More than half a century ago, on Oct. 25, 1962, John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature he should have received years earlier.

The Swedish Academy of Letters hailed Steinbeck for his “realistic and imaginative writings” and called his “Grapes of Wrath”  a “poignant description of life as it is lived by the common man.” The committee also favorably mentioned “Travels With Charley,” his last major work, which was high atop the New York Times nonfiction list that fall.

This excerpt from my expose “Dogging Steinbeck” discusses the generally positive critical reaction to “Charley,” which, as we now know, was a mostly made-up and deceitful account of Steinbeck’s trip of discovery around the USA.

 

 Critics Cheer

Steinbeck was never liked by the East Coast literary mafia, which alone is a good reason to friend him. The big critics dismissed him for snobbish intellectual reasons, according to his friendly biographer Jackson Benson: He was from out West. He had a sense of humor. He was too popular, too sentimental, too accessible and insufficiently political (i.e., he didn’t keep writing “The Grapes of Wrath” over and over to please diehard lefties like Mary McCarthy at Nation magazine).

Yet when “Travels With Charley” was published, it generally got raves from reviewers in mainstream newspapers and magazines. Most of them embraced/swallowed the romantic man-and-dog-on-the-road storyline. Even critical reviews didn’t question the authenticity of Steinbeck’s supporting cast of cardboard characters. Harper’s, Saturday Review and a few other highbrow places were not particularly impressed by Steinbeck’s “predictable” observations. But the New York Times, Newsweek and the Atlantic loved the book.

The Times’ reviewer, Eric F. Goldman, lost his grip. The Princeton history professor and world authority on modern American culture blubbered in the Sunday Book Review on July 29 that it was “a pure delight, a pungent potpourri of places and people interspersed with bittersweet essays on everything from the emotional difficulties of growing old to the reasons why giant Sequoias arouse such awe.”

Goldman wasn’t 100 percent pleased, however. He pointed out, correctly, that the America Steinbeck saw was “hardly coincident” with the real American heartland because he had avoided the most significant new developments of the 1960s – the big cities and the growing suburbs. But Goldman, like other reviewers, bought completely into the myth of “Travels With Charley.”

Goldman assumed Steinbeck had exhausted himself on a grueling, undercover, three-month road trip in a truck. He wrote sentences like “To avoid hotel stays and certain recognition he had a manufacturer build for him a cabin body equipped for day-and-night living. He traveled accompanied only by his aged French poodle.”

John Steinbeck and his third wife Elaine, who spent almost as much time on the road during his "Charley" trip than the poodle did.

John Steinbeck and his third wife Elaine, who spent almost as much time on the road during his “Charley” trip than the poodle did.

Calling it “affecting and highly entertaining,” Newsweek praised Steinbeck for his “quick mind and honest heart” but damned him for “his self-indulgent loathing of every city he drove through.” The reviewer in Atlantic’s August issue predicted that it was a book “to be read slowly for its savor, and one which, like Thoreau, will be quoted and measured by our own experience.”

The Boston Herald enthused that “Travels With Charley” was one of “the best books John Steinbeck has ever written. Perceptive, revealing, and completely delightful.” The San Francisco Examiner deemed it “profound, sympathetic, often angry . . . an honest and moving book by one of our great writers.”

Only Time magazine, whose owner Henry Luce reportedly never forgave Steinbeck for “The Grapes of Wrath’s” attacks on capitalism, broke from the slobbering mainstream pack. It ripped Steinbeck in a two-paragraph review in August 1962:

TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, by John Steinbeck (246 pp.; Viking; $4.95). Put a famous author behind the wheel of a three-quarter-ton truck called Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse), equip him with everything from trenching tools to subzero underwear, send along a pedigreed French poodle named Charley with prostatitis, follow the man and dog on a three-month, 10,000-mile trip through 34 states, and what have you got? One of the dullest travelogues ever to acquire the respectability of a hard cover.

 Vagabond Steinbeck’s motive for making the long, lonely journey is admirable: ‘To try to rediscover this monster land’ after years of easy living in Manhattan and a country place in Sag Harbor, L.I. He meets some interesting people: migrant Canucks picking potatoes in Maine, an itinerant Shakespearean actor in North Dakota, his own literary ghost back home in California’s Monterey Peninsula. But when the trip is done, Steinbeck’s attempt at rediscovery reveals nothing more remarkable than a sure gift for the obvious observation.

