Free Notes Essays On Travels With Charley

Travels with Charley: Search of America is a travelogue by American author John Steinbeck. It documents the driving trip he took with his poodle, Charley, around the United States in the 1960s. He wrote that he was moved by a desire to see his country on a personal level, since he made his living writing about it. He had many questions going into his journey, the main one being "What are Americans like today". However, he found that the "new America" did not live up to his expectations.

He traveled throughout the United States in a specially made camper called Rocinante, named after the horse of Don Quixote. He started his travels in Long Island, New York. His trip was one that outlined the border of the United States, going all throughout the North, through the Pacific Northwest, down into his native Salinas Valley, across to Texas, up through the Deep South, and then back to New York. His whole trip encompassed nearly 10,000 miles.

Summaries: Part 1[edit]

In the two chapters of Part 1, Steinbeck describes his life long wanderlust and his preparations to travel the country after 25 years. He is 58 years old in 1960 and at the end of his career, but he felt that he "was writing of something he did not know about, and it seemed to him that in a so-called writer this is criminal" (6). He has a truck custom-designed for his journey and plans on leaving after Labor Day from his home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, New York. Steinbeck must delay his trip slightly due to Hurricane Donna which makes a direct hit on Long Island. He demonstrates his determination and toughness, even at his age, in wading out in the harbor at the height of the storm to save his boat the Fayre Eleyne.

Summaries: Part 2[edit]

Long Island to Connecticut (pages 19-42)[edit]

In the first chapter of Part Two, Steinbeck begins his trip, traveling by ferry (boat) from Long Island [1] to Connecticut. Whilst on a ferry, Steinbeck cautiously watches a group of submarines surface, and discusses the new atomic submarines with a sailor as they approach the Naval Submarine Base New London[1] where many of the new nuclear submarines are stationed. This introduces a theme that hangs over this chapter as Steinbeck notes that the "submarines are armed with mass murder, our silly, only way of deterring mass murder" (21). He talks to a sailor stationed on a sub who enjoys being on them because they offer all kinds of – future” (22). Steinbeck seems to credit this uncertainty about the future to rapid technological and political changes. He mentions the wastefulness of American cities (start with second paragraph of article to see how NYC "dealt" with waste problems) and society, and the large amount of waste as a result of everything being "packaged" (as he passes Hartford and Providence). Moving on, Steinbeck purchases a large quantity of liquors. Then, he meets a friendly farmer who allows him to park on his property; the two discuss Kruschev and politics. Steinbeck discusses many common points brought up in society today. That stage in life where everyone has to slow down because they are “not as young as they once were” is one of the barriers he mentions. He goes on to say that he would rather not settle down. He wants to live life as long as he can (19). He also brings up that as we grow old, and aren’t able to do as much as we would like it, we tend to get sympathy and concern from a lot of people. This makes the oldest of the family almost become baby like. Steinbeck comments that he would rather be a grown adult than a big baby (20).

He has a discussion with a farmer in the White Mountains [2] about Krushchev’s visit to the United Nations[3] and the approaching presidential election[4]. The two seem to conclude that a combination of fear and uncertainty over the future has limited discussion over the election. Steinbeck seems to learn more about local people through morning radio, although he notes that due to the Top 40: "If Teen-Age Angel[5] is top of the list in Maine, it is the top of the list in Montana" (35).

Reading Guide Questions for pages 19-42[edit]

  • What causes the fears people seem to have of the future at this time?
  • Why might Steinbeck feel that the beginning of the nuclear age is limiting political discussion?
  • Do the new national charts (Top 40) minimize regional cultural differences?
  • What do you think are some events or reasons why America wastes so much more than other countries?

Maine (pages 43-74)[edit]

Steinbeck starts off this part of his journey on US Highway 1 for a visit to Maine. On his way to Maine he notices a commonality between most of the “summer” stores. They are all closed for the winter. Antique shops, that border a lot of the roads up North, sell old “junk” that Steinbeck would buy if he thought he had room for it. During his trip, he stops at a little restaurant just outside the town of Bangor. It’s here he learns that other people’s attitudes can greatly affect your own attitude. As his journey to discover America continues, Steinbeck heads towards Deer Isle. He decides to go to Deer Isle because a friend of his went every time he traveled to Maine. His friend always raved about Deer Isle, Maine, but could never describe exactly what about it was so captivating. When Steinbeck arrived at the house where he was supposed to stay, he met a very terse cat and ate the best lobster he had ever tasted. For the final part of his visit to Maine, Steinbeck traveled around several towns throughout the state and visited popular outdoor clothing stores such as Abercrombie and Fitch.

In this section, Steinbeck makes quite a few references to the changes in the culture of America in this segment. The first change that he makes apparent early on in this section is the waitress in the restaurant of an auto court located outside of Bangor. This waitress sucked all of the happiness out of everyone with her dismal attitude. He, being tired from a long day of driving, could not resist and had his happiness drained away. To add to his depression, many of the hotel items were covered in plastic, making the room feel less homely and welcome. It was only when Charley made Steinbeck walk him and he saw the Aurora Borealis did he regain his joy and awe of this country. This incident is an example of the change of American culture from a homely society to a protect-by-alienation society.

