The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Driving Cross Country with John Steinbeck

Washington, DC

Travels with Charley by cdrummbks, courtesy of flickr

There?s no question that the appeal of Big Read author John Steinbeck is timeless. Every year, The Grapes of Wrath is read by Big Read communities across the country, attracting new generations of fans. But John Biewen, Audio Program Director at Duke University?s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), saw a unique way to capitalize on Steinbeck?s cultural endurance and relevance. Last year, Biewen retraced part of Steinbeck?s journey in Travels with Charley in Search of America, another Steinbeck classic that chronicles the author?s cross-country journey to ?discover? the United States. Along with his poodle, Charley, Steinbeck clocked 10,000 miles in a camper he called Rocinante, named after Don Quixote?s noble steed of a nag. Biewen re-visited six places Steinbeck traveled to in 1960, speaking with and documenting artists along the way. The project---called ?Travels with Mike? for the companionable microphone Biewen carried with him---aired on the BBC's The Strand in January and PRI's Studio 360. We caught up with Biewen via email, and asked him about the nuts and bolts of his journey.

NEA: What inspired you to undertake this literary pilgrimage?

BIEWEN: I first read Travels with Charley many years ago, but six or eight years back I absently pulled my old copy off a bookshelf at home and noticed that the 50th anniversary of its publication date was coming into view. Lord knows we public broadcasting types love those anniversaries. They present chances to talk about past events, historical or cultural, and to reflect on where the country has come in the intervening years. I thought that retracing Steinbeck's journey (in some form or fashion) a half-century later could be an interesting way to explore the spirit of the country---and a good excuse to get out and capture the kinds of voices that I love to record. I filed the idea away but then, as the anniversary of his journey approached, my colleagues here at CDS helped me develop and refine the idea and gave me the go-ahead to pursue it.

NEA: What vehicle did you drive? Did it have a name like Steinbeck?s?

BIEWEN: Any driving I did was in rental cars at the end of flights! I never seriously considered doing exactly what Steinbeck did---a three-month journey on the road---for multiple reasons, including the fact that I teach classes and have a family and couldn't be away that long. Also, Steinbeck complained in Travels that he'd been living in New York and overseas and had lost touch with his own country, so he needed to reconnect by driving through cities and towns and across the landscape. Unlike him, I've spent my life in "middle America"---Minnesota, Utah, North Carolina---and have traveled to almost all corners of the U.S. interviewing regular people over the past 20 years. So I didn't need to reacquaint myself with the country. Given that, and the very different way I'd decided to approach the project, a series of flights made the most sense.

NEA: How long was your own journey, and why did you choose to visit the places you did?

BIEWEN: My trips to the six places in the series were spread out over many months as I also worked on other projects. I read Travels with Charley carefully and drew up a list of places that Steinbeck wrote about in provocative ways or where he'd raised themes that resonated today. I then went looking for artists in those places (literary and otherwise) who might have something interesting to say. I also wanted a good geographic spread, reflecting the coast-to-coast-and-back loop that Steinbeck covered in his travels. I wound up with six places where that combination came together: a vivid and still relevant Travels with Charley passage; an interesting and well-spoken artist; and a strong theme, issue, or conflict.

NEA: In each of the cities you visited, you spoke with an artist who had strong ties to the community. Why did you choose to view each place through an artist?s perspective?

BIEWEN: Steinbeck was, of course, an artist, one of the great American novelists. Travels with Charley was frankly subjective, his take on the country and no one else's. (It's also been pointed out that parts of the book seem too good to be true and may in fact be fiction. That's a whole 'nother topic, but I'll just sum up my take by saying that the possibility doesn't particularly shock or trouble me. He was a fiction writer first and foremost, though one with a thick journalistic streak. It seems fair to say that he used all the tools of his art to say what he wanted to say about the country.) It made sense to us to hear from artists again in Travels with Mike. So, like Travels with Charley, our project is not an economist's take on the country or a sociologist's, not even a journalist's. It's an impressionistic selection of stories that Americans tell about themselves.