Tough stuff.

Time’s hatchet job seemed unfair and unnecessarily mean-spirited when I first read it. But given what I’ve learned since, it looks about right. Yet even Time’s hardhearted reviewer didn’t question the existence of that “interesting” Shakespearean actor from Central Casting.

As “Travels With Charley” rocketed to the top of the nonfiction bestseller list in the fall of 1962, shocking news came from Sweden. Steinbeck, who had been nominated eight times for the Nobel Prize for Literature, had finally won it. The Swedish Academy’s choice was influenced in part by “Charley,” which the selection committee clearly believed was the true account of Steinbeck’s road trip in search of America. Steinbeck’s triumph was a surprise that left many displeased. A Swedish paper called it one of the Academy’s biggest mistakes. The New York Times wondered why the award was given to a has-been whose talent was “limited” and whose best books were “watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing.”

Fifty years later Steinbeck’s award would be further discredited. According to Academy archives opened in 2012 and released in January of 2013, though Steinbeck was as worthy of a Nobel as any American writer who ever wielded a pen, he was a compromise choice. Apparently, the other nominees — including British writer Robert Graves and Denmark’s “Out of Africa” author Karen Blixen — were considered so weak that Steinbeck took the prize.

Time magazine didn’t care what Steinbeck had won. It kicked him and “Charley” around again with a nasty Nov. 2, 1962 article defaming the author and his entire body of work. The magazine sniped that the decision of the Nobel judges “was also reportedly influenced by Steinbeck’s latest, bestselling ‘Travels with Charley,’ which manages to recapture the banality, mawkish sentiment and pseudo philosophy that have marked Steinbeck at his worst.”

Academics weren’t so rude. But in subsequent years some of their assessments found the book to be too subjective and too personal. Peter Lisca, a godfather of Steinbeck studies, said it represented “all the baggage of the third-rate journalist who sees only the stereotype and the cliché.” Lisca apparently never realized, nor suspected, that Steinbeck didn’t actually “see” those stereotypes and clichés. He made up most if not all of them.

Robert Gottlieb, the book editor and former editor of the New Yorker, saw through the mask when he critiqued “Charley” and Steinbeck’s later works of fiction in the New York Review of Books in April of 2008. In “The Rescue of John Steinbeck” Gottlieb wrote that “Steinbeck’s heart, as always, is in the right place, but there’s something artificial about ‘Charley’: many of the encounters he reports sound like pure inventions.”

To be fair to Steinbeck, he said upfront that his book was never meant to be serious journalism or deep social commentary – and it wasn’t. It was nowhere near as deep, wide or historically important as Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” It was not as journalistically meticulous or prolonged or detailed or soul-searching as William Least Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways.”

In “Travels With Charley” Steinbeck went out of his way, preemptively perhaps, to make it clear what his book actually was: the exceedingly subjective account of one man’s unique, unrepeatable trip around the USA. It was exactly that. He just didn’t bother also to point out that his account was so subjective it was no longer accurate or true.

The Steinbeck Review is supposed to be devoted to scholarship, but is it?

Here’s what SR says it is all about:

Steinbeck Review is an authorized publication on the life and works of American novelist John Steinbeck (1902-1968). It publishes scholarly articles; notes; book and performance reviews; creative writing; original artwork; short intercalary pieces offering fresh perspectives, including notes on contemporary references to Steinbeck, discussions of the contexts of his work, and an occasional poem. Review has a three-fold mission of broadening the scope of Steinbeck criticism, promoting the work of new and established scholars, and serving as a resource for Steinbeck teachers at all levels.

Sounds like a fair and honest publication, right? Comprehensive. Reliable. A trustworthy site for all things Steinbeck. Too bad its scholars haven’t reviewed my 2013 book “Dogging Steinbeck.” Or even mentioned it.

In the spring of 2011 the SR did print a shall-we-say less-than scholarly article by a Steinbeck fan in response to what the New York Times wrote about my discoveries of Steinbeck’s many fictions and lies. But SR hasn’t mentioned my book or seriously addressed what I proved four years ago — that John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” was a work of fiction and not the true or honest nonfiction account of his 1960 road trip and what he thought about America.

For half a century Steinbeck scholars blew it on “Charley.”

They never bothered to look with a skeptical eye at the iconic American road book, which has flashes of good writing and glints of wise humor but is awful in many many ways that have nothing to do with telling the truth in a nonfiction book.