Another change he noticed was during his journey to Deer Isle. Being a man who constantly finds himself lost he asked a state trooper for directions. He had been warned, later on of course, to never ask a local for directions because they will often mislead you. While the officer did NOT mislead him, being that he is bound by the law to assist, he did not say a word to Steinbeck. He merely pointed and motioned to the destination in which he wanted to go. Through this act the officer displayed that people had become less trusting of those they did not know. Aroostook County, being one of the three great potato producers of our country according to Steinbeck, during the planting/harvesting season is home to many French Canadians who have crossed the border to make a small profit. In his travels to northern Maine before turning west, Steinbeck came across one such family of workers. While cautious at first, the Canucks, as they have come to be called, were very friendly with Steinbeck. As an act of good will Steinbeck opened an old bottle of Cognac he was saving for a special occasion, and it was with this that the family really became sociable. While not exactly American, the Canucks display that small part that still exists inside those of the time. Although the threat of Communism appeared to everywhere and everyone had to be cautious, inside they were all just as friendly as the Canucks.

Most of this section was to remind people that Maine was very large and although vastly empty as far as person per square mile went still very much an important aspect of the United States’ culture in the 1950’s. The auto court, the protective yet bothersome aspect of life, the state trooper being an embodiment of many suspicious and cautious people, and Aroostook County being a place of un-American yet inner American migrant farmers.

Upstate New York and Niagara Falls (74-94)[edit]

On pages 74-94, Steinbeck travels to the Niagara Falls. As he travels on, he experiences the way people are different everywhere he goes. He describes how wherever you go people’s attitudes and beliefs are going to change depending on where you are. For example, when he went to New England, he saw that people there spoke tersely and usually waited for the newcomer to come up to them and confront them. He explained how strangers talked more freely without caution as a sense of longing for something new and being somewhere other than the place they were. They were so used to their everyday life that when someone new came to town, they were eager to explore new information and imagine new places.

John Steinbeck talks about a lot of different things he comes across. He talks about the Connecticut River [2] at points and how he doesn’t remember it being so long and wide. On his way navigating the river he comes across a motel, but to his disappointment, it is empty. He spends the night in his car with Charley and leaves the next morning feeling like he was a trespasser. Going up the Connecticut to New England also drew his attention as he saw people’s attitudes change. New Englanders were more to themselves, so Steinbeck would have to come up to each of them for help.

Niagara Falls [3] is one of the largest water falls in North America, and also serves as the borderline between New York (United States) and Canada. Steinbeck talks about how when he was younger, the laws of getting into and out of Canada were a lot less limiting then they were now. He becomes angry when he is forced to turn around to go get Charley vaccinated before moving on.

Traveling further, Steinbeck discovers that America and technology is quickly advancing to give Americans instant gratification. Vending machines became a big part of America, and started at Steinbeck’s early age. They started off as snack machines only, but through more advanced technology, they can fit whole meals that Steinbeck gets, such as hot soup, coffee, toiletries and even aspirin by simply putting money in a machine. He is very impressed with how the technology seemed to get better in his absence.

Steinbeck’s last day in Vermont is a Sunday, and he puts on his best suit, shaves, and combs his hair to go to church. Sitting in the John Knox [4] church and listening to the minister gave him a new perspective on sins in life. They weren’t just tiny things that were harmful to children, but should also be considered as big things, that should be taken with dignity. The minister says they are “No damn good”. Steinbeck is so impressed, he gives the church five dollars, and stays after to shake hands with and speak to the minister.

Truck drivers now-a-days are always seen on roadways, but to find them at rest stops [5] and actually talk to them was a thrill for Steinbeck. He notices how these people are just like the men he met out at sea, who have touched base in every major port in the world, and how truckers are similar only on land. He is fascinated how they set goals for their work, and know almost everything there is to know about America, from the driving, to the rest stops and waitresses. He likes talking to them because they open up to him more, as do other people in Mid-western states. He can also see small towns, become big cities from when he was a boy, and loves the idea of knowing where you’re going, but remembering where you’re coming from.

Reading Guide Questions for pages 74-94[edit]

  • How have the advancements of technology affected the attitudes and beliefs of American citizens?
  • Why do you think that Steinbeck writes about the government and what reasons do you find for him disliking the government?
  • How did people's attitudes in different states affect the way John Steinbeck viewed America?
  • How has traveling changed since Steinbeck's time (motels, interstates, and highways)?

Midwest Cities (95-125)[edit]

In the beginning of the section, John Steinbeck travels to the Midwest states. As he travels he notices a change in the growth of cities in the Midwest versus the last time he went (pg 105, 95). Also, he notices the overall family population growing. As he begins to talk to the locals he makes the point of contrasting the emotions of people in the north versus people in the Midwest. Another thing that was mentioned a lot during this section were the stereotype of a woman. They are often used for advertising during this time period (pg 117-118). He says that they welcomed a newcomer in their town with warmth and curiosity unlike people in New England (pg 107-108).

Traveling further, Steinbeck notices the advancing technology, which leads him to the overall curiosity about Mobile homes. One of the important things he notices are the house hold appliances and the televisions. Televisions become colored during this time period which was a huge impact in the technological industry (98-99). He begins interviewing families that live their life in a mobile home. They discuss points like, if you are living in a mobile home and you are ready to move on to a new place or job, you simply "pick up" your mobile home and leave (pg 95-104).

As he moves deeper in the Midwest, Steinbeck begins to see the colors of the people living down there. He realizes that the number of people immigrating to America has changed over time. He learns that because of immigration in the past it effects a families "roots" and discovers the Nationality act of 1965. He makes conversation with a man that enters his camping site, and discovers more about the lifestyle that development since his last trip there (110-113). At the end of the section, John Steinbeck starts to develop a character in his mind called Lonesome Harry while he was sitting in a room. This character develops and takes life until the end of the section (223-225).

Reading Guide Questions for pages 95-125[edit]

  • Do you think that if your family comes from some place foreign or their heritage is not American, their ways of life will be different from a typical American?
  • Do you think one area of the United States is more materialistic than the others?

