Big Enough to Smuggle an Indian Princess into the Y.M.C.A.

"Sunday, January 29, 1961. Yes, Joseph Addison, I heard and I will obey within Reason, for it appears that the Curiosity you speak of has in no Way abated. I have found many Readers more interested in what I wear than in what I think, more avid to know how I do it than in what I do. In regarding my Work, some Readers profess greater Feeling for what it makes than for what it says. Since a Suggestion from the Master is a Command not unlike Holy Writ, I shall digress and comply at the same Time.

Among the generality of men I am tall--six feet even--although among the males of my family I am considered a dwarf. They range from six feet two inches to six feet five, and I know that both my sons, when they stretch their full height, will overtop me. I am very wide of shoulder and, in the condition I now find myself, narrow of hip. My legs are long in proportion to my trunk and are said to be shapely. My hair is a grizzled gray, my eyes blue and my cheeks ruddy, a complexion inherited from my Irish mother. My face has not ignored the passage of time, but recorded it with scars, lines, furrows, and erosions. I wear a beard and mustache but shave my cheeks; said beard, having a dark skunk stripe up the middle and white edges, commemorates certain relatives. I cultivate this beard not for the usual given reasons of skin trouble or pain of shaving, nor for the secret purpose of covering a weak chin, but as pure unblushing decoration, much as a peacock finds pleasure in his tail. And finally, in our time a beard is the one thing a woman cannot do better than a man, or if she can her success is assured only in a circus.

Steinbeck with his skunky beard and naval cap. From Smithsonian website. Photo: Bettman/Corbis.
My costume for traveling was utilitarian if a trifle bizarre. Half-Wellington rubber boots with cork inner soles kept my feet warm and dry. Khaki cotton trousers, bought in an army-surplus store, covered my shanks, while my upper regions rejoiced in a hunting coat with corduroy cuffs and collar and a game pocket in the rear big enough to smuggle an Indian princess into a Y.M.C.A. My cap was one I have worn for many years, a blue serge British naval cap with a short visor and on its peak the royal lion and unicorn, as always fighting for the crown of England. This cap is pretty ratty and salt-crusted, but it was given me by the skipper of a motor torpedo boat on which I sailed out of Dover during the war--a gentle gentleman and a murderer....I have worn his cap ever since in his honor and in his memory. Besides, I like it. It agrees with me. Down East this cap did not draw a second glance, but when later, in Wisconsin, North Dakota, Montana, I had left the sea far behind, I thought it drew attention, and I bought what we used to call a stockman's hat, a Stetson, not too wide of brim, a rich but conservative western hat of the kind my cow-harrying uncles used to wear. Only when I came down to another sea in Seattle did I reassume the naval cap." (38-40)

Steinbeck, John. Travels With Charley. New York: Penguin, 1962.

What a rich passage! Literary allusion/command, 1960s hairstyles, adventure outfits. My favorite might be the regional perception of dress as exemplified here in naval vs "stockman's" hat. It is indicative of his whole journey, or the purpose of his journey: "in search of America." He's so invested in the regional differences that had survived into the age of television, and so devastated to find that rare.

His outfit (for he describes only one) is both personal and sensitive to his fellow man's sensibilities. He wants to blend in, and his bicoastal past doesn't seem to fly in the middle of the country. Would this be true now? What would one wear for an American adventure today to blend in?

Do you want to know what your favorite authors look like? I like to read without any visuals (or, i.e., I didn't know what Terry Gross looked like until a few months ago, been listening to Fresh Air for years), and make up my own.