Setting Out on a Voyage With Steinbeck and Charley – Canio’s Marathon 2024 - 27 East

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Setting Out on a Voyage With Steinbeck and Charley – Canio’s Marathon 2024

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Kathryn Szoka and Maryann Callendrille in John Steinbeck's

Kathryn Szoka and Maryann Callendrille in John Steinbeck's "writing hut" at the Steinbeck House in Sag Harbor. DANA SHAW

The Canio’s Cultural Café marathon reading of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” will begin Friday, June 7.  DANA SHAW

The Canio’s Cultural Café marathon reading of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” will begin Friday, June 7. DANA SHAW

Hope Hamilton on May 24, 2024

In 1960, acclaimed author John Steinbeck packed his bag and departed his home in Sag Harbor to travel around America with his poodle, Charley. His home on the road was Rocinante, a camper van named for Don Quixote’s horse. Based on this journey, back in Sag Harbor Steinbeck wrote what would later become one of his most celebrated novels, “Travels with Charley: In Search of America,” published in 1962. It was the same year Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Now, more than six decades later, the book will be celebrated in the place it all began — Sag Harbor — with a marathon reading sponsored by Canio’s Books, which is located just a few blocks from Steinbeck’s newly preserved home on Bluff Point.

Each year since 2015, Canio’s Cultural Café, the nonprofit arm of Canio’s Books, has hosted an annual marathon reading of classic novels, with the goal of bringing the community together to experience the beauty of the literary arts.

This year, the chosen book is “Travels with Charley” and Canio’s owners, Maryann Calendrille and Kathryn Szoka, who consider the book to be the “quintessential road trip story,” are eager to get the community involved reading it. To kick off the event, on Thursday, May 30, at 6 p.m., Canio’s will screen the documentary “Travels with Charley,” produced by Lee Mendelson and narrated by Henry Fonda, at the John Jermain Library. The following week, the reading of the novel will take place over two days — on Friday, June 7, and Saturday, June 8 — at various locations in Sag Harbor village.

Calendrille and Szoka took over Canio’s Books from its founder and original owner Canio Pavone in 1999. Since then, they have been committed to creating a space for the literary and arts communities of the East End by hosting events, classes, readings and more. One of their most popular events has been the annual reading marathon, which every other year is “Moby Dick,” Herman Melville’s 600-page epic, taking approximately 27 hours to read. In the off year, to “keep it special,” they say, they select a book by a different writer. Steinbeck has been selected before, with Canio’s hosting a reading of “The Winter of Our Discontent” one year. But the upcoming marathon will be the first time “Travels with Charley” has been read.

When asked why they selected the book this year, Calendrille and Szoka shared myriad reasons.

“People love the book. It’s a very popular read and customers still come into the store requesting it all these years later, speaking about it with the utmost affection,” Szoka said.

Perhaps most importantly, the book has become part of the fabric of Sag Harbor, rooted deeply in the village’s literary history. After all, Steinbeck began his journey with Charley here, writing on page 7, “under the big oak trees of my place at Sag Harbor.”

Calendrille and Szoka were among the earliest and biggest supporters of the effort to preserve the Steinbeck House. In 2021, when the family of Steinbeck’s widow, Elaine, put the property on the market for $17.9 million, Calendrille and Szoka set to work to ensure the house and writing studio was preserved and remained accessible to the community. Today, it is known as the Steinbeck House, and it operates as a writer residency program under the auspices of Elaine Steinbeck’s alma mater, the University of Texas. On certain weekends throughout the year, the house and grounds are open for public tours.

“There was no way we could let this literary jewel go into private hands,” said Szoka, who created a petition which collected over 30,000 signatures to purchase the homestead. Using money from the Community Preservation Fund, Southampton Town paid $11.2 million for the development rights to the 1.8-acre Steinbeck property while the Sag Harbor Partnership joined the effort to help raise the $2.3 million in additional funds to close the gap needed for what ultimately was a $13.2 million purchase price.