Summaries: Part 3[edit]

Wisconsin and North Dakota (125-157)[edit]

In the Wisconsin and North Dakota section of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck travels to many places such as Sauk Centre and Illinois. Sauk Centre is a city Steinbeck travels through to get to North Dakota. Sauk Centre was also home to Sinclair Lewis whom Steinbeck knew. Upon stopping in the visitors center, he laments at being forced to leave behind the wondrous W.P.A Guides To The States[6]. Some other places he mentioned include St. Paul and Minneapolis. Minneapolis is the largest city in Minnesota. Steinbeck gets lost in the city to which one person replies, "How can you get lost in Minneapolis?"

Steinbeck stops at a diner for directions and realizes that our American society is oblivious to its surrounding, life, and culture. Steinbeck mentions that Americans have put "cleanliness first, at the expense of taste" (141) (as he travels through Fargo, North Dakota), and that the mentality of our nation has grown bland. Allowing his thoughts to slip back to his time in Minnesota, Steinbeck says, "It looks as though the natural contentiousness of people has died" (142) implying the seemingly political ignorance that the society seemed to cling to, and bringing before our eyes the lack of risk our once rebellious nation now embraces. Throughout the section Steinbeck uses simple, symbolic entities he encounters in his travels to express his views of the mindset of the country. For instance, he goes on at one point to speak of a herd of turkey, and after casting criticism and ridicule at the source of Thanksgiving dinner, ends this string of insults with an unexpected transition to American life. He states, " And suddenly I thought of that valley of the turkeys and wondered how I could have the gall to think turkeys stupid. Indeed, they have an advantage over us. They are good to eat"(129). The section closes with John Steinbeck and Charley getting ready to head to Montana and encounter whatever epiphanies may come.

Steinbeck says “Do they find their emotional fare so bland that it must be ladened with sex and sadism through the medium of paperback.” He is speaking of how books with these aspects often draw more attention from the society of that day because these components made books more exciting and enjoyable to the people in society. When applied to a broader scale of things, life in general, things that are deemed as “bad” by society are more stimulating to many people of that society and even society today. When a form of entertainment is composed of these bad things such as “sex, sadism and homicide”, it becomes more appealing to society. He relates this to food because he believes that society “has put cleanliness first, instead of taste”, this applies what he is trying to get across with the books as well. Often society will sacrifice quality for what is exciting or arousing to them. What is deemed as acceptable by the society itself is mainly what populates the minds and thoughts of those in it. What is deemed “cool” is often used in place of the real quality of something far superior, but cast away into the darkness, fore it is deemed “unworthy” by those who cannot or will not value its worth.

Steinbeck speaks of politics of the time as not discussed much. “It seemed to me partly cautious and partly lack of interest, but strong opinions were just not stated”, by this Steinbeck is speaking of society being afraid to speak out. The society of the time was based on conformity, and speaking out against the government was like blasphemy. At the time there was much to be afraid of, if you spoke against the government or America or had anything to do with the sort, you might be accused of being a communist and even executed on terms of treason or espionage. Of course, the government needs to be spoken out against from time to time; there have been enough scandals to verify this. A few paragraphs after this Steinbeck meets a man who opens up a new understanding of political feeling of the time. After some conversation pertain to this, the man says “Oh, sure, hardly a day goes by that somebody doesn’t take a belt at the Russians.” It is revealed here that there is allot of hostility against the Russians at this time and many people blamed unfortunate mishappenings on them. In the society of time “Nobody can find fault with you if you take out after the Russians.” Once again conformity in society is seen, people used the Russians [7] as a scapegoat for their own personal faults. As long as you stayed in one belief, against the Russians, you were secure from your own flaws. The man also states, “You think then we might be using Russians as an outlet for something else, other things” and "Why, I remember when people took everything out on Mr. Roosevelt” these two things put society and politics hand in hand yet again. In society mistakes are very unwanted, people want to be perfect and they want their country to be perfect. Society often takes every problem with itself or its environment on one centralized being or group. At that time it was the Russians.

Reading Guide Questions for pages 125-157[edit]

  • What does Steinbeck mean by Americans having put "cleanliness first, at the expense of taste?" How do you know?
  • John Steinbeck ties turkeys to humans at one point during his inner pondering. What statement may he being saying about American lifestyle and attitude in comparison to turkeys?
  • John Steinbeck talks about the evacuation route on US Highway 10 in this section. What do you think that the Evacuation Route symbolizes in society? What fears does it represent?

Montana, Yellowstone, Idaho, and Washington (158-180)[edit]

In this section Steinbeck notices differences between himself and other people, between his home life and the way life is for those in different states. "I am in love with Montana," says Steinbeck on page 158. He explains this as a place unaffected by television, and a place with kind, laid back individuals. "It seemed to me that the frantic bustle of America was not in Montana" (158). Here he also pays his respects to the Sioux chief Sitting Bull, which to him represents how people once were so infatuated with their land, they'd risk anything to keep it, fight until the end, like Sitting Bull and his fight for land.

In the next part of this section, Steinbeck is in Custer, at the battlefield of Little Big Horn. He travels through the Injun Country and thinks of an author who wrote a novel about war against the Nez Perce tribes. Steinbeck here shows a theme that opposes war, in his book, the author explains: "It was the saddest duty he had ever preformed" (160). Steinbeck and Charley then travel to Yellowstone National Park (161) which is a place that "is no more representative of America than Disneyland" (161). These parts, along with others from the book, are examples of the theme that your mood changes with your surroundings. This theme is also apparent when Charley sees the bears in Yellowstone. Steinbeck is surprised at his aggressive and crazy behavior (164).

