In Travels with Charley in Search of America, John Steinbeck set out to discover "the speech" of America and to see for himself all of the changes in the United States that he had previously heard about "only from books and newspapers" (Steinbeck 5). Debuting in 1962, Travels with Charley, like much of Steinbeck's work after Grapes of Wrath (1939), garnered a mixed reaction from reviewers and the general public. While the Boston Herald wrote Travels with Charley is "[o]ne of the best books John Steinbeck has ever written. Perceptive, revealing, and completely delightful" and the San Francisco Examiner deemed it "[p]rofound, sympathetic, often angry [. . .] an honest and moving book by one of our great writers," the academic community was less receptive of Steinbeck's highly personal work (qtd. in Houston). According to Scott Simkins, Steinbeck's work becoming "more personal, more subjective" was not only an affront to many critics, but a move that many critics interpreted as an artistic decline (Simkins).
Noted Steinbeck critic Peter Lisca asserts that Travels with Charley represented "all the baggage of the third-rate journalist who sees only the stereotype and the cliché" believing that Steinbeck's vision of America was overly skewed by his disappointment with changes in American society (233). According to Simkins however, while Steinbeck may have been "disillusioned with his society and with the critics" at the time Travels with Charley was written, Steinbeck wrote with clarity and feeling about what no one else had the courage to: America destroying itself from within (Simkins). Steinbeck's disappointment at seeing the country become "monster America" instead of the great nation he hoped for became a catalyst for a rare, uninhibited view of the United States filtered through the lens of one of America's most observant authors (20). Steinbeck's celebration of the country's natural landscape and blatant criticism of contradictory values in the United States are steeped in a long tradition of American landscape writing reminiscent of J. Hector St. John De Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer (1782) and Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854).
Ironically, while some critics felt that Travels with Charley was an inaccurate and biased view of the United States, the text deals with many of the same social issues as The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Steinbeck's Pulitzer and Nobel Prize for Literature winning novel and the gold standard to which all of his works have been held by critics. The Grapes of Wrath lauded as a book that "celebrated life and the common fellowship of man," specifically within the United States (Cordyack). So too Travels with Charley celebrates the exploits of the common laborer, particularly migrant workers and those engaged in farming the land. It also harshly criticizes advancing technology's detrimental impact on humans and the natural landscape. After The Grapes of Wrath was published, Steinbeck's "popularity with the American public soared" and critics and the public alike eagerly awaited his new works (Cordyack). Many were disappointed, however, when Steinbeck, quite characteristically refused to compromise his artistic ideals for critical acceptance. Travels with Charley represents Steinbeck's life-long preoccupation with a variety of artistic forms, both fiction and nonfiction, and subject matters, ranging from moral choice, worker's rights, and family heritage, to biology, environmentalism, and philosophy. Steinbeck stood firmly behind his position in Travels with Charley, causing it, according to his biographer Jackson Benson, "[to be] tossed... on the general pile of 'second-rate' material published since The Grapes of Wrath" (Benson 913).
Additionally, Travels with Charley may have been poorly received by critics due to the environmental commentary running through the text. In Travels with Charley, Steinbeck is quite vocal about America's destruction of its land and natural resources, lamenting that there are "chemical wastes in the rivers, metal wastes everywhere, and atomic wastes buried deep in the earth or sunk in the sea" (26). Steinbeck did not see industrial growth and the resulting environmental degradation in the same way as his contemporaries, as a sign of progress and prosperity. Rather, Steinbeck demonstrates that humans' relationships with the land are an indication of their life experiences and a measure of their humanity, thus Travels with Charley showcases Steinbeck's belief that many Americans suffer from a great poverty of spirit and ethics. The text communicates his firm views about treating the environment with respect out of sheer principle. That humanity's relationship with the land should be guided by moral and ethical principles was so out of line with contemporary thought at the time that critics such as Richard Astro felt confident in asserting that Travels with Charley is "deprived of a comprehensive philosophical base" (224). Yet even with his negative criticism about Travels with Charley, Astro conceded that it was a text that "should not be ignored" (217).
While some critics, like Warren French, have called Travels with Charley "a period piece," the text chronicles the United States on the brink of irreversible changes that still significantly impact the quality of American life today (107). Travels with Charley, while one of Steinbeck's less celebrated works, is arguably one of his crowning achievements. It is rare for a talented and respected author to live during a period of enormous change and have the ability to chronicle those changes with both subjective and objective viewpoints. And while there has been a notable shunning of Steinbeck's viewpoint in the academic community, Simkins suggests that, "[perhaps over time] academia will finally recognize Steinbeck... as a major literary figure" (20). Travels with Charley certainly provides enlightening insight into the changes America endured nearly forty years ago and how those changes are still resounding in the United States today.