For anyone who wants to go beyond the American History textbooks of seventh grade, read The Grapes of Wrath. If you’re searching for a metaphor for your uncertain future, read The Grapes of Wrath. (If you prefer a metaphor for the Book of Genesis, read East of Eden.) If you still think the middle class really exists, read The Grapes of Wrath. When you reach the last sentence, ask yourself if anything in this country has really changed. It’s true that history repeats itself, because although we insist otherwise, people never really change. Some are virtuous, others are greedy. While it’s true that Americans have certain freedoms that others do not, I never forget we are always free to starve. This is common knowledge for the masses, yet another truth that one half of one percent cannot understand.
Travels with Charley is one of the greatest classics of the travel genre. It is an autobiography set in 1960, when Steinbeck loads up a trailer and circumnavigates the United States with his dog Charley. One of my favorite things about Steinbeck is his honesty. If he never sugar-coated American History, he certainly didn’t sugar-coat his own reactions to the people and places he encountered. There is a favorite excerpt of mine in Travels with Charley. After driving all day, he rents a room where everything is sterilized, covered in plastic. (“Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible.”) He goes to the hotel restaurant and meets a waitress, also adorned in a plastic apron. He finds her demeanor so dull and cynical (“Some people spread a grayness in the air about them.”) he goes into a spiritual tailspin and ends up in the hotel bathtub with a bottle of vodka. Thankfully his dog Charley, who is well-documented as having a personality all his own which sustains his owner, coaxes him out of his funk by making him take him for a walk under the night sky. He sees the stars and he is cured. I’ve been cured by the stars too many times to count. They never fail. Knowing that Steinbeck had that same muse bonds me to him forever. It doesn’t matter he’s been dead almost as long as I’ve been alive, we are kindred spirits. If he came through the filament in plasma form and we had a brandy old-fashioned together, I’m sure we’d get along fine.
I hate to say it, but seeing Steinbeck with a cigarette smoldering between two typewriter-worn digits makes smoking look cool. Phillip Morris should have been paying attention. It’s not the cigarette, but something about his expression that tells me—with all his smoke breaks, the man has had some time to think. I wonder—especially now, when smokers are banished not only out of society, but at least ten feet away from it: what do they think about whilst huddled in a far frozen corner, taking another drag of nicotine between their blue lips? (Smokers, you have been prompted to comment on this blog!) Reading great authors like Steinbeck makes me understand that honesty is the hallmark of a great author. Great writers frame the truth; they know the truth is beautiful. They draw from their own experiences—they don’t presume to be something they are not, or try to write about things they know nothing about. Honesty is the best policy, anything less than the truth is propaganda at best. At the worst, it’s a shit sandwich.