As I’ve said in my book, which exposed “Charley” for the literary fraud it was for 50 years, I don’t expect the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex to give me an honorary masters in literary studies.

And I recognize that it is possible for English professors with Ph.D’s to argue with a straight face that the fictions and lies Steinbeck told were told in the interest of telling larger truths about America.

But the most recent issue of the Steinbeck Review shows just how sloppy and stupid or just plain smug and arrogant its editors can be (Editor-in-Chief Barbara A. Heavilin, Associate Editor Mary M. Brown and Book Review Editor Thomas E. Barden).

In its back pages the most recent SR presents a list of the “Major Steinbeck Publications of 2012–2013.”

The compiler of that list didn’t mention my 2013 Amazon.com e-book “Dogging Steinbeck” — or even one of several newspaper and magazine articles I wrote in 2012 about the fictional (and deceptive) nature of Steinbeck’s classic.

Steinbeck scholars dismiss “Dogging Steinbeck” for various reasons. It didn’t have a big publisher. It doesn’t have footnotes. It’s not an academic work. It wasn’t peer-reviewed (unless the great Brian Lamb of C-SPAN counts).

But “Dogging Steinbeck” is a serious work of journalism that should interest all Steinbeck lovers/scholars, pro and amateur.

I discovered a lot of interesting, new (and previously unpublicized) information about Steinbeck, his real 1960 “Charley” trip, the slippery editing of “Charley” and the devious lengths to which Viking Press editors went to shape Steinbeck’s original draft into what I call the “Travels With Charley” Myth.

What I proved also changed the way “Travels With Charley” will be read for the rest of eternity.  Hint: It will no longer be considered a work of nonfiction.

As Jay Parini wrote when he was forced — by my trouble-making — to sneakily add disclaimers to his introduction in the 50th anniversary edition of the book last fall, “Charley” is a work of fiction by a great novelist. (That rather important adjustment by Parini also has been ignored by the Steinbeck Review, as far as I know.)

As they say, the truth about “Charley” is all in my book. I encourage all Steinbeck lovers — and editors of the SR — to read it and critique it or trash it. Just please don’t ignore it before this oversight gets any more embarrassing.

Besides not mentioning the publication of “Dogging Steinbeck,” here is what else the Steinbeck Review’s bibliographer (Kathleen Hicks) forgot to include in her list of 2012-2013 publications:

Reason magazine, July 25, 2012: “Whitewashing John Steinbeck: Why partisan politics and virulent racism were cut from the celebrated ‘non-fiction’ road book Travels With Charley” Steinbeck’s “Paragraph of Filth,” which was edited out of his first draft in 1961 because it was too vulgar to publish then or now, is seen by the public for the first time.

Reizen zonder John: Op zoek naar Amerika (“Traveling Without John: In Search of America”), August, 2012: In his 573-page book famed Dutch journalist and author Geert Mak recounts his 2010 retracing of Steinbeck’s “Charley” trip, publicizes my discoveries about Steinbeck’s fictions and lies and praises my dogged journalism (in Dutch). It’ll be published in English for the UK market in November of 2014, so it will have to be included in SR’s next bibliography.

tumblr_n7zatwvlCA1rxrxxxo1_1280

Jon McNaught did the cover for Dutchman Geert Mak’s English-language edition.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 14, 2012: ‘Travels With Charley’: Now officially mostly fiction” My article points out that because of my discoveries Penguin Group had quietly inserted disclaimers into the introduction of their latest edition of “Charley,” making it clear the book was so fictionalized it should not be believed as the true story of Steinbeck’s trip.

C-SPAN, March 3, 2013: “Q&A” C-SPAN founding father Brian Lamb interviewed me for an hour about how I came to write “Dogging Steinbeck” on his “Q&A” program.

For its past issues, Steinbeck Review could add these references from 2010 and 2011:

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 5, 2010: “Sorry, Charley” Though “Travels With Charley” has been marketed, reviewed and taught as a work of nonfiction for half a century, I charge that it is mostly fiction and a dishonest account of his actual journey.

NPR media watchdog show “On the Media” with Bob Garfield, Dec. 24, 2010: The first national media coverage of me and my literary “scoop.”

Monterey County Weekly, Jan. 20, 2011: In “Travels With Steinbeck” Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw discredits my journalism and pooh-poohs my findings when interviewed for a feature story on Bill Barich’s Steinbeck-inspired 2010 book, “Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America.” My response.