It differs from Travels with Charley, though, in that instead of reflecting the vision of one major writer, we decided to hear from a diverse array of artists, each deeply grounded in a place on Steinbeck's itinerary. That imperative to include diverse voices reflects the fact that the nation is far more diverse than it was in the early 1960s---as well as a heightened sensitivity to diversity among us documentary makers. That's not an implied critique of Steinbeck. It's just that Travels with Mike is a different project in a different medium for a different time.

NEA: What was the most surprising change between what Steinbeck described and what you saw?

BIEWEN: In some ways I was more struck by what hasn't changed. Steinbeck lamented the loss of mom-and-pop stores and the paving over of nature. He wrote (obliquely) about sexual orientation and the need for tolerance, and (much more directly) about racism. He expressed irritation, even anguish, about the increasing speed of life and the acceleration of change. All of these laments are familiar today. That's not to say that things haven't changed dramatically since the early 60s, but in some ways those changes seem to be more a matter of degree than of fundamental shifts in direction.

That said, one of the most vivid episodes in the project, from Spokane, illustrates how far we've come on gay rights. Steinbeck wrote of a young man he met there, Robbie, a would-be hairdresser in love with theater and wearing an ascot, etc. The young man seems hopelessly stuck and his burly father is furious. In Travels with Mike, we go to Spokane and meet Troy Nickerson, a theater director and hairdresser (and out gay man) whose life has been very different from Robbie's, mostly because he was born a quarter century later.

NEA: Travels with Charley was published in 1962. What do you think Steinbeck would think about the many changes that have taken place since then?

BIEWEN: I believe he'd have mixed feelings. Some things are certainly better; we've made progress in tolerating one another and protecting the rights of people of color. But other trends he objected to have accelerated dramatically: the loss of regional differences and local cultures, the speeding-up and technologizing of life, the erosion of roots and community ties. Gentrification and the rise of tourism in his home territory of Monterey, California horrified him five decades ago. Imagine what he'd think if he went there now!

NEA: What were a few of your own strongest impressions that you took away from the trip?

BIEWEN: The first thing that comes to mind is the sheer enormity of this country. Steinbeck, setting out on his journey, called it "monster America." As I mentioned, I've seen a lot of it---I've reported from 40 states---but this relatively modest project that sent me to the tip of Long Island and to northern California and to several spots in between just reinforced the scale and complexity of our society. And the diversity---of landscape, language, way of life. The population of the U.S. was 180 million in 1960 and nearly 310 million in 2010. Going back to the previous question about what Steinbeck would make of the changes: I think he would be delighted to note the contributions of immigrants to the country today, and outraged by how they're often treated.

I also come away appreciating the thoughtfulness of the six artists who collaborated with me on this project. I think the American people on the whole are more thoughtful than they (we) are often given credit for, but certainly these six people were terrific. David Slater, Kalamu ya Salaam, Wayne Gudmundson, Susan "Tweet" Burdick, Troy Nickerson, Diana Garcia. They were generous with their time and perceptive and insightful in their reactions to Steinbeck. They had wise and surprising things to say and they said them with passion.

NEA: Do you feel like you?ve ?seen? America? If so, did you find a common culture or spirit? Or did each place feel like its own unique enclave?

BIEWEN: Steinbeck himself wrestled with your question about a common culture and essentially wound up dodging it. "Americans as I saw them and talked to them," he wrote, "were indeed individuals, each one different from the others, but gradually I began to feel that the Americans exist, that they really do have generalized characteristics regardless of their state, their social and financial status, their education, their religious, and their political convictions." OK, so how did Steinbeck describe "the Americans"? He couldn't do it. He summed up his collected perceptions as "a barrel of worms."

At the same time, there's another passage from Travels that I love. "From start to finish I found no strangers. If I had, I might be able to report them more objectively. But these are my people and this is my country. If I found matters to criticize and to deplore, they were tendencies equally present in myself."

NEA: Finally: why did you leave the dog at home?

BIEWEN: Ha. I had my hands full with "Mike"---my stereo microphone---and besides, Ruby, our family dog, sometimes yaps. A problematic thing when you're working in audio!

Check out a sample of Biewen's audio documentary below, as heard on Studio 360.

For more of Travels with Mike, please visit the project's website. For more on John Steinbeck, make sure to check out The Big Read website.


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