By Annette Hinkle
Fifty years ago today, John Steinbeck and his beloved gentleman poodle, Charley, left Sag Harbor on a journey that would take them in search of America. Steinbeck was 58 at the time, and as he approached the twilight of his years, this most American of writers felt he didn’t truly know the country or the people who populated it.
So on September 23, 1960, in the wake of Hurricsane Donna, which hit the East End a week or so earlier, he and Charley set out from Sag Harbor in a three quarter ton pick up truck with a customized camper mounted on back. Steinbeck christened it Rocinante, in honor of Don Quixote’s horse, and for the next three months, he and his faithful companion traveled back roads — stopping in diners, at campgrounds, gas stations and occasionally motels in an attempt to gauge the tenor of the nation in the middle of the 20th century. The story of that trip became Steinbeck’s final book, “Travels With Charley: In Search of America.”
This week, John Biewen came to Sag Harbor — the place where Steinbeck’s journey began. Biewen, who teaches at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke University in North Carolina, is making an audio documentary commemorating the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication. His project is called “Travels With Mike: In Search of America 50 years after Steinbeck” and the title refers to the microphone (and tape recorder) Biewen has taken along as he has revisited places Steinbeck wrote about half a century ago. Biewen explains that the idea came to him when he was leafing through the book a few years ago and realized the anniversary was coming up.
“We documentary types and public broadcasters — I don’t know what we’d do without anniversaries,” he says. “My original idea was a radio documentary where you do something like he did.”
But after further discussions with colleagues, Biewen hit on the notion of traveling to a few select points on Steinbeck’s itinerary and collaborating with contemporary artists who live there now. Biewen settled on six locations (“If I’d gotten a bigger grant there would’ve been more,” he says) — New Orleans (where Steinbeck witnessed hate filled demonstrations toward a six year old African-American girl who was integrating an all white school), North Dakota, Spokane, Washington, northern California, Monterey, California and Sag Harbor — and, over the course of the last several months, interviewed artists, writers or poets with deep roots in the community who offered their perspectives on life today and contrasted it with Steinbeck’s take on the place.
“I felt I would get a kind of depth that way too,” adds Biewen of the approach. “I think something you can say about ‘Travels With Charley’ is often Steinbeck didn’t know about the places he went through — he was just driving through and wrote observations. By contrast we had people who lived their whole lives there, or grew up near there and live and work there now.”
“A colleague at the center said there was an implied critique of Steinbeck in my method,” adds Biewen. “I thought about that and said, ‘Not really. It’s a different project for a different time.’”
Biewen’s final stop was Sag Harbor where, on Monday, he spent the day with local artist David Slater.
“One thing I like about David Slater as a character is he’s sort of a working guy and Sag Harbor, despite the Hamptons notion, is almost a working class town,” notes Biewen. “It’s also why I chose to go after Labor Day.”
Biewen put a lot of consideration into finding the right artist for each location. Often, the selection depended upon what Steinbeck was writing and thinking about when he was there.
“In eastern North Dakota, for example, he wrote about landscape,” says Biewen. “So I worked with a landscape photographer with a very rich view of what’s there.”
“In Spokane, Steinbeck met a father and son at a seedy inn on the edge of town,” adds Biewen. “The son is about 20 and probably gay, though Steinbeck never says that. But the father’s worried. His son is a hairdresser who wears an ascot and wants to go to New York to be an actor.”
“I found a guy in Spokane who’s the director of a community theater, a long time actor and a hairdresser — and he’s out,” continues Biewen. “His life has been very different than that young man from 1960 just because he was born 25 years later.”
“New Orleans was more specifically about race, though also about class and depths of division in the sense we haven’t done all that well since 1960 and are arguably going in the wrong direction in terms of inequality in the country,” says Biewen.
In 1960, times were changing and Steinbeck saw clouds gathering on the horizon. The simple life that had defined his own generation and carried it through the Great Depression and World War II had given way to a post war boom. Rampant development, changes in attitude and landscape, and a new emphasis on materialism were distressing to Steinbeck and this becomes increasingly evident as the book progresses.
“The big themes for Steinbeck, and something that really struck me when I read the book again, were things like the homogenization of culture, loss of mom and pop shops and the distinctiveness of the country, and the paving over of nature,” says Biewen. “That was really striking in 1960. He wasn’t a young man. His politics had been for most of his life to the left. But he wasn’t going to be a ‘60s radical.”
Biewen notes that though Steinbeck began his trip enthusiastically and wrote extensively about the journey west, once he got to his hometown of Salinas and Monterey, which had changed drastically in his absence, Steinbeck was ready to get back and he largely glosses over the return trip. Having visited Monterey himself, Biewen understands the important role Sag Harbor played in Steinbeck’s later years.
“Sag Harbor was very much what Monterey had been,” says Biewen. “Sag Harbor looked more like the Monterey of his youth. But he was a stranger here. He didn’t have to be bothered by thinking of Monterey and the fact all his friends were gone.”
“The theme of change, and Steinbeck’s allergy to it may have had something to do with his age and mortality creeping up on him,” says Biewen. “Monterey. That’s where it dramatically hit him and he couldn’t bare to see how it had changed and was changing, he literally fled.”
But Biewen notes that change is a matter of personal perception. Diana Garcia, the poet who Biewen interviewed in Monterey, sees change in another light — one that offers a sense of optimism for the future.
“She’s the daughter of farmers and a professor at Cal State in Monterey Bay,” says Biewen. “She didn’t leave. She sees her family all the time and for her, change is more gradual than it was for Steinbeck who felt the shock of coming back after being away a while.”
“She also says, ‘The freeways he hated, my father laid the cement for. That gave him work for years. It completely changed the town I grew up in, but provided us with an income,’” notes Biewen.
Change is always certain in the U.S. and while Steinbeck may not have ultimately found the America he set out to discover in 1960, Biewen feels that his project in 2010 did meet his expectations.
“My goals were more limited or specific,” he says. “I wanted to tell five or six interesting little pieces that were somewhat impressionistic, but dealt with different themes. It said something about conversation across time, between Steinbeck and a contemporary artist. I think we’re in a tough time, and I’m hoping for a more broad view of how we are feeling as a nation.”
“I do think the premise of the project was that, like 1960, it feels like a seam from history and we’re at a turning point. But it’s very unclear where we headed,” adds Biewen. “In other ways, it’s very different. In 1960, the country was in expansion. Economically things were on the rise, and there was a sense of the country growing. What was going to happen, I’m not sure Steinbeck could see, but culturally things were being shaken up — and we’re still arguing about that to this day.”
Each segment of “Travels With Mike: In Search of America 50 Years After Steinbeck” is seven minutes long and will air on BBC World Service on The Strand, a series from London, this fall. Early next year, Studio 360 from PRI (Public Radio International) will air it from WNYC. After that, all the pieces will be available on the CDS website.
Top: Artist David Slater and documentary producer John Biewen in front of Joyous Garde, John Steinbeck’s writing studio in Sag Harbor.
Middle: John Steinbeck at his Sag Harbor home with Charley.