John Steinbeck is a legend. And like the best wines, he only gets better with time. His wisdom, I imagine, when his contemporaries read him, seemed more like a clever observation. It is us, his future readers, that see it for what it is, timeless wisdom. The way he can explicate his observations, both in his fiction and nonfiction, is something that most of us only wish we could come close to. Reading Steinbeck is like a perpetual lightbulb moment, where you think to yourself, “How did I not see this before?” Awe turns into reverence, reverence to introspection, and then, I guess, a little bit of defeat. “Why couldn’t I see this before?” How do I stare at the world daily, thinking I am a keen observer, only to be wowed by the observations that a man made about our country before Martin Luther King Jr. even told us of his dream.
In his book documenting a 3 month road trip around the country he and his furred companion, Charley, embarked on, Steinbeck illuminates certain aspects of America that seem to have not changed over the last almost 60 years. Travels With Charley paints the picture of a man trying to rediscover his country, and in doing so, helps us, born in a supposedly different world, understand it a little better. The Cuban Missle Crisis was still a year or two in the future, man hadn’t reached the moon, the Berlin Wall wasn’t built, yet alone torn down, computers were the size of buildings not palms, terrorism was not a household word, and of course, our president wasn’t Donald Trump; and yet, Steinbeck’s insights about our country could have been published in the last edition of The Atlantic.
Three things in particular grabbed my attention in Travels With Charley: Steinbeck’s clarity in describing our Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, our façades of life that we portray via social media, and our constant belief that there was once “The Good Ole Days,” which I suppose is the driving factor of so many red-hat wearing MAGA evangelists who disregard basic facts.
Rod Dreher, in his controversial 2017 book, The Benedict Option, was the first person to expose me to the idea of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD), a term coined by Notre Dame sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton back in 2005. Its basic definition sees the modern church as one that highlights a do good, feel good, use god when you need him type of social club, that doesn’t take seriously the God who so clearly rejects this from Genesis to Revelation. Steinbeck, while not attaching a complex academic title to the condition, nonetheless describes it aptly early on in his trip while visiting a Sunday church service in Vermont in the fall of 1960. The dying leaves representing the dying faith that Steinbeck mostly saw in churches of that era, but not this one. Describing a sermon that moved him toward reflection, he writes,
“It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set into motion by forces beyond our control. There was no such nonsense in this church.”
Here Steinbeck summarizes the church in America with an accuracy that would make a millennial like me think it was coming from a modern critic like Dreher or some other burned-by-the-church, renewed-by-the-bible writer of our time. But no, Steinbeck is illuminating the feel good religion described by MTD 7 years before the long-haired hippies of the Jesus Movement started their own churches out of necessity because they made the traditional Sunday population uncomfortable.
While many are turned away from the moral standards of the Bible, Steinbeck finds comfort in them. That small church house in Vermont represented a real faith, one not swayed by the tides of the time, but one marked by the words of the Bible, made permanent through the ink of each translation and the actions of those who hold its truths dear.
Later in his trip, when he was approaching Yellowstone National Park, a place that he did not have much interest in seeing, but made a part of his path not wanting to hear the ‘How could you not have gone to Yellowstone?’ demanding question from his peers and family back in New York, Steinbeck made another insight that stopped me.
He thought about the repercussions of him not seeing Yellowstone and writes, “Again it might have been the American tendency in travel. One goes, not so much to see but to tell afterward.” Even as I write this, I realize that Steinbeck himself falls prey to this line of thought, after all, it’s a quote from a book about his travels. But nonetheless, the idea reminded me of all those times I have taken out my phone to capture a moment for my social media.
Do we really go anywhere if no one knows how amazing it was? Trees that can’t be seen or heard don’t fall. At least, that’s how we live. Apparently, 60 years ago, Steinbeck saw the same mentality in his fellow Americans; one conditioned by the need to be envied. Steinbeck foreshadowed the basis of all those apps that fill up our phones, except we beat him at his own observation. We don’t need to wait to tell afterward, we can share our travels and sights in the moment, instantly. Going anywhere isn’t really about seeing, but about being seen seeing. Steinbeck, you pried at my motives, and you found the base of my sin, pride.
While in Big Sky country, Steinbeck calls out yet another one of our faults: a longing for a perfect past that never really existed, the good ole days. He describes a People who were more wholesome, meaningful, and true, a group that his contemporaries reminded everyone lived ‘back in the day’. Wittingly, he writes, “Maybe the People are always those who used to live the generation before last.” A time when humans were great, for those alive, is always the generation that recently joined the ancients in the plight we all succumb to. We revere those in the past at a scale that surely they do not deserve.
Should we remember those before us? Yes, we must, and rejoice in the good things some did for our world. But to worship them as if they were not fallen creatures, steeped in sin as we are in the world today would be to miss the point of humanity. Steinbeck brings clarity to our own blindness when we look back at the arc of time, not fully being able see around the bend, but taking the 10 percent that we can see and remembering it as if it were 100 percent of what was. In true novelist fashion, Steinbeck uses wit and sarcasm to shed light on this truth.
Travels With Charley was a page turner. Steinbeck is a story teller. Sometimes I wonder if him and author’s like him, realize how witty they really are, or if they just write a story that they want to tell. He could have just been using the book in a diary fashion to record his observations and musings, but what was in the 55 year old book was much more than an interesting story written about a time before my own, it was a lens to see my own time. It magnified a church experience I grew up with, and that I know all too well, it removed the curtains that hides our motives in using social media, and it reminded me that humans in the past were still humans. A man and a dog went on a drive in search for America, and what they found seemed a lot like what I see today.