Reason magazine, April, 2011: “Sorry, Charley: Was John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’ a Fraud?” A stronger indictment of Steinbeck’s literary fraud.

New York Times, April 4, 2011: “A Reality Check for Steinbeck and Charley” The Times “discovers” my story and culture writer Charles McGrath interviews me and two Steinbeck scholars, San Jose State English professor Susan Shillinglaw and Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini, who don’t think much of my discovery.

New York Times editorial, April 10, 2011: In “The Truth About Charley” the Paper of Record’s editorial page credits me with having made an “intriguing” and “disheartening” discovery about the high level of untruth and dishonesty in “Charley” and is irritated that Steinbeck scholars were so blasé about my findings.Wikipedia: Its “Travels With Charley” entry quickly added information about my indictment of the book’s veracity and in 2013 it added a portion of the disclaimer Penguin Group asked Professor Jay Parini to add to the introduction of the 50th anniversary edition of “Charley.”

In the Sept. 3 Daily Caller’s  opinion piece Just The Facts: Bill Steigerwald Exposes A Great Writer’s ‘Literary Fraud’ In Dogging Steinbeck, author, musician and creative fiction practitioner Robert Dean Lurie of Arizona serves up a fair, fine and thoughtful review of my literary expose/travel book.

Lurie, who also discusses the eternal  fight between facts and fiction in Thoreau’s “Walden” and elsewhere, is a writer who leans toward the creative/ fiction side of creative nonfiction. He isn’t a just-gimme-the-facts kind of guy, like most career journalists.

Nevertheless, Lurie says that my exhaustive — and sometimes clunky — journalism won him over.

One might think, given my stated positions above, that I would be fundamentally opposed to Steigerwald’s assertion that Travels With Charley is a “literary fraud.” And, indeed, I fought that premise tooth and nail throughout much of the book, even while falling in love with Steigerwald’s jocular style, his unvarnished political opinions, and, yes, his honesty. But the wily devil wore me down in the end. The mountain of damning evidence is just too massive to ignore.

When I get my first million in royalties, I’ll be sure to send Mr. Lurie and the great guys at the Daily Caller their checks. Until then, here’s a plug for his book, “No Certainty Attached.”

As Publishers Weekly said …

Lurie remains stridently impartial in this skillfully balanced assessment of his musical idol, Steve Kilbey, the esoterically minded front man for the Australian rock band the Church. Into his noisy myriad of interviews with Kilbey and his circle, Lurie mixes his own personal journey as a fan, musician and first-time author, offering something to both Church devotees and the uninitiated. The result is a quietly and thoughtfully structured narrative that entertains as well as informs.

robert dean lurie's book

“Dogging Steinbeck” – the book itself and the reviews posted by 48 readers who either loved it or hated it – really exists in only one place – at Amazon.com.

 I’m very protective of what is said about the book and me, so I have always made it a point to rebut or correct the “reviewers” on Amazon who mis-characterize the book’s contents or my motives.

They usually one-star “Dogging Steinbeck” because they don’t like my politics, are trying to defend John Steinbeck’s tarnished honor from a nobody like me or because they feel I’ve somehow ruined the romance of all road trips by outing “Travels With Charley” as a very flawed load of fictional crap and deception.

Here is the best (i.e., most lively and most informative) example of a debate on Amazon’s “Dogging Steinbeck” site between me and my detractors. It stars an unknown hero, a smart, wise and kind man named Mr. La Tour, who ably comes to my rescue.

 The debate started with Bob Hoffmann’s annoying 1-star review on April 30, 2013.

– Bill s

Steigerwald’s “Dog” of a Companion

Bob Hoffmann

Steigerwald sets out to re-trace Steinbeck’s famous 1960 trek “In Search of America”, and along the way to describe how he had “exposed the truth about ‘Travels with Charley’”, as the subtitle suggests. His first introductory paragraph mentions that he “… found out the great author’s iconic “nonfiction” road book was a deceptive, dishonest and highly fictionalized account of his actual 10,000-mile road trip.” Although he provides a disclaimer that “my book is subjective as hell. But it’s entirely nonfiction. True Nonfiction.” So what is “subjective non-fiction,” anyway?images-1

