Ray Sprigle  was a superstar newspaperman for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette whose amazing undercover mission into the Jim Crow South in 1948 has been largely forgotten.

In my Lyons Press book  30 Days a Black Man I retell Sprigle’s great story, which is about the pre-TV civil rights movement, the triumphs and failures of black and white newspapers and the power of one journalist to start a national debate in the media over ending legal segregation.

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Six years before Brown v. Board of Education, seven years before the murder of Emmett Till, and thirteen years before John Howard Griffin’s similar experiment became the bestseller Black Like Me, Sprigle’s intrepid journalism blasted into the American consciousness the grim reality of black lives in the South.

It was my great pleasure — and duty — to elevate Sprigle’s groundbreaking exposé to its rightful place among the seminal events of the early Civil Rights movement.

 Paul Theroux, the globe’s top travel writer and author of Deep South, blurbed about the book  this kind way on the back cover:
This is a vivid, well-researched account of a journalistic coup. White Ray Sprigle passing for black in the Jim Crow South—the danger, the narrow escapes, the abuses, the revelations. But it is also a set of portraits: of the brave black men who helped Sprigle fulfill his assignment; a portrait of the Deep South; and a portrait of the United States in the late 1940s.

And Nick Gillespie, the culturally erudite editor of libertarian Reason.com and big fan of Dogging Steinbeck, wrote this in the intro to Reason’s podcast with me:

Steigerwald’s powerful new book … documents Sprigle’s expose and does a masterful job of recreating an America in which de facto and de jure segregation was the rule not just in the former Confederacy but much of the North as well.

But after half a century of masquerading as a work of nonfiction, and after almost 1.5 million copies sold, John Steinbeck’s iconic road book “Travels With Charley” has quietly come clean with its readers.

Penguin Group, which owns the rights to Steinbeck’s works, didn’t quite come out and call “Travels With Charley” a literary fraud, as I did first in the Post-Gazette in December 2010 and five months later in Reason magazine.

But the company has been forced to admit that the beloved book about a great American writer traveling around the country in a camper with his poodle is so heavily fictionalized it should not be taken literally.

Before I detail Penguin’s confession, some background is in order. For the past two years I’ve caused trouble for a lot of the “Travels With Charley” fans, scholars and publishers who live on Steinbeck World.

It started innocently. In the fall 2010, as part of a book project to show how much America has changed in the past 50 years, I wanted to retrace faithfully Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile road trip. The Post-Gazette granted me a blog, “Travels Without Charley,” to chronicle the journey, and published a series of my pieces in the Sunday Magazine.

While doing research in libraries and reading the original manuscript of the book, however, I stumbled onto a 50-year-old literary “scoop.”

As I revealed in my Dec. 5, 2010, PG article “The Fabulism of ‘Travels With Charley,’ ” there were major discrepancies between Steinbeck’s actual road trip and what he wrote in the book.

Though it had always been marketed, sold, reviewed and taught as the true account of Steinbeck’s circumnavigation of the USA in the fall of 1960, “Charley” was not very true or accurate or honest at all.

It was not nonfiction. It was mostly fiction — plus a few lies and deliberate distortions thrown in by Steinbeck and his sly editors at the Viking Press to create the myth that he traveled alone, roughed it and spent a lot of time studying and thinking about America and its people.

It took a while for my charges against Steinbeck to escape the gravitational field of Pittsburgh. But in April 2011, five months after my article for the PG, The New York Times “discovered” me and made my accusations globally famous — for the usual 15 minutes.

Most of my fellow journalists praised me for my discovery. But I was cursed by Steinbeck groupies around the world for spoiling their fun with my fierce fetish for facts. It was hard to persuade them I didn’t hate Steinbeck or “Charley,” which, despite its lapses in the truth department, flashes with his great nature writing, wisdom and humor.

And some college English professors who believe the use of creative fictional techniques in nonfiction is a good and common thing dismissed me for wasting so much energy proving what they claimed was irrelevant or always obvious.

Penguin’s recent admission of the fictional genetic makeup of “Charley” was subtle — so subtle no one noticed it but professional-Steinbeck-watchdog me. It had been quietly slipped into the introduction of a new edition of “Charley,” which was released on Oct. 2 to co-celebrate the book’s 50th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

The lengthy introduction was first written for a 1997 paperback edition by esteemed Middlebury College English professor, author and Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini.

In his original introduction, Mr. Parini had pointed out Steinbeck’s heavy use of fictional elements, especially dialogue. Otherwise he treated “Charley” just as 2.5 generations of Steinbeck scholars had always treated it — as if it was the true and honest account of the author’s road trip and what he thought about America and Americans.

Into the latest edition, however, Mr. Parini inserted the cold truth:

“Indeed, it would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist, and he added countless touches — changing the sequence of events, elaborating on scenes, inventing dialogue — that one associates more with fiction than nonfiction. (A mild controversy erupted, in the spring of 2011, when a former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did some fact-checking and noticed that Steinbeck’s itinerary didn’t exactly fit that described in the book, and that some of the people he supposedly interviewed, such as an actor at a campsite in North Dakota, never existed.)

