Travels with Charley - Key Terms
American Identity: While Steinbeck shows a great deal of what America is lacking in Travels with Charley, he does show that America has a national identity that is unparalleled to anything that he has seen in his travels to other countries because in essence, America is a land of wanderers all merging together to become a new nation (80).
Being Lost: There is a consistent theme of Steinbeck being lost in the story despite having multiple maps. This shows that Steinbeck is speaking metaphorically about being lost; he is trying to show that America has become so unrecognizable to him that he feels lost and alone within his own country.
Consumerism: The theme of consumerism pervades Travels with Charley; at every turn, Steinbeck is faced with new conveniences and a disdain for working hard to earn things. He notes that people buy into the idea that the next 'it' item will bring them happiness, showing that ultimately, America is trading in the traditional values of hearth and home for empty entertainments (71).
Environmental Destruction: One of the most prominent ideas in the text, Steinbeck shows how Americans are destroying the land that has ensured the nation's survival and prosperity for hundreds of years. Rampant industrialization and growing technological progress allows Americans to destroy the land at a madcap pace.
Industry: The rise of industry is addressed throughout the book, most specifically when Steinbeck writes about Washington and California. He observes that people do not work hard anymore and are creating an unhealthy dependence on industry to make their lives easier. He finds this particularly dangerous since industry is responsible for increasing environmental destruction.
Integration: During the fourth section of Travels with Charley, Steinbeck visits New Orleans and witnesses a vehement protest against the integration of African-American students into a white school. Integration was the forced co-enrollment of African-American and white children in public schools initiated after the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) that segregated schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.
Personification: Both Charley and Rocinante are personified (given human characteristics) and become central characters in the story. Charley serves not only as confidant and ambassador, but friend. Rocinante is, much like her namesake, Don Quixote's horse, a dependable steed that allows Steinbeck to see America with little need for hotels or restaurants.
Racism: Travels with Charley condemns racism as a product of ignorance that is handed down from generation to generation and is responsible for ongoing strife that negatively impacts the entire nation.