While Steigerwald claims that Steinbeck’s work “…was not a travelogue, not a serious work of journalism and, as I soon realized, it was not an accurate, full or reliable account of his actual road trip,” he might have taken some time to put a rear-view mirror to his own work, to recognize that he was observing his own “journalistic” work through a pair of thickly-tinted red, libertarian glasses. In between his researched and verified “facts” about Steinbeck’s actual movements, he inserts slants, biases, and attacks from his own rightist POV against the Nobelist’s admittedly Democratic affiliations. His focus on “The Truth” denies Steinbeck any “narrative license” to the original story, repetitively implying that if a particular detail isn’t fully accurate, then it must fully be a lie. My understanding, as a reader of journalistic products, is that “news” and “research” is not so simply bifurcated, and it is the writer’s role to illuminate the shadings between the real and the fantasy.

Having been raised along the Missouri River divide in North Dakota, I was proud to read Steinbeck’s descriptions of my prairie homeland when the book first appeared in the early Sixties. In my own travels on the old US routes through forty-six contiguous states, mostly tenting with my Dodge Dakota, I recognize many of the character types that both authors describe. I will agree that not much has changed in a half-century (outside the metro regions), as the more recent traveler summarizes in chapter 21 – “America the Mostly Beautiful”.

Yet Steigerwald’s version of the journey could have been a useful supplement to Steinbeck’s original narrative, had he dropped off the concluding four chapters. Instead, he showed that he had traveled with his own “dog” of an attitude, taking not only Steinbeck to task, but also the entire “lamestream media.” Some things are better left at home.

bill steigerwald says:

Please. All nonfiction is subjective, as Steinbeck knew, and as I said repeatedly in my book. Of course my book is subjective — and therefore contains my politics, biases, values, tastes, etc., just as Steinbeck’s book contained his politics, etc etc. I clearly and repetitively say/admit all of that in my book (as Steinbeck did in his). This objectivity/subjectivity thing shouldn’t be so hard to understand. As for illuminating the “shadings between the real and the fantasy,” that’s what my book does. He fictionalized, exaggerated, misled or lied throughout “Charley” about what he did and who met and how he traveled. It’s true that I’m tough on Steinbeck, but I’m fair. I could have been tougher, believe me. Sorry about those last four chapters, where I defend myself from scholars and Steinbeck kin. But you may have noticed that my journalistic efforts on and off the road forced Penguin to confess — after 50 years — that “Charley” was too fictionalized to be considered a work of nonfiction. As for “True Nonfiction,” it is a joke. If you don’t get it after reading my book, it’s not my fault.

Jimmy says:

I haven’t read it, and based on all the reviews I won’t bother. Bill S. sounds like a man who, to paraphrase Vonnegut, has donned a full suit of armor to attack a hot fudge sundae. Any discerning reader has known since the time “Travels With Charley” was published that they weren’t reading a pure nonfiction travelogue. That wasn’t Steinbeck’s intention…….whatever journalistic or literary coup you think you’ve scored is totally lost on me. By the way, I haven’t read the book itself in years, that’s how I stumbled across this one. I’ll be ordering a new copy of TWC for my Kindle. Thanks.

bill steigerwald says:

It amazes me how people who think they’re smart can merrily make wild assumptions and guesses and “critiques” about the author of a book they didn’t read. And Jimmy, when you settle down to enjoy that Kindle version of “Charley,” don’t miss that disclaimer that Penguin Group has quietly slipped into the introduction of its latest edition because of my expose of Steinbeck’s BS. Spoiler alert: it confesses — after 50 years — that “Charley” was not really a nonfiction book but was so fictionalized that it should not be taken literally; not that any discerning reader would have expected a great American writer in search of America to just make up a lot of stuff and pass it off as true.

Jimmy says:

The Kindle edition contains no such intro. Quick, another scandal demanding your attention.

bill steigerwald says:

Hilarious.

Jimmy says:

Thank you.

bill steigerwald says:

“Steinbeck falsified his trip. I am delighted that you went deep into this.” — Paul Theroux, Author of “The Tao of Travel”

“No book gave me more of a kick this year than Bill Steigerwald’s investigative travelogue ‘Dogging Steinbeck.’” — Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com

“… a wry, wistful, but never angry tale about a great literary deception that lasted way too long.” — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“… an idol-slaying travelogue of truth.’ — Shawn Macomber, The Weekly Standard

T. E. La Tour says:

When you read your Kindle version, try to find any place in the book where Steinbeck suggests that he is creating false characters and situations or that he is embellishing dialogue. You won’t. He and his publishers intended for people to believe he was describing actual people, situations, and dialogue. That is phony and dishonest, period.

