Posted by: George | September 13, 2010

Steinbeck and Race Issues

September 13, 2010

When I first began to talk to friends about traveling around the country, they typically responded, “Are you going to take your dog?” Even before I mentioned Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley as my inspiration, they made the connection.

Many people of my generation read Travels with Charley when they were in high school. They clearly have fond memories of the book, but there seems to be even more going on. The book, when they first read it, seems to have triggered fantasies of making a similar trip. Over the decades, the book simmered in their unconscious, undergoing a reduction, until they carried a pleasant memory of an old man and his dog, circling the country, both getting away and searching, apart from daily routines but still distracted by the mundane, checking the “pulse of the country” without a detailed itinerary. It’s a fantasy easily embraced, a guilty pleasure, an escape without guilt.

Interestingly, few of my friends have reread Travels with Charley as adults, and they don’t tend to remember the dark finale of Steinbeck’s journey.

In the end, Travels with Charley is about race. In the last three chapters, excluding the conclusion, Steinbeck drives from Texas, where he had an extended stay, into Louisiana. He writes about dreading his trip through the South, where the racism that affected the entire country was manifest and unavoidable, where travel writing would have to give way to social commentary.

In New Orleans, Steinbeck disguises himself as a merchant marine to witness, without being recognized as one of America’s most famous authors, a school integration crisis. He watches a young black girl walk past angry crowds, lead by “cheerleaders,” white women who hurl insults that Steinbeck cannot bring himself to repeat in print. In the penultimate chapter, Steinbeck presents a series of conversations with an “enlightened Southerner,” a young black activist, and a young white racist. Steinbeck and the enlightened Southerner agree that change must come but they both fear the means. The young black activist and the young white racist represent the extremes that forebode a racial apocalypse.

Steinbeck was traveling through America in the fall of 1960. Jim Crow laws were still in effect, but the Civil Rights Movement had already begun. In 1948, Truman signed Executive Order 9981, desegregating the military. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the “white” section of a bus. In 1957, schools were desegregated in Little Rock, Arkansas. These milestones were but the beginning. Most of the Civil Rights Movement would unfold in the 1960s, after Steinbeck had finished his trip. Steinbeck knew that change must come, but he could only imagine the events of the next decade.

Once he left Louisiana, Steinbeck continued to travel through the South and up the eastern seaboard, back to his home in Long Island. Interestingly, he didn’t write about this part of his trip, except for a few paragraphs in his concluding chapter, where he wrote that, psychologically, his trip had ended somewhere in Virginia. It seems to me that his trip actually ended in New Orleans. Once he had served as the Greek chorus to the racial drama of a heroic black girl pushing her way through angry white crowds, he could hardly go back to writing about an old man and his dog. Racism demanded to be the emotional climax of the book.

Racism—or how to change racial attitudes—is also the book’s unanswered question. If change was inevitable, as Steinbeck believe it was (also, as history proved) and the extremes were apparently irreconcilable, what would we, as a country, witness in the coming decade? Steinbeck wrote that he feared the “means.” He doesn’t catalog his fears, but he seems to believe that we would have to experience something like a widespread race war. The 1960s certainly brought violence—the bombing of black churches, the murder of civil rights workers, the police suppression of civil rights marches, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. But I think Steinbeck feared more than all this. He expected far worse. I don’t think that he believed that most Americans could change.

The focus of this blog will be shifting for a while. I want to write in more detail about Steinbeck’s experiences in New Orleans, about the transformation of my own attitudes about race, and about the possibility—the hope—of transformation.

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Responses

  1. You don’t say, but have you/will you make a trip to New Orleans before wrapping up the recording of your thoughts on traveling America?

    Now that most of Katrina’s destruction is cleared and the rebuilding efforts underway, I wonder if its race relations have undergone a “rebuild” too?

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    • I am going to try to do that. It will largely depend on finances.

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  2. After reading your latest post, I couldn’t help remember the time I sat in the audience and listened to General Benjamin O’Davis, Junior, the first African American Air Force general.

    During his presentation, he had all of us take out a piece of paper and write down what culture we identify with and then what race we were.

    After a few minutes, he asked for everyone who wrote down American as the culture they identified with to raise their hand. Then, he asked everyone who wrote down “human” as their race to do the same.

    Not a hand went up for either. His point was until we all identify ourselves culturally as Americans, who belong to the human race, racial tension will continue to exist.

    Isn’t it funny that a man who experienced segregation while serving as the Tuskegee Air Corps commander and then reaped the benefits of Truman’s executive order, would have that perspective?

    As usual, your posts make me think. Stop that. 😉

    Have a safe trip!

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    • Interesting. We definitely are not there yet.

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