John Steinbeck Got it Right

Sunday, 07 November 2010 01:12 PM Written by 

Chattanooga -- US 11, McDonalds

John and Charley Steinbeck got out of New Orleans as fast as Rocinante could lug them, and I don't blame them.

I'm sorry, but if the entire bottom half of Louisiana sinks beneath the sea -- from natural causes or from Army Corps of Engineers causes -- I won't shed a tear.

Of the 30-plus states I have spent any time in on this trip, it is by far the most annoying. It's dirty, it's overcrowded, its roads are horrible and it's already below sea level anyway.

I don't care if Louis Armstrong and jazz did come from there.

In 1960 on Nov. 7, the Traveling Steinbecks were still in Pacific Grove at the family cottage. John and Charley didn't arrive in New Orleans to check out the racist dramaturgy at the William Frantz Elementary school until about Dec. 1, 1960.

In "Travels With Charley," Steinbeck, after being crippled with sorrow at the ugliness he had witnessed in New Orleans, described his meetings with four Southern men.

The writing is great, of course. And Steinbeck does a nice job of trying to sort out the rights and wrongs and complicated realities of an issue that would tear apart the country for the next decade or more.

Knowing what we know now about what Steinbeck did and did not do on his "Charley" trip,  however, and not knowing for sure whom he did or did not meet, the likelihood that he actually met the four Southerners  is pretty slim.

One white man is a wise philosophical Southerner  who defies the definition of the North's stereotypical moron/racist Southerner.

One is an old black field hand who's wary of white men asking questions.

One is an archetypal white bigot, a poster cracker for the segregation-forever crowd.

The last man is a  smart young black student who thinks Martin Luther King's methods were too slow.

Steinbeck, as he often does, offers a realistic disclaimer in "Charley."

He says he doesn't pretend to have offered a true cross-section of the South. He comes to no conclusions, he says -- just that integration is inevitable; it was only the means of achieving that end that were in question.

He never lived to see it, but Steinbeck got that right.

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