The next visit is to the Great Divide in the Rocky Mountains. He thinks of the French explorers Lewis and Clark and wonders whether or not the men were impressed with what they found in America. This thought adds to the idea that the people who live in beautiful places, often don't realize it, and they take what they have for granted. He also expresses how the explorers would find modern people lazy. For instance, it took those men two and a half years to travel to the Pacific Ocean from St. Louis. Now, it takes just a month if you dawdle, a week if you drive, and five hours if you fly. Steinbeck makes people today seem small and sluggish, like if they don't have any real accomplishments even a tenth as remarkable as what these men did.

Finally, Steinbeck constantly shows that people are never happy staying in one place. He shows this through the eyes of the teenager he meets at the cabins. The teenager, along with many people in the book so far, are constantly wondering what it is like somewhere else, they are never content with what they have (171-172).

Reading Guide Questions for pages 158-180[edit]

  • Why was it so important for Steinbeck to visit General Custer and Sitting Bull?
  • Does Steinbeck's actions make him seem like a true American?
  • If you could change one thing about Americans what would it be? How would this impact America?
  • What is Steinbeck's point when he says that Yellowstone "is no more representative of America than Disneyland (161)."

Seattle, Oregon, and California (180-208)[edit]

In these pages Steinbeck visits the West Coast. First he goes to Seattle, Washington. He notices how much the city has changed. Before it was a small city sitting on a hill with lots of rural and country roads surrounding it, but now it has eight-lane highways and is a lot more industrialized. Steinbeck grew up around this area, so much of this section is him revisiting the area and seeing it’s changes and progressions. During this section Steinbeck makes a reflection when seeing the Columbia River (180) and how Lewis and Clark (180) must have felt when coming west. After this he notices the change that the west has underwent and he says on page 180 that “It was only as I approached Seattle that the unbelievable change became apparent.” A main point he states, while seeing all of this change and modernization is “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction.”(181) This shows that he sees it as a possible detriment to the area and to the authenticity of the land.

Later on, while driving in Oregon he blows a tire and has to try to fix it, and he does just enough so that he gets to a small service station. There, a scary looking man (the owner) helps Steinbeck and arranges for larger tires to be brought to Steinbeck. This is when Steinbeck realizes that you can’t judge a person by appearance. Though the specialized tires were hard to come by, the problem was solved in mere hours by the unexpected generosity of the gas station attendant.

In the next section, Steinbeck focuses on the giant redwood trees[8] (188) and ancient Sequoia Trees (195) that he has come to appreciate and adore in his lifetime. He says, “The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect.”(189) This quote shows this appreciation, and more of the things he says to describe the trees really displays the way he is fearing this lack of appreciation as the times become more modern. “‘If I thought he did it out of spite or to make a joke,’ I said to myself, ‘I’d kill him out of hand.’”(191) Steinbeck thinks this to himself when his loyal companion Charley cannot appreciate the trees as he can.

In the next sections, he visits a bar of his youth where he meets and catches up with many friends, learning that a lot of regulars and childhood chums have passed away. Steinbeck thinks about how he is a ghost since all the people he grew up with were dead. He then heads up to Fremont’s Peakseems to say goodbye to his hometown for the last time. During the time it takes for him to say good bye he makes an allusion to a book by Thomas Wolfe [9]You Can't Go Home Again(201) This section of the story is concluded with, “I printed once more on my eyes, south, west, and north, and then we hurried away from the permanent and changeless past where my mother is always shooting a wildcat and my father is always burning his name with his love.”(208). This shows that even though he knows the country is changing, his memories of the towns he lived in will always be with him.

Reading Guide Questions for pages 180-208[edit]

  • Based on the main ideas of this section of the reading, in your opinion what are Steinbeck’s beliefs on nature and the settlement of the West?
  • How do the Redwoods seem to affect Steinbeck?

Summaries: Part 4[edit]

Arizona, New Mexico, Texas (219-248)[edit]

This section of the story follows John Steinbeck and his dog Charley through Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. He does not spend much time in Arizona or New Mexico, but he does appreciate the beauty of the vast mountains in those regions (227-230). We discover how close Steinbeck is to his dog, and get a deeper look at their relationship. The majority of the section is based on Texas where he spends a few days over Thanksgiving.

Upon arriving in Texas Steinbeck discovers that Charley is ill, but he took him to a veterinarian and learned that Charley merely had Prostatitis and that a few days stay would cure him (235). Steinbeck describes Texas and its different aspects that make it very unique from other states. He comments on the Panhandle [10] which is the Northern most part of the state where Texas borders New Mexico and Oklahoma. Steinbeck also comments on the Rio Grande Valley,[11] which is really a delta rather than a valley.

Steinbeck felt that "people either passionately love or passionately hate Texas," referring to people who are just passersby like himself (229). He discusses a book about a tiny group of rich Texans that was written by Edna Ferber [12], and relates it to his own experience with a family similar to the one in the book. Steinbeck stays with this family with his wife who flew into the state to celebrate Thanksgiving. The two of them visit friends and have a Thanksgiving party. Also on Thanksgiving Steinbeck goes quail hunting with some of the men (235-242). He then goes on to talk about the black and white relations in the South compared to the relations in the North and in his hometown of Salinas, California, sharing the theory of "separate but equal’ (248). Steinbeck writes about the desegregation of schools [13] and how there is a change in the North. In the southern states, such as Texas, he mentions a bit about how when people are not proud of something they have been involved in, that they don't like to welcome any witnesses, because they believe that witnesses may be the ones causing all the trouble. This enables him to revert back to his childhood in California, writing about an African-American family that he knew, the Coopers, and never seemed threatened by them or noticed much of a difference, relating back to black and white relations[14] during that time.

