Big Dog In A Small Truck Take On The Huge Land

Recently I read and reviewed Our Towns, a contemporary book documenting a couple’s travels across the U.S. with their stops in a variety of cities and towns. I compared it to a modern Travels with Charley, which made me decide to read that John Steinbeck non-fiction classic. Actually I should say re-read, as I discovered that gem probably close to three decades back when I was going through a period of trying to read classic “literature” and found it a short hop from Steinbeck’s novels to his travelogue.

For those unfamiliar with it, Travels with Charley is an account of a trip around the perimeter (more or less) of the Lower 48 that the celebrated writer took some 60 years ago now. He drove the miles in a pickup with a camper back, with his big poodle, Charley along for companionship. It was eminently interesting and well-written and mixed a yearning look back from the aging writer with glimpses of a marvelous future. Now, it’s more a look back and a measure of how we’ve changed. And how we’ve not.

Some things are indeed changed, and for the better I’d say since 1960. Our idea of “men” has evolved, more in some areas than others, but 1960 Steinbeck was still of the generation that settled differences with fisticuffs, more often than not in a bar, and hunted because there was stuff to kill. He lamented only seeing two fights along the way and packed along a rifle and shotgun, more just to fit in than to utilize them. He seemed to lament that he was tired and didn’t feel like shooting coyotes he saw in the desert, all the while worrying about Charley while in New England, fearing his dog would be shot as soon as it exited his truck by over-zealous gunmen who’d think it a deer. He shares stories of old logs being full of lead and cows being shot by wonderful “outdoorsmen” who assumed them deer. Doubtless we still have deer hunters and hunting season, but it’s encouraging to me that we have somewhat more respect for wildlife – and dogs and livestock – than we did in that day and age.

Another thing John lamented was the disappearing regional dialect and accent. He said upon reaching Montana “here for the first time, I heard a definite regional accent, unaffected by TV-ese.” He feared that the telly would soon wipe out every regional variation in dialect and accent and we’d all be talking like Walter Cronkite or Lucille Ball before long. My sweetie works in Customer Service for a company that operates in about a quarter of the country; she can assure you that just hasn’t happened. Sometimes it’s difficult to know that Cajuns of the backwoods of Louisiana are even speaking English, and there’s no mistaking the Bostonians who drive their cars by turning on the “khakis” or the traditional Bronx cadence from just over a hundred miles away from there. Native Mississippians sound little like native Minnesotans although they’re bound together by one great river. Myself, I’ve been asked where I was from many times when in Atlanta (usually in a friendly but inquisitive manner) and in Texas had one woman suggest “You’re not from here – is that a Chicago accent?” I told her no but not far off… I was from another Great Lakes city. We southern Ontarians don’t think we have accents, but we sound different to those in the Lone Star State, even if we watch Friends and Masked Singer shows together. Steinbeck misread the future on that.

Another difference is not in the story, but the reaction. Steinbeck was amazed at the mobile home parks springing up everywhere, and was in awe of them. It was a new phenomenon which made eminent sense to him. “They are wonderfully-built homes, aluminum skins, double-walled, insulated…” and convenient, he figured. “If a plant or factory closes down, you’re not trapped with property you can’t sell…he rents a trucking service and moves on” to the next city with the next batch of jobs waiting. Now, I daresay Steinbeck wasn’t wrong in the convenience or affordability of them, but for better or worse, very few these days share his sunny take on them and the parks they are located in. Ugly it is, but true as well that a good chunk of the country automatically look at the residents not as smart, adaptable people but uneducated, dirty dolts. Why else do we all understand what someone means when they say “trailer trash.”

Some things never change though, one of the big examples in the U.S. being the Texas spirit. Steinbeck says “Texas is a state of mind. Texas is a mindset” and in fact, “a nation” even. He notes the huge state varies from flat farm fields covered in snow in winter in the Panhandle to sandy Gulf beaches and citrus orchards along the Rio Grande… nothing in common but for the energy and bravado of the residents. Not to get him wrong, he says he likes Texas, married a Texan and was treated with fantastic hospitality when in the Lone Star State. He points out at home, Texans tend to be friendly and welcoming, but as soon as they pass by Texarkana or El Paso they feel self-conscious and ill at ease and turn into the loud, boorish Texans of Hollywood stereotypes. Sentiments that seem about as apt today, as I write this from Fixer Upper-land, as they were to him back then.

Sadly some of the worst things Steinbeck documented are still among the truest. He lamented the bland highways, saying one could drive from New York to L.A. without seeing a thing, and that the cities they line are coming to all look the same, with the same chain stores and takeout restaurants. If he thought that then, imagine if he could see it now that McDonald’s have served “billions and billions” and Walmart isn’t just a small town five and dime in the hills of Arkansas!