S. Michael Wilson says:

If Steigerwald spent less time responding to all of his negative reader reviews with personal attacks and quoting positive reviews back at them, he might find the time to finish his upcoming scathing expose on how George Orwell’s 1984 isn’t historically accurate.

T. E. La Tour says:

Orwell never said it was. But Steinbeck said TWC was real. Surely you see the difference. Steinbeck never said the Joads were a real family, but he said the characters he met in TWC were real. Surely you see the difference.

As for Steigerwald’s responses to criticism, none of that changes the fact that Steinbeck was lying to sell books. He could have written the book from his desk at home; instead he wrote it from inside his truck. But the result was the same.

Did you read both books? Some critics of DS on these pages admit to not having read Steigerwald’s book. One wonders whether they ever read TWC either.

S. Michael Wilson says:

I never said that I was making a serious suggestion or comparison, I was simply mocking the author’s tendency to personally attack every negative review he gets on Amazon. Surely you see the difference.

T. E. La Tour says:

Of course, I will take you at your word. But there is a disturbing tendency in many of the comments to make this about Steigerwald, whereas it is about Steinbeck. Anyway, I suppose all the points, pro and con, have been made by this time, and maybe it’s time to move on.

S. Michael Wilson says:

I don’t need you to take me at my word, but thank you anyway for the condescending approval. As for your assertion that none of this is about Steigerwald, I’m afraid I have to disagree. This book is not just about Steinbeck. If that were the case, the book would be nothing more than a straightforward literary criticism of Steinbeck’s novel. Instead, Steigerwald not only includes himself in the book, but refers to his own political viewpoints and personal philosophies throughout, making Dogging Steinbeck as much of a personal journey of the author as the original Travels with Charley was intended to be. Additionally, what I find disturbing is not that some reviews might take the author to task personally for items they disagree with in his book, but that instead of simply allowing readers to post their critical reviews of his work without fear of retribution, Steigerwald has consistently confronted any negative review of his book with detailed arguments, insults, and most recently (as well as most childishly and unprofessionally) just quoting positive reviews of his book back at those who didn’t like it. By taking any negative reaction to the book as a personal affront and reacting defensively and aggressively, Steigerwald has increasingly made this about him, and not Steinbeck. The audience has a right to be able to voice its own views on what they have read, and any author secure in his or her own work should be able to let their positive reviews speak for them without having to shout down any dissenting viewpoints by questioning the reviewer’s intelligence or accusing them of not having read the book.

pics of golf, canada, steinbeck fest 30

The Steinbeck Fest of 2010 was all about Steinbeck’s travels, but not about his lack of truth-telling in “Charley.”

T. E. La Tour says:

Sorry, I didn’t mean to be condescending. What I meant is that to me, the issue is whether Steinbeck made up people, situations, and conversations without making it clear that he was doing so. I understand your distaste of Steigerwald’s rebuttals, and I suppose he should lighten up. But I see them as a distraction more than anything else. Maybe he’s just doing it to keep his book up front.

Perhaps my problem is that I read TWC for the first time just recently and then read DS right afterwards. I was left wondering why Steinbeck wasn’t truthful when no purpose was served by being otherwise. For example, suppose Steinbeck had told us that he was sleeping in nice hotels much of the time. Why would that have diminished his observations and impressions? He could have talked with hotel maids and bell boys and found out what made them tick. That would have been more interesting than a made-up Shakespearean actor, don’t you think?

That’s my only point. And by the way, I am a fan of Steinbeck’s work, at least the great majority of it. He is one of my favorite authors — a real American icon. Maybe that’s why I am so disappointed in TWC; I just didn’t find it very interesting.

As an aside, I recently discovered that Steinbeck spent some time in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. He sent dispatches back (to Newsday, I think), and they have been published recently. He shows his very idealistic side in these reports, wishing to believe we were doing great things. It didn’t take him long to sour on the war, and I think that brought on his death sooner than it might have otherwise come.