“It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative.”

Naturally I was pleased to see that the truth had come out because of my efforts. Naturally I was not pleased to see that my name was not mentioned.

I sent a sarcastic email to Mr. Parini for making a mistake no rookie journalist would have made. Ignoring my serial insults, Mr. Parini took the classy, professorial road. He apologized profusely, near abjectly. I forgave him, though I really don’t know why.

It took half a century, and it cost me a lot of time and work and money, but at least the truth had triumphed. At least from now on anyone who buys a new copy of “Travels With Charley” will not be fooled.

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 1

Sept. 23, 1960 — Sag Harbor, N.Y.

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On Sept. 23, 2010, I left John Steinbeck’s summer home in Sag Harbor on Long Island and hit the Steinbeck Highway. (video)

Early Friday morning John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley leave his summer home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, in the pickup truck-camper hybrid he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse.

To get back in touch with America and regular Americans after living in ”the island” of New York, he plans to circle the country counterclockwise and stick to two-lane highways.

He takes three ferries across Long Island Sound to New London, Conn., 36 miles away, then heads for his son’s boarding school in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

 

Steinbeck’s ambitious plans went awry

While doing research on Steinbeck’s exact 10,000-mile route around the USA I found a letter he wrote to an aide of Adlai Stevenson’s in the summer of 1960 describing how he hoped to travel on his upcoming trip.

In the summer of 1960 Steinbeck wrote a letter to an aide to Adlai Stevenson describing what he hoped to do on his coming road trip around the USA.

Steinbeck’s ambitious plans quickly fell apart. He actually did little of what he said he’d do on his journey, including traveling alone, but he had the right idea and it really didn’t matter. His beloved 1962 road book “Travels With Charley” was his only Number 1 New York Times best-seller (on the nonfiction list) and still sells around the world today.

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 2

Sept. 23-24, 1960 — Deerfield, Mass.

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The apple orchard on a dairy farm in Deerfield, Mass., where Steinbeck camped while visiting his son. (video)

Steinbeck and Charley camp Friday and Saturday nights in Rocinante in an apple orchard on a farm on top of the mountain above his son John’s exclusive boarding school, the Eaglebrook School.

In “Travels With Charley” he doesn’t say much about his visit or how many nights he spent at Eaglebrook. But in a letter to his wife Elaine, he makes it clear that he was there until Sunday morning, when he woke up late and almost missed church. Later that day he headed north on U.S. Highway 5 into Vermont and New Hampshire.

 

Steinbeck’s ‘Act of Courage’

John Steinbeck was especially brave to embark on his solo road trek in 1960 – and it had nothing to do with not having radial tires, GPS or air bags. Given his lousy health, his biographer Jackson Benson said the “Travels With Charley” trip could be best appreciated “as an act of courage.” As Steinbeck’s son Thom told the New York Times, “The book was his farewell. My dad knew he was dying, and he had been accused of having lost touch with the rest of the country. ‘Travels With Charley’ was his attempt to rediscover America.”

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The primitive, uncomfortable 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper combo Rocinante is parked in a place of honor at the National Steinbeck Center in Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, Calif.

Steinbeck’s agent, doctor and everyone who loved him tried to talk him out of his trip, which he had been thinking about taking for at least six years. What if he had a heart attack and collapsed in the middle of nowhere? He’d die for sure and he might never be found. He refused to hear such cautionary crap. He was the contemporary rival and equal of Hemingway. He was the World War II correspondent who went on daring midnight raids in PT boats off the Italian coast with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He was a future Nobel Prize-winner. He may have been born with a heart too small for his big body, as a European doctor once told him. But he was not a famous dead author yet, literally or figuratively. He was still a man – and not an old man. He still had balls. He still had stuff to say and write and prove.

Steinbeck wrote in letters to his agent and others that he was tired of being fussed over like a sick baby or an invalid who had to be “protected” and “hospitalized.”  He had to go on his great land-voyage of rediscovery – and go by himself, even though at the last minute he would ask his wife if he could take her 10-year-old standard French poodle Charley with him for company. Defending his solo project in a letter to his agent Elizabeth Otis, he said what he was proposing was not “a little trip of reporting, but a frantic last attempt to save my life and the integrity of my creative pulse.”

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

 

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 3

Sept. 25, 1960 — White Mountains, N.H.

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The Spalding Inn is high in the woods of the White Mountains about 7 miles south of Lancaster in Whitefield. It describes itself – without doing its gloriously old-fashioned character enough justice – on its Web site: “Surrounded by manicured lawns, orchards, perennial gardens and a 360-degree view of the Presidential Mountain range, it offers you the perfect escape from city life.” (video)

Steinbeck says in “Travels With Charley” that he drives east into the rugged White Mountains of New Hampshire on U.S. Route 2 near Lancaster, N.H., and camps on a farm.

He says in “Charley” that he talks to the farm owner about the Russians and the boorish behavior of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations.