In the last pages of this section, Steinbeck comments briefly on his home town of Salinas, California. “Although people around the country are individuals, certain customs and characteristics are similar,” (244). Steinbeck makes a number of statements about politics, human nature, and regional differences. In the quote above, he is stating that through out his travels he has noticed that no matter where you travel in the Unites States, the people might be different but our culture is for the most part everywhere. He realizes that although Americans are individuals and come from different regions, he also realizes that “there are many customs that assimilate then into like-minded people."

Reading Guide Questions for pages 219-248[edit]

  • When you traveled to a different state, was it different as your home state or the same?
  • Steinbeck says, “The south is a place of hatred, violence, and bigotry,” (pg. 243-248). Why do you think that Steinbeck feels this way about the south?
  • Do Steinbeck's comments about Texas reflect what he finds in the rest of the South?

New Orleans and Mississippi (249-273)[edit]

In the second to last chapter of Part Four, Steinbeck is drawn to the “distortion of normal life” (249) and leaves Texas in search of the so-called "Cheerleaders"[15] (256) who are protesting the integration of black children in a school in New Orleans. Before reaching the city, Steinbeck welcomes in the “singing language of Acadia” (252) while recalling the memory of an old friend, Dr. St. Martin, who healed children and Cajuns. Upon entering New Orleans, Steinbeck immediately encounters the racism of the South and soon finds that racism was not only towards blacks, but also towards Jews, “ It’s the goddamn New York Jews cause all the trouble” (254). Steinbeck then experiences the “bestial and filthy” 257) show that the Cheerleaders put on while the black children entered school. The applause and praise of the crowd brought Steinbeck to realize that there were no thoughtful people like his old friends Lyle Saxon and Roark Bradford, in the city and that they had “left New Orleans misrepresented to the world” (259). After the incident, Steinbeck no longer desired to visit some of his favorite places, like Gallatoir’s Restaurant [16], fearing more racially divided ideals. In search of a secluded place, he sits beside the Father of Waters or Mississippi River, and encounters a man who looks similar to Greco San Pablo. They eat together and talk of Lewis Carroll [17] and the “queer” (261) epitaph by Rober John Croswell. After giving a ride to both a wary black man and a racist white man, Steinbeck becomes aware that the Southern people are afraid to change their way of life just as the Cockneys children in London were and that they will accept that fear despite the Gandhi inspired works of Martin Luther King.

Reading Guide Questions for pages 249-273[edit]

  • Why do you think that the "Cheerleaders" protesting was censored in the media and do you think the media was for or against integration based on their censoring?
  • Do you think it is within human nature to discriminate? Why or why not?
  • Why do you think race is so important in this section?


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This guide is an adaptation of the Wikipedia article, Wikipedia:Travels With Charley: In Search of America, at 6 April 2006.

Download "Writing Prompts" as a Word file


Language Arts, History

Grade Level

6 – 12

Type of Activity

Small Group, Individual, Ongoing, Sharing Work, Brief Research, Writing


  • Students will have ongoing practice writing various papers (from short ones of 150-200 words, and longer ones of 500 words or more, and in different styles) on a variety of topics about Travels with Charley.
  • Students will learn to share their writing with others.
  • Students will gain a deeper understanding of the many themes in Travels with Charley.


Short writing prompts (150-200 words) should be given throughout the unit. The prompts can be both broad and specific. Students should be made to feel comfortable with these prompts, even though (time permitting) some will read them out loud. The student audience will be encouraged to respond and take notes. Once students are comfortable, longer papers can be assigned.

NOTE TO TEACHERS: Any of the writing topics in this section can be expanded into full-length essays (word length and completion time at the discretion of teachers).

Types of essays can include:

  • Critical Analysis. This is generally a high-level paper which examines a particular aspect of the novel (for example, a major theme throughout the book is discovering and defining America). This type of essay can be first encountered in shorter forms before assigning a longer paper.
  • Compare/Contrast. (For example, students can compare/contrast Steinbeck’s experiences in different regions, or with different people.)
  • Descriptive. Students can emulate/evaluate Steinbeck’s descriptive writing. (Also see Sentence Fluency.)
  • Narrative. This type of essay is generally written in first person and recounts a personal experience.
  • Persuasive/Argumentative. This type of essay asks students to convince others of their opinion. (For example, Steinbeck is right about governments and bureaucracy.)

NOTE: As with any essay, regardless of length and subject, it is important that students provide specific supporting examples, including, as appropriate, quoted passages from Travels with Charley.

Materials Needed/Preparation

  • Copies of Travels with Charley.
  • Teachers should emphasize that each short prompt should be concise and contain specific examples from the novel or from personal experiences.
  • Arrange time in the computer lab (if available), so students can start their assignments and teachers can assist students.
  • For unfinished assignments, students may email themselves the document or place it on a USB flash drive. 

Estimated Time

Each short writing prompt can be assigned and completed in one or two homework assignments. Longer papers will take additional time (up to the discretion of individual teachers).


Provide some ideas and ask students to write about some (as much as can be covered during the unit) of these topics:

Ongoing (before or during the reading of the book):

  • What is America? What does it mean to be an American?
  • How does your own perspective affect your experiences? How does Steinbeck’s perspective affect his experiences?
  • Why is setting important to Steinbeck? Consider why he often describes the areas he stopped at or visited.
  • What methods does Steinbeck use to help readers understand the personalities of the people he meets along the way?
  • There any many themes in the book. However, what is the major theme in this particular part of the book being discussed? (See Plot and Theme.) Think about how theme affects plot and vice versa.
  • What figurative language does Steinbeck use in the scene being discussed and why? (See Literary Terms.)
  • What are the motifs used in the section being discussed? (See Literary Terms.)
  • Discuss, and provide examples of, the literary devices Steinbeck has introduced. (See Literary Terms.)
  • Discuss/analyze Steinbeck’s use of symbols in the section being discussed. (See Symbolism.)