S. Michael Wilson says:

Thank you for the apology, which in all honesty was probably unwarranted – perhaps I am getting a little thin-skinned in here myself. You make some great points and insightful connections in your comments and questions regarding Steinbeck’s possible motivation for embellishment (or whatever you want to call it), and I believe that the vast majority of people leaving reviews here, both positive and negative, do as much to express their viewpoints regarding these questions raised by the book, and none of them deserve to be shouted down with insults or dismissed as invalid simply because they are in disagreement with the author. Perhaps he is just trying to stoke controversy and keep his name out there, but I’m pretty sure most successful authors out there don’t need to attack reviewers to draw attention the themselves, and that juvenile name calling and “See, I have positive reviews so you’re obviously wrong” responses may get more people looking at his Amazon page, but I seriously doubt they do anything to present him as the professional journalist he wants to be regarded as.

Bob Hoffmann says:

Having recently completed two of my goals of American travels – the entire Gulf Coast from Key West to Brownsville, and the 100th Meridian (US Highway 83) from border to border, I feel that I could sometimes write my own travelogues of the adventures of being on the road.

Along the way I enjoy reading fellow OTR travelers who are better writers – how they overcome minor adversities that could have been major disasters, the strangers who assist and guide them, and the magnificent scenery our country has to offer.

Thus, my travels led me a while ago to re-read Steinbeck’s TWC book, as well as other books that followed his original path to various degrees.

I found Down John’s Road: Recreating John Steinbeck’s 1960 American Road Trip by John R. Olsen to be closest to a historical perspective of the original journey, although he started in Washington state and followed a reverse route.

Distinguishing fact and myth seems to be an issue, although an entertaining one, in Gordon Grindstaff’s Travels With Susie: A Hilarious Account of One Couple’s RV Journey Across America.

Most enjoyable in this genre was Travels with Judy: In Search of Steinbeck’s America by Vicki Cain, who makes the journey solo as a female, something that would not likely have been attempted in Steinbeck’s day.

As in the pioneer days of sitting around the evening campfire, telling stories of adventures and characters met, it is sometimes hard to separate the “truth” from exaggerations or acquired tales absorbed from others in such story-telling. Yet it’s the story about the American adventure that’s important in all these, I think – something Steigerwald seems to have missed.

So I continue to stand by my original comments above (with a single star).

T. E. La Tour says:

I think you’re right that Mr. Steigerwald need not reply to criticism with insulting or demeaning language. I am reminded of the infamous Gore Vidal – Norman Mailer shouting matches, on the Dick Cavett show and other places, and how silly it made both of them — famous and respected authors — look. I can only assume they both enjoyed it, and maybe in a similar way Mr. Steigerwald enjoys the tone of the banter on this forum. As I mentioned, perhaps he is frustrated by remarks made by some who have admitted not to have read his book. Still, I think I would handle it differently.

I almost hesitate to admit here that I quite enjoyed Mr. Steigerwald’s book — not all of it but most of it. And I still think he reserved most of his criticism not for Mr. Steinbeck but for the “Steinbeck Industry” whose apparent purpose is to deify their namesake, an effort from which I can only assume Mr. Steinbeck himself would recoil. As for Mr. Steigerwald’s politics, which seem to be a focal point of much of the readers’ criticism, I can only admit my failure to have detected an obvious political bent except when the author mentions it himself. And even so, what difference does it make? It seems as irrelevant to me as the oft-mentioned point by Mr. Steigerwald that he wore no socks.

In any case, it seems that you and I are both admirers of Mr. Steinbeck, as is I think Mr. Steigerwald, despite the occasional strong language he uses in referring to Mr. Steinbeck’s deception. I just wish TWC had been more interesting from cover to cover instead of just here and there. I sincerely think that had Mr. Steinbeck — from the comfort of his Sag Harbor living room — written a novel of an American rediscovering his country, it would have been authentic and much more interesting.

bill steigerwald says:

I guess I’m honored that you two intelligent guys are discussing me, my book, my motives, my sins, my politics, my omissions, my commissions, my love/hate for Steinbeck, my childish defense of myself, etc. etc. I hope you bought my book. Sales are slow.

I’m afraid I’m up to my old tricks — being unprofessional and defending myself and explaining myself. I’m an ex newspaper columnist, op-ed writer and editorial writer. That’s how I made much of my living for 35-plus years and 2.5 million words. I’m used to giving and taking and re-giving and using sarcasm, not being politically correct, and rebutting bogus or fallacious claims/arguments/attacks. When I edited letters pages at the LA Times and in Pittsburgh, I encouraged as much debate and re-debate as possible.

A couple points, and a request.