In the book, Steinbeck and the  Yankee farmer talk about Khrushchev banging his shoe on his desk at the United Nations, but that conversation couldn’t have happened. That famous Cold War event  — if it actually happened that way — occurred Oct. 11, 1960.

But did Steinbeck really even camp on a farm?

Fifty years later, after searching in vain for the farm and the farmer near Lancaster, a local writer, Jeff Woodburn, learned that Steinbeck was seen in the fall of 1960 at the nearby Spalding Inn in Whitefield. Exactly when that was, Woodburn was not sure.

On March 30, 2010, a woman who worked for the Spalding Inn’s owner at the time said she was absolutely certain Steinbeck slept at the inn for one night. And Donald Spalding, the son of the original owners and operators of the inn, said on March 30, 2011, that there was no doubt that Steinbeck ate dinner and slept at the exclusive inn during “foliage season” of 1960.

America’s Death Roads

By 1960 cars had replaced trains as the country’s mass mode of transportation. Interstates, truck stops and national motel and restaurant chains barely existed. Wal-Mart did not. America’s fleet of cars had doubled since 1941 to 74 million. About 75 percent of homes owned a car and 15 percent owned two. Automobiles were 4,000-pound death wagons with metal dashboards, crummy tires and lights and no safety gear; 1 percent of drivers used seat belts. America’s highways were criminally lethal. About 36,000 of the country’s 180 million people were killed in or by cars in 1960. In 2010, when there were three times as many autos and trucks on the road and 310 million Americans riding around in them, the annual death toll had fallen to 32,708.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 4

Sept. 26, 1960 — Deer Isle, Maine

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Rocinante’s interior was compact but contained a stove, a refrigerator and a table, like the cabin of a small boat.

Steinbeck writes that he left New Hampshire on what would have been Monday, Sept. 26, and drove east across the neck of Maine. He says he stopped at a motel near Bangor but that he was so put off by the sterile and plastic environment in his room that he went out and slept in the back of his truck.

In fact, on Sept. 26 he drove 250 miles from Lancaster, New Hampshire, to Deer Isle, Maine, a beautiful little island south of Bangor. He was expected at the seaside home of Eleanor Brace, a friend of his agent Elizabeth Otis.

On the Monday night that 70 million Americans watched the first televised Nixon-JFK debate from Chicago, he slept on Brace’s property by the sea in the back of Rocinante.

 

South of Bangor

I wanted only to do what Steinbeck did in 1960 – cut through the city of Bangor quickly on my way to the seacoast paradise of Deer Isle, where he spent two days at a gorgeous old house I hoped to find.  Driving into the suburbs on state Route 15, the 55-mile trip to Deer Isle became a highlight reel of Maine’s L.L. Bean culture. Boats and RVs of every size, truck caps, kayaks, logs, shingles and gigantic piles of firewood lined the roadside or adorned front lawns. Gas was $2.62 a gallon. The billboard “Guns, Ammo and Camo” pretty much said it all. The closer I got to Deer Isle, the farther back in time I went and the more upscale and artsy-crafty things got.

— Excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 5

Sept. 27, 1960 Deer Isle, Maine

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Steinbeck spent two nights at Eleanor Brace’s spectacular house on Deer Isle, Maine, where his agent Elizabeth Otis rented a cottage each year.

Steinbeck and Charley continue their stay on beautiful Deer Isle, Maine, at the fabulous home of Eleanor Brace. He wrote in a letter to his wife from Deer Isle that on Tuesday he “saw the island and talked to people.”

He visited the quaint fishing port of Stonington, where he buys a kerosene lamp at a nautical hardware store on Main Street. He ate a lobster dinner at Brace’s house with Brace and her woman friend and went to bed early, sleeping another night in his camper Rocinante.
In a letter he mailed from Deer Isle to his friend and political hero Adlai Stevenson, Steinbeck said he had heard part of the first televised presidential debate between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy on Monday, Sept. 26. He was distressed that both candidates were so courteous toward each other.

Steinbeck’s Partisan Politics

By today’s definitions, Steinbeck was a ball of political contradictions. He was a highly partisan FDR big-government Democrat who went ape for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and became a White House-sleepover friend of LBJ and frequent weekend guest at Camp David. Like most of his New Deal generation, he had a naïve trust in the federal government to solve massive social and economic problems.

But Steinbeck was never close to being the true-believing commie or socialist both his rightwing enemies and leftwing friends liked to claim he was. He was what we call today “a Cold War liberal.” He supported labor unions, the civil rights movement and LBJ’s war on poverty. He was also a staunch anti-communist who believed in containing the Soviet Union and what then was so impolitely called “Red China.”

He was a sincere patriot, which, along with becoming too friendly with LBJ, may have blinded him to the folly of Vietnam and the fallacy of the Domino Theory. He was a loud public hawk on Vietnam in its early stages, but became a quiet dove when he realized the war was unwinnable. Intolerant of anti-war protesters, whom he thought were stupid and cowardly, he despised hippies and the ‘60s youth culture.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”