Part One (3-13)

Part One is focused on the purpose of Steinbeck’s journey and how he prepared for it. This discussion will carry over into Part Two.

  • Why does Steinbeck decide to set out on a journey across the United States?
  • How does a journey have a life of its own?
  • If you were going on a cross country trip, what would you bring and why?
  • Do you think that it is possible for Steinbeck to truly “see” America during his journey?
  • What kinds of preparations does Steinbeck make? Don’t forget Rocinante!
  • Why does Steinbeck bring Charley? What kind of companion do you think he will make along the way?
  • “I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation – a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here….Nearly every American hungers to move” (9). Do you agree with Steinbeck? Why/why not?

Part Two (17-92)

Part Two records the journey of Steinbeck and Charley in the eastern states such as Maine, Connecticut, and Vermont. Steinbeck encounters local people and discusses various topics with them. His impressions tell much about how he feels about modernization, urbanization, and commercialization.

  • How does Steinbeck feel about growing old (17-18)? Do you think that Steinbeck’s age affects how he sees the world? Does it affect how you see the world?
  • A major theme in Part Two is the new, consumer culture. Discuss the different ways consumer culture is shown in this part of the book. According to Steinbeck, what kind of affect was this having on the world?
    • Extension: compare/contrast this with the consumer world today and its effects.
  • The Cold War is a smaller theme that appears several times in Part Two. What impact did the Cold War have on the people Steinbeck met? How did it affect the country as a whole?
  • On the ferry, Steinbeck meets a sailor in the Navy who works on board a submarine. This brings back memories of World War II for Steinbeck (18-20). How does Steinbeck feel about submarines?
    • As an extension, tie in a discussion about Steinbeck’s time as a war correspondent during WW II.
    • See “Front Line to Front Pages” for more on this subject.
  • What is Steinbeck’s opinion on the growth of cities? Do you agree with him? What other ways have growing cities affected the country and the environment since Steinbeck’s writing?
  • On page 22, Steinbeck drives through Hartford and Providence. How does he feel about the growth of cities? Note what figurative language he uses in his descriptions.
    • This can be discussed again in Maine (56).
  • Steinbeck learned a great deal from his friend, Ed Ricketts. Ricketts was an early environmentalist and one of the first people to examine the natural world as a system rather than as separate, disconnected parts. How does Steinbeck feel about the effects urbanization has on the natural environment (22)?
    • This is a recurring theme throughout the book, not just in part one.
    • Compare what he says on page 22 with what he says on page 24 regarding the “…many modern designs for easy living.” Do these two passages seem in conflict?
  • Steinbeck discusses Russia and Khrushchev’s speech at the U.N. with a man in Vermont. Based on what you know about the Cold War, what can you determine about Steinbeck’s attitudes towards Russia and the current Cold War policies (24-27)?
  • What can you learn about Steinbeck’s description of himself on pages 30-32? Point out specific descriptive words and phrases that support your impressions.
  • Near Bangor, Maine Steinbeck made a stop for the night at an auto court (motel). This is one of the first descriptions of food and a restaurant/diner environment that he gives. How does Steinbeck feel about the new, modern approach to sanitation and cleanliness (36-38)?
    • Find examples of figurative language that support your thoughts.
    • What kind of mood does Steinbeck create in his description of his time at the auto court? How does he do this?
    • Sanitation, plastic, sterile environments are a recurring theme throughout the book.
  • Between pages 36 and 46 Steinbeck makes several references to “…planned obsolescence” (36). What is planned obsolescence? Discuss planned obsolescence in a modern industry or product that did not exist during Steinbeck’s day.
  • What affect does seeing the Aurora Borealis have on Steinbeck (38-39)? What does this tell you about his feelings towards nature and its effects on people?
  • What are Steinbeck’s feelings about hunting and gun culture in America (44-46)?
    •  Compare this to his later discussion of guns and hunting and his personal experience with guns and hunting (In Montana: 121-122; in the Mojave Desert: 161-162).
  • Read the first paragraph on page 47 where Steinbeck describes Maine. What kind of mood does he create? How does he do this?
  • What affect does the darkness and the unknown have on Steinbeck while he was parked on the side of the road in Maine (47-49)? How does he react? What kind of language does he use to describe his experience?
    • Compare this with his description in the Bad Lands (117-120).
  • Steinbeck wrote often about the common person, particularly farmers and migrant farm workers. In Maine he meets migrant workers who came over the border from Canada (50-54). What are Steinbeck’s feelings towards migrant workers? What does he think about the use of migrant work in the United States?
  • What does Steinbeck mean when he says “I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style” (60)?
    • This is a recurring theme throughout the book: how accurate is Steinbeck’s account of what he experienced?
  • What does Steinbeck mean when he says “…it does make for suspicion of history as a record of reality” (63)?
    • Steinbeck addresses the conflict between history and memory throughout the book.
    • See History vs. Memory for a more in-depth study.
  • “I find out of long experience that I admire all nations and hate all governments…” (66). What does Steinbeck mean by this? How does he show this through his story of trying to cross the border into Canada?
  • How does Steinbeck describe the difference between traveling and taking a journey (73-74)?
  • Steinbeck meets people who live in mobile homes (75-81). What does he think about this new phenomenon?
  • On page 78 Steinbeck writes about his discussions with the man who lives in the mobile home (Steinbeck calls him “the father”). This man talks about his “roots.” What are your roots? Do you feel tied to the land? To a city? To a county? To a state? To a country? To a culture?
  • In his writings, Steinbeck often writes of the strong connection between people and the land, particularly in The Grapes of Wrath. On page 80, after leaving the mobile home park, Steinbeck ponders whether “…Americans are a restless people…” and what value having roots in an area has. How is this passage different from his typical discussions of people and place?
  • Throughout the book, Steinbeck makes reference to the speech and language of the people he encounters in different regions of the country. How is his attitude towards speech similar to his attitudes about food and sterile environments (82-83)?
  • Re-read Steinbeck’s description of New Englanders’ speech and that of Ohioans. This is, of course, a generalized impression Steinbeck created. Imagine a conversation between two people, one from New England and one from Ohio. Create a dialogue between those two people that matches Steinbeck’s description.
    • This may include narration as well.
    • Alternatively, students can narrate as if they were Steinbeck witnessing such a conversation.
    • Alternatively, have students include someone from their own time and region.
  • Steinbeck talks about changes/advances in the technology of communication (88). How does he feel those changes have affected people and society? Think about the changes in technology and communication that have happened since Steinbeck’s death in 1968; how have those newer advances affected people and society? Do you think these changes are good? Bad? Both? Explain.
  • At the hotel in Chicago, Steinbeck examines his hotel and pieces together the life of the man who had previously stayed in the room (calling him “Lonesome Harry”). What do you think of Steinbeck’s attitude towards Harry (90-92)?

