals who saved their masters, but I think you are just bored and i won’t flatter you. “Charley, says Steinbeck,” turned his most cynical eye on me. I think he is neither a romantic nor a mystic. “
Perhaps the climax of Steinbeck’s long journey through America with his poodle – and the moment that best defines this wonderfully quirky author’s relationships with his canine friends – lies in the California redwoods. Steinbeck, who loved pranks and jokes that were played on comrades, plays an ingenious prank on Charley. He writes: “Now there is no question that Charley quickly became a tree expert with an enormous background. He could probably get a job as a tree consultant with the Davies. But from the start I hadn’t withheld any information about the giant redwoods from him. It seemed to me that a Long Island Poodle that had made Sequoia sempervirens or Sequoia gigantia its devoirs could be distinguished from other dogs, perhaps even like Galahad, who saw the Grail. The concept is breathtaking. After this experience he could be mystically translated into another plane of existence … The experience could drive him crazy. I had thought of that. On the other hand, it could turn it into a consumption well. “
The best part of all of this is that Steinbeck doesn’t just use Charley as an excuse to demonstrate his verbal joke. Rather, he drives into the redwood groves of Northern California, finds the tallest and largest tree he can find, and lets Charley out in what he calls “Dog’s Dream from Heaven on High”. Looking on with joyful anticipation, he is ashamed when Charley ignores the monstrous tree: “If I thought he had it out of spite or to make a joke,” I said to myself, “I would kill him immediately. I can’t live without knowing “Steinbeck cuts a branch of willow, sticks it into the trunk of the redwood and draws Charley’s attention to the branch. Charley dutifully pees on the branch and Steinbeck says nothing more about it in the book.
Towards the end of the book, Steinbeck has a long conversation with Charley, Charley’s half of the dialogue, which consists of interpreted wags of the tail:
“What’s the matter, Charley, are you not okay?”
His tail slowly waved his answers. “Oh yes. Very well, I think.”
“Why didn’t you come when I whistled?”
“I didn’t hear you whistle.”
“What are you staring at?”
“I don’t know. I think nothing.”
After the wistful dialogue continued for a while, Steinbeck asks Charley what his birthday is, and Charley doesn’t know. Steinbeck decides to bake a pancake mix cake for Charley’s birthday anyway, and Charley replies with a “tricky conversation” led by wagging his tail: “Everyone saw you made a birthday cake for a dog he was don’t even know when his birthday would think you were crazy. “Steinbeck replies,” If you can’t do better grammar than this with your dick, it might be a good thing that you can’t speak. “Charley licks the pancake syrup and looks up at Steinbeck to say,” What makes you do so crazy? “As Steinbeck explains, Charley says,” Let’s take a walk up the hill … “
Steinbeck simply loved the world around him, was pleased with its curiosities and quirky folds, and respected every corner of life. In this world dogs stood out. He loved dogs, always had dogs as companions and granted dogs the same respect that he showed his fellow human beings, which means that he let them into his jokes, made them the bottom of his jokes, confessed to them, philosophized with them and allowed them to do so same intellectual and emotional complexity he found in everyone else.
John Steinbeck’s typewriter (note the inscription “THE BEAST WITHIN”)