It was half a century ago today that John Steinbeck and his dog Charley left this place to go in search of what America was all about. On his travels in 1960, Steinbeck met good people, and not so good people. He encountered movements of great joy, as well as the worst racism imaginable. Through it all, Steinbeck lamented the end of an era — his era — and the beginning of an age which he did not understand.
Looking back from where we sit in 2010, we can’t help but be moved by the prophetic nature of Steinbeck’s words in “Travels With Charley.” Much of what he sees coming down the pike for America would, he feared, be ultimately unsustainable. The loss of values, the damage to the environment, the increasing popularity of over-packaged food and material goods. Americans, he predicted would eventually pay a high price for lives filled with ease and convenience.
Steinbeck truly saw massive change in the face of America, and it didn’t give him hope. The sun was setting on the common man and, in fact, on Steinbeck himself who died just eight years after his journey. Quickly receding were the values of his generation — a generation defined by people of good moral fiber who helped their fellow man, used only what they needed, fixed what was broken, and didn’t rely on giant corporations to meet their basic needs.
And here we are, 50 years later, living the truth of his predictions. This time, the sun seems be setting on the “progress” Steinbeck saw dawning in 1960. The effects of the financial melt-down, corporate scandals, tainted food supplies, massive home foreclosures, oil spills, high unemployment rates and poverty numbers that are the worst since the Great Depression seem to bear out his fears.
But in the end, when Steinbeck came home, he came home to Sag Harbor. He may have been lost, both literally and figuratively on the way, but this little village by the bay gave him great comfort, as it does those of us who are fortunate enough to live here today. And it is here that we will face this country’s future, come what may — connecting with our community and working to weather these times while we look forward to better days ahead.
As Steinbeck realized at the end of his long journey, it’s not a bad place to be.