Part Three (95-169)

In Part Three, Steinbeck leaves Chicago and heads across the Midwest, to the Pacific Northwest, and then down into California for a visit in his hometown with family and friends. Nature, change over time, and politics become large themes in this section of the book.

  • What kinds of figurative language does Steinbeck use to describe Wisconsin? What kind of mood does he create? What is his impression of the land (97-98)?
  • On pages 108-111 Steinbeck has one of his “conversations” with Charley. This time, Steinbeck is discussing what it is he has possibly learned at that point in his journey. What does Steinbeck think he has learned at that point? What evidence does he use to show what he learned? Do you agree with his conclusions?
  • Read Steinbeck’s description of Fargo, ND (104-105). A the end of his description, he says “…in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.” What does he mean by this?
  • While parked near the Maple River, Steinbeck engages in a “dialogue” with Charley (107-111). What has Steinbeck learned about America and Americans at this point in his journey? Has he learned anything at all?
    • Return to this topic at intervals throughout the book to see if Steinbeck is learning more, less, or not at all.
  • What affect does the darkness and the unknown have on Steinbeck while he was in the Bad Lands (117-120)? How does he react? What kind of language does he use to describe his experience?
    • Compare this to his description of his stay while parked on the side of the road in Maine (47-49)?
  • Compare Steinbeck’s feelings about hunting and gun culture in America in Montana (121-122) and in Maine (44-46).
    • Compare this to his later discussion of guns and hunting and his personal experience with guns and hunting in the Mojave Desert: 161-162.
  • How is Steinbeck’s description of Custer, Chief Joseph, and Native Americans different from how most people of his time thought (122)?
  • Steinbeck and Charley visit Yellowstone National Park, briefly (123-126). Steinbeck says of Yellowstone that it “…is no more representative of America than Disneyland” (123). Do you agree with this statement? National Parks are supposed to preserve American land and environment for all time, is this representative of America or not?
  • How do the themes of modernization and masculinity fit into Steinbeck’s thoughts about Lewis and Clark (while standing at the Great Divide, p. 127).
  • On pages 128-129 Steinbeck recalls a conversation with a political reporter friend. This discussion centered around who the “real People” of the United States are. Based on what Steinbeck says, how does he define “real People” or “real Americans” (a phrase that gets thrown around in politics quite a bit)? Use examples from the text to support your conclusions.
    • Additionally: do you agree with Steinbeck’s conclusions? Why/why not?
  • Consider Steinbeck’s thoughts on hairdressers when he meets Robbie and his father (130-134). What do you think about his comments? Is Steinbeck being serious? Are his ideas sexist?
    • Also, consider discussing how this passage would be different if written today when gender stereotypes are different.
  • When he arrives in Washington, Steinbeck is beginning to feel close to home. How does he feel about the changes he sees? How do these changes fit in with the themes of modernization, urbanization, and change over time (127-139).
    • Compare and contrast this with his thoughts on these themes earlier in the book.
  • What does Steinbeck mean when he says “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction” (138)? What would he think about “progress” today?
  • “It is the principle of do it yourself” which defines the West (139). Do you agree with this?
  • When Rocinante gets a flat tire, Steinbeck has to put on a spare and make it to a service station. How does he describe the station attendant and how does his description change as he gets to know the man (141-142)?
    • This scene, it should be noted, may be very foreign to students. The idea of needed to purchase something and it not being available is uncommon today.
  • What affect does Steinbeck’s visit to a Redwood grove have on him? What kinds of themes about nature and humans can you find in this section of the book (143-147).
  • The redwood forests, clearly, were one of Steinbeck’s favorite natural environments (143-147). What does he enjoy about them? Write about your favorite natural environment. Describe it as Steinbeck would. What is it that you most enjoy about this place in nature?
  • Why does Steinbeck find it difficult to write about California (148-149)? What themes does he touch on in his explanation?
  • Consider what Steinbeck says about California: “We who were born here and our parents also felt a strange superiority over newcomers, barbarians…and we were an outrage to the Spanish-Mexicans and they in turn on the Indians” (148-149). What is Steinbeck talking about here (historically)? Who do you think are the true “natives” of California (or of the area you live in)?
  • While talking with Johnny Garcia, Steinbeck discovers much has changed in Monterey since he left. He says “There was a great man named Thomas Wolfe and he wrote a book called You Can’t Go Home Again. And that is true” (153). What do you think Steinbeck means by “you can’t go home?” Do you agree with him?
  • What changes in Monterey does Steinbeck come across? How does he feel about those changes (148-158)?
  • In the Mojave Desert, Steinbeck decided to not shoot a pair of coyotes he saw. Afterwards he thought of something he had once heard: “…when a man saved another’s life he became responsible for that life to the end of its existence. For, having interfered with a course of events, the savior could not escape his responsibility” (162). Do you agree with this philosophy? In the modern world, can this philosophy be truly adhered to?
  • What do you think when Steinbeck says “If the most versatile of living forms, the human, now fights for survival as it always has, it can eliminate not only itself but all other life” (165)?

