Charley and Steinbeck’s America, 50 Years Later

Cathy, I’m lost” I said though
I knew she was sleeping. I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America
All come to look for America”

–Paul Simo

John Steinbeck

My favorite book of John Steinbeck’s isn’t even a work of fiction. It’s pure journalism. In fact, next to Hunter S. Thompson’s 1971 journey into the dark side of the American dream, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Jack Kerouac’s 1957 classic On The Road, it is some of the finest prose ever written about these United States in the twentieth century. If you haven’t read Travels With Charley, you haven’t read about America.

In 1960, Steinbeck, into his third decade as a widely-read novelist and nearing the end of his life, realized that his success had isolated him from the “real America” of which he had once been a part. Perhaps inspired by Kerouac, he decided that he and Charley, his chocolate-colored, standard poodle, would go off to look for America. What the two of them found was a thriving, vibrant though troubled and tormented nation. In spite of her many demons, America in 1960 was a land of hope, almost giddy with optimism.

At this stage in his life, with his time on earth ebbing, Steinbeck was almost physically ill with chronic wanderlust:

“When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch. When years described me as mature, the remedy prescribed was middle age. In middle age I was assured that greater age would calm my fever and now that I am fifty-eight, perhaps senility will do the job. Nothing has worked.”

Charley died in 1961. His beloved friend John followed him to the grave seven years later. It boggles the mind to ponder what these two noble travelers would have made of the America of 2010. Can you even imagine? I can’t. I swear to you, I can’t.

We have often heard described the “genius” of American democracy. That genius is no more. It is brain-dead. The final nail in the coffin was the atrocious decision earlier this year of the Roberts Court, which reaffirmed the delusion of “corporate personhood”. Tear down the facade of an imaginary democracy that we all have been living under for too long now. As the song says, “It’s time to wind up the masquerade” and time to wake up to some nasty realities: You have been bought and paid for by the plutocracy. They own you! Your elected representatives? Forget about it. You’re not even on their radar. They sold you down the river a long, long time ago. Whose interests are they looking out for? They’re just looking out for number one:

“And number one ain’t you
You ain’t even number two”

–Frank Zappa

And don’t deceive yourselves into thinking that it’s all the fault of one party and that the other will lead us to the promised land. You’re kidding yourselves. There are no Republicans left who have not been corrupted and very few Democrats. Teddy Kennedy is dead and he’s not coming back. The problem with America can easily be boiled down to a single question:

Would you like a nice, cold glass of donkey piss to go with that juicy plate of elephant shit you’ve ordered.

–Bon appetit, America!

John Lennon once sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it.” We’ve lost so much in the last thirty years and yet so few of us have even bothered to take notice of our loss. We are a nation distracted – distracted by our really cool hi-tech toys; distracted by reality television; distracted by Tiger Woods’ personal life; distracted by the corporate media – it really is a miracle that all of ushaven’t lost the ability to think critically.

We’re not living in the country envisioned by the likes of Thomas Jefferson   and John Adams. This is light years away from the “government of the people, by the people, for the people” that was conjured for posterity by Abraham Lincoln on the bloodstained fields of Gettysburg in 1863. This is Disneyland. We’re living in fucking Disneyland.


A land chock full of overweight and underpaid Mickey Mouse men and Mickey Mouse women, driving in their Mickey Mouse cars to their Mickey Mouse jobs; coming home at the end of a long Mickey Mouse day to their Mickey Mouse houses filled to the rims with their Mickey Mouse spouses, their dysfunctional Mickey Mouse kids and their lovely, state-of-the-art Mickey Mouse appliances.

Back in our Mickey Mouse capital, our Mickey Mouse politicians, lovingly gazed upon by their butt-ugly Mickey Mouse wives, firmly secure in their Mickey Mouse careers, are busy passing worthless Mickey Mouse laws that their clueless, Mickey Mouse constituents will thank them for by reelecting them to one Mickey Mouse term after another and another and another….

We The Mickey Mice….

Sure, it wasn’t meant to be this way but that’s what we’ve become. Deal with it, but don’t accept it as the way things are always going to be. As Frederick Douglas once advised, “Agitate. Agitate. Agitate.” The fact that so many people have passively accepted what has been done to them is a fairly good indicator of the depth of their mass-unconsciousness. Jello Biafra once made the argument of a “creeping fascism” which works its way into a society’s fabric at such a snail’s pace, by the time it reaches its full and ugly form, people hardly notice it. Wakey, wakey, kiddies!

“As I was walkin’ that lonesome highway
I saw there – said ‘No Trespassing’
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’
That side was made for you and me”
-Woody Guthrie, This Land Is Your Land

Guthrie wrote that song in the nineteen-thirties. The land he sang of is dead – long dead. Today the other side of that sign has been stamped, “OWNED BY CORPORATE AMERICA”. Back in January the Supreme Court virtually guaranteed that that side wasn’t made for you and me at all.

In 1960 John Steinbeck and his dog Charley were both impressed by the thriving close-knit communities that peppered the American landscape; mini-infrastructures of pharmacies and hardware stores and family restaurants and funeral homes and grocers and barbers and bankers and bakers and butchers that were the bedrock of small town life. Fifty years later have found those same communities decimated – raped by Corporate America’s Mickey Mouse monopoly on our economy. In 1960 Steinbeck could see the change that was coming:

“Our treasured and nostalgic picture of the village store, the cracker-barrel store where an informed yeomanry gather to express opinion and formulate the national character is rapidly disappearing….The new American finds his challenge and his love in traffic-choked streets, skies nested in smog, choking with the acids of industry, the screech of rubber and houses leashed in against one another while the towns wither a time and die.”

In the early seventies, I briefly attended a prep school at the edge of one of these booming little villages in central Pennsylvania. When I visited the area a few years ago for the first time in three decades, I was shocked by what I saw – or, rather, by what I didn’t see. It was a ghost town. Like too many small towns all across this once-great nation, it had been Wal-marted out of existence.

They’ve all gone to look for America….

It’s a fairly safe bet that a half-century later, Mr. Steinbeck and Mr. Charley would not recognize the Mickey Mouse America of 2010. This land was your land. This land was my land.

Tom Degan


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