By March 2023, with the help of generous donors and local government officials, it was a done deal.

“It was a minor miracle,” Szoka said.

Today, in addition to hosting residency writers, the home is open to the public for tours on select weekends, as “not a static place, but a dynamic place. To get a sense of the quiet, the view that Steinbeck had … it’s really awe-inspiring,” said Calendrille.

“Travels with Charley” may feel like Steinbeck’s most autobiographical work, but Calendrille and Szoka agree that it’s probably best characterized as “memoir adjacent.” While it reads at times like a travelogue and an adventure story, it has never been truly categorized. But that hasn’t stopped people from enjoying what it has to offer.

“At the end of the day, boundaries and borders are fluid,” Calendrille said. “I just think it’s a tremendously enjoyable and engaging work, and how do we categorize it? Secondary, to me, as a concern.”

By way of explanation, Calendrille read aloud from the introduction of the Penguin Classics 50th anniversary edition of the book, in which acclaimed Steinbeck scholar Jay Perini writes that “it should be kept in mind when reading this travelogue that Steinbeck took liberties with facts … to make this book a readable, vivid narrative. The book remains ‘true’ in the way all good novels or narratives are true: that is, it provides an authentic vision of America at the time. It reflects his decades of observation and the years spent in honing his craft.”

Szoka would agree, stating “the fastest way to the truth is through fiction.”

True or not, “Travels with Charley” is certainly worth the read, according to Calendrille and Szoka. It captures “the flaws in the American character … the aspects of the characters he meets, the longing, the yearning,” says Szoka. It “gets at the pulse of the American conscience at the time,” while also remaining relevant to today and perhaps even prescient. Through this work, Steinbeck is able to “capture the spirit and impressions of the people he meets,” she adds.

In this way, it becomes “a national memoir,” said Calendrille, more than a personal one.

To this day, people continue to attempt duplicating Steinbeck’s trip across America for themselves. According to Szoka and Calendrille, just a week ago, a professor named Clay Jenkinson came to Sag Harbor from North Dakota to begin his own travels in Steinbeck’s footsteps. He is podcasting as he goes and plans to write a book about the journey when he is done. He is not the only one embarking on such an adventure — Texan Madeleine Aggeler (with her own poodle pup, Cleo) decided to “recreate the Texas leg of Steinbeck’s trip” in celebration of the novel’s 60th anniversary. She wrote about her day-to-day experience for the magazine Texan Highways. Similarly, Bill Steigerwald retraced Steinbeck’s entire trip in 2010, starting in Sag Harbor. He wrote a book about his experience, titled “Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth about ‘Travels with Charley,’” in which he questions and debunks the reality of the trip.

“So many communities celebrate their writers,” Calendrille said. “Sag Harbor has a rich literary history, but only one Literary Nobel prize winner. Steinbeck is in a class of his own.”

The “Travels with Charley’’ documentary will be screened on Thursday, May 30, at 6 p.m. at the John Jermain Memorial Library, 201 Main Street, Sag Harbor. For more information, visit caniosbooks.com.

The Canio’s Cultural Café marathon reading of John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” begins Friday, June 7, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. at the book shop, 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor. On Saturday, June 8, readings begin at 10 a.m. at the John Jermain Memorial Library and run until noon. The reading then moves across the street to the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, 200 Main Street, from 12:15 to 2:15 p.m., and concludes back at Canio’s Books from 2:30 to 5 p.m. After the reading, there will be a party on Canio’s lawn with a silent auction to benefit Canio’s Cultural Cafe, along with refreshments and music by Job Potter. Attendance at the readings is free and guests are welcome to drop in at any time.

Volunteer readers can sign up for 10-minute intervals at caniosculturalcafe.org or by emailing caniosculturalcafe@gmail.com with “Travels Reader” as the subject.

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