Part Four (173-210)

In Part Four, Steinbeck heads home by way of Texas and Louisiana. In these regions he experiences Texas as a unique “nation” of its own. In Louisiana, he witnesses history as Ruby Bridges integrates an all white elementary school in the face of brutal racism. This section of the book is one that is most remembered by readers (and the most socially and historically important).

  • “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is an obsession” (173). From what you know of Texas, and what you read in Travels with Charley, do you agree with Steinbeck?
  • How would you define Texas and Texans after reading about Steinbeck’s time in Texas (173-184)?
  • From Steinbeck’s description, is Texas hospitality genuine, or is it a show (173-184)?
  • Steinbeck spends Thanksgiving in Texas and struggles to describe the experience as both a show put on for the benefit of the guest, and a genuine outpouring of hospitality (179-184). How does this compare to Thanksgiving (or another major, family oriented holiday) in your life?
  • “It boils down to this: the Americans, the British are that faceless clot you don’t know, but a Frenchman or an Italian is your acquaintance and your friend. He has none of the qualities your ignorance causes you to hate” (185). What does Steinbeck mean by this? Do you think, in your experience, that he is correct. Write about someone you know who is personally different from the stereotypes you assume about the culture/nation/group to which they belong.
  • On pages 186-188 Steinbeck writes about growing up in Salinas and his experiences with race and racism. He cites a local African American family, the Coopers, as his example of how he grew up without prejudice or racism; his conclusion is that “…there was something else about the Coopers that set them apart from other Negroes I have seen and met since. Because they were not hurt or insulted, they were not defensive or combative. Because their dignity was intact, they had no need to be overbearing, and because the Cooper boys had never heard that they were inferior, their minds could grow to their true limits” (187).
    • Based on this statement, do you think that Steinbeck is as free from racial prejudice as he believed himself to be?
    • Based on this statement, what does Steinbeck think is the cause of racial prejudice and the social upheaval that was going on during the 1960s?
    • Consider the issues of race and racism today. Does Steinbeck’s theory fit in today’s society? Explain.
  • “When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not welcome witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble” (188). Steinbeck says this in reference to racism in the South. Do you agree with him? How does this idea apply to issues of race today? Does it apply to other issues as well?
  • While in Louisiana, Steinbeck shows his knowledge of local cocktails, coffee, and food. Why does he do this?
  • Steinbeck parks Rocinante and takes a taxi to witness the “Cheerleaders” in their attacks. During that ride he pretends to be British (192-193). Why does he do this?
    • Perhaps compare this to how the African American man behaves in Steinbeck’s story about Manhattan (202).
  • Re-read pages 189-196 (Ruby Bridges and the Cheerleaders). How does this make you feel? Use quotes from the text to help explain why.
    • How did Steinbeck feel about this event? Quote passages from the text that support your thoughts.
  • What does Steinbeck think about the Cheerleaders? What does he think about the people who joined in?
  • If you were to interview one of the Cheerleaders today, what do you think she would say about her protest against school integration? Do you think that her views on race will have changed? Why or why not?
  • “But where were others – the ones who would be proud they were of a species with the gray man – the ones whose arms would ache to gather up the small, scared black mite?.... I don’t know where they were… but they left New Orleans misrepresented to the world” (196). What does Steinbeck mean by this? Do you agree with him?
  • Why does Steinbeck feel better after his conversation with Monsieur Ci Git (197-201)?
  • Based on his conversation with Monsieur Ci Git (197-201), what does Steinbeck think is the key to ending racism and hatred? Do you agree?
  • After giving the older African American man a ride, Steinbeck lets him out and says “He didn’t live nearby at all, but walking was safer than riding with me” (202). What does he mean by that statement?
  • Steinbeck gave a ride to a young African American college student who told him “I might be an old man before I’m a man at all” (206). What do you think he means?
  • Steinbeck ends his journey through the South by saying “…the end is not the question. It’s the means – the dreadful uncertainty of the means” (207). What do you think of this? What does Steinbeck mean and do you agree?
  • After reading Travels with Charley, do you agree with what Steinbeck said, that “…people don’t take trips – trips take people” (208)?

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up

  • Takeaways
    • Each discussion question has its own takeaways. Overall, the purpose of discussion is to create a thoughtful conversation about the book.
  • Follow-up
    • Students can write short papers based on discussions. 


  • Periodical tests/quizzes and short papers on each section would be useful.

Standards Met

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
    • Key Ideas and Details: 1,2,3
    • Craft and Structure: 4,5,6
    • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas:7,9
    • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards 6-12
    • Text Types and Purposes: 1,2, 3
    • Production and Distribution of Writing: 4,5,6
    • Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7, 9
    • Range of Writing: 10
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
    • Comprehension and Collaboration: 1,2,3
    • Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: 4
  • Language Standards 6-12
    • Conventions of Standard English: 1
    • Knowledge of Language: 3
    • Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 5,6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
    • Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2
    • Craft and Structure: 4,5,6
    • Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 8
    • Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12



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