Perhaps the most glaring example of “the more things change, the more they stay the same” though probably makes the book hit many book clubs and reading lists this year again, that being discrimination and racial unrest. He speaks of growing up in a town where there’d only been one Black family, and they were well-liked, hard-working people no one had any grudge against; spoke of being reluctant to even visit the “South” due to their attitudes and hearing time and time again speeches against desegregation and jokes about thinking Charley , his darkish dog, was a “N”word, time and time again before he even left Texas, let alone hit Mississippi and Alabama. He watched in horror as crowds gathered along the street to yell insults at one tiny Black girl being led into a “White” school in New Orleans by federal marshals. Certainly the circumstances have changed and progress has been made, but it’s discouraging so much of the national debate and daily news still revolves around racial problems in the land.

One universal Steinbeck uncovered unintentionally in his wanderings seems the same for any long distance voyager, be they astronauts, merchant marines, Ewan McGregor riding his motorbike across continents or even Dorothy in Oz: the trip that begins a happy adventure becomes a drudgery, a mere race to the finish line in its last miles. Visiting is great, it would seem, but really there is no place like home.

Gone With The Winds Of Political Correctness

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” So said Spanish philosopher George Santayana in a famous quote that made such an impression on Winston Churchill that he echoed it in British Parliament just after the end of World War II. Some might want to keep that sentiment in mind if they don’t want 2021 to look suspiciously like 1921. Or 1821 even.

This came to mind today upon hearing that HBO was pulling Gone with the Wind from its newly-launched streaming service. The reason? Some people complain that the 1939 movie about the Civil War in Georgia is “racist”. The Black people are portrayed as slaves, people subservient to Whites and in general not as smart (at least in conventional educational terms) nor as revered or wealthy.

Which would be a problem if it were a movie set in the present day. Especially if it was one which was deemed to be a documentary rather than a work of fiction. In the context of mid-19th Century Dixie, however, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. In fact, any other presentation would seem phony and ridiculous. History people!

I haven’t seen the film actually. I guess it just isn’t my theatrical cup of tea, given that it came out more than two decades before my birth I could have. It has been readily available for years on VHS and then DVD, not to mention quite a few TV showings. Turns out I’ve only seen 26 out of the AFI’s (American Film Institute) “100 Greatest Movies of All-time”. I mean, how can we be talking “greatest films” and not have Groundhog Day there? But that doesn’t stop it being a widely-loved and important movie. The Film Institute ranked it as the fourth greatest of the 20th Century. In their latest list, it comes in as the sixth best ever. The Academy back in the day agreed too, giving it eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actress and Best Director. So popular has the three-hour plus film back then that the Governor of Georgia declared a special state holiday on the day it opened back in 1939; so popular has it been since that day that it’s said to be the highest-grossing film of all-time when box office tallies were adjusted for inflation. That’s big. That’s history in itself, in fact.

But despite all the love for it, HBO – who undoubtedly had to pay some pretty pennies to buy its rights – now think it too dangerous for people to view. They say the movie depicts “racial prejudices that were wrong then and are wrong now.” They fail to see that any depiction of the American South set 160 or more years ago inherently must depict racial prejudice for it to have any value whatsoever.

We’ve been through this all before, with libraries which wanted to pull Huckleberry Finn from their shelves and schools which stopped teaching To Kill A Mockingbird for the same reasons. The latter of course is all the more galling given that the main character is a White man who goes against the prevailing beliefs and norms, not to mention the Ku Klux Klan of his early-20th Century Alabama community and legally defends an innocent Black man. But that wouldn’t stop the most sensitive types from complaining that the Black people in those novels weren’t universally held in high regard in their Southern communities nor holders of prestigious positions.

I don’t subscribe to HBO Max, and if I did I’d probably prefer to spend 220 minutes binge-watching nine episodes of Friends than watching Gone with the Wind. I mean, sorry but Vivien Leigh is no Jennifer Aniston and in all likelihood Clark Gable’s “Rhett” isn’t as witty as Matthew Perry’s “Chandler”. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think the movie should be there for those who want to view it. Actually, if I had signed up after viewing ads they ran showing it as a feature you’d get, I’d probably be a bit P.O.’d if they pulled it.

What happened to George Floyd was terrible, cruel and criminal. That’s obvious. So too was the fact that slavery was alive, well and revered in the South many years ago. What isn’t terrible or cruel is telling the stories. So I say HBO, bring back Gone with the Wind. If you decide to have the family watch it, go ahead and explain the context of Georgia and the Confederacy in the 1850s. Talk about the Civil War with the children, why people felt it was necessary to fight their neighbors to the south. Talk about equality and our nation’s values. If you actually think that Gone with the Wind perpetuates inequality, talk about that too in context of it being a hugely-popular film that’s been watched millions of times over 80-plus years. But go ahead and watch, and go ahead and talk about the issues.

Watch it or don’t watch it. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. But I do care that we have a chance and a choice. And if you don’t want to speed a repetition of history along, you probably should too.