Of course my book is about me; every travel book/road book is about the traveler and what happens on his/her trip. Dogging Steinbeck is a hybrid — as I said in the book, it didn’t start out to be an attack on Steinbeck, a review of TWC, or a work of scholarship. It started as a crazy act of extreme journalism. I thought retracing Steinbeck’s original trip as faithfully as possible as a journalist 50 years later would make a good book — or at least a decent one. I got lucky and discovered a scoop — that one of America’s great writers engaged in what I so indelicately but accurately called “a literary fraud.”

What I wrote in my book is exactly how everything happened to me on and off the road and what I thought at the time. It doesn’t matter if you like me or my politics, or my writing (The more libertarian you are and the less liberal-progressive you are, the less you’ll be offended by my politics; funny how that works). What I discovered about how Steinbeck and his editors and publisher put out a phony book and passed it off as an honest work of nonfiction stands. It has, if I may toot my own horn, changed the way TWC will be read from now on (see the new intro to the latest edition). Sorry, but the truth hurts sometimes.

The notion that I would leave my politics out of my book, or that Steinbeck’s politics were not in his book, is silly. Why should I? Because my politics weren’t the same as Steinbeck’s or the NY Times editorial page? (A lot more of Steinbeck’s partisan Democrat Cold War liberal politics was in his original draft but it was cut out).

The argument that I should not respond to reviewers because it somehow demeans me as an author, is somewhere between nuts and masochistic. It could only be made by someone who hasn’t struggled to write a good, honest, accurate book.

As I said in one of my many retorts to reviewers, after you’ve spent a lot of time and money and sweat doing a book, it’s kind of annoying to see “reviews” by people who haven’t read it, or who completely misrepresent its contents, or who make absurd-to-asinine assumptions about my motives, or who call me names.

My request:

Please, one of you, show me where, with the exception of my argument with the honorable Mr. Dheere — who started off his “review” by calling me “a pathetic little man” and claiming that he could find no record of my journalism — I engaged in personal insults, “Juvenile name calling” or shouted down anyone.

Yes, I rebutted; yes I defended myself; yes I inserted positive reviews or comments from Paul Theroux; it’s called debating. Negative reviewers who think they have a right to throw around wild accusations or misrepresentations about me or what’s in my book without being called on them are the ones who are being childish, not me.

T. E. La Tour says:

Thanks for joining in, and, yes, I did buy your book. I’ve also recommended it to a couple of my friends.

When I said the debate was not about you, I meant that Steinbeck’s deception was not about you — it’s about him. And that’s the subject that many of the contributors here apparently don’t want to discuss. Of course, your book is about you, and it makes for interesting reading. I even mentioned to one reviewer here that I enjoyed it more than TWC.

As for the politics, I found it amusing that you could point to places in TWC where Steinbeck could have had a little libertarianism in him, and many contributors here clearly consider this an insult. But it is irrefutable. Among other things he carried guns, he let his dog poop wherever he wanted, and he threw away stuff that was clearly recyclable; no good liberal today would approve of these.

As for misrepresentations of your work, I guess that just comes with the territory. The way you choose to respond to them is obviously your choice. In my case I have kind of tuned out that banter in favor of trying to move the discussion to the substantive issue for me which is that Steinbeck and his publisher pulled a fast one, and you discovered it and blew the whistle. Unfortunately, the “Steinbeck Industry” circled the wagons, and instead of owning up to the truth, sought to reinvent what a memoir is (example: see the introduction to the Kindle version of TWC). Meanwhile, some Steinbeck admirers on these pages have evidently sought to kill the messenger with coarse language. I suppose it was inevitable.

As for how you defend yourself in these pages, that’s up to you. Naturally you consider your book to be a part of yourself, and it’s hard to ignore personal affronts. But I’m sure you know that you have won the battle. No one anymore is willing to argue that Steinbeck’s characters, situations, and conversations actually occurred as he presented them, and you have exposed the deliberate hiding of the deception by the “Steinbeck Industry.” You’ve got them running around trying to justify Steinbeck’s words, but it won’t work. The asterisk next to TWC is there forever, thanks to you.

bill steigerwald says:

Thanks extremely, Mr. La Tour. If I had a check to send you, it’d be in the mail.

 

 

route66 cover - 2 - finalHalf literary expose and half American road book, “Dogging Steinbeck “is the honest and accurate account of my long journey with the great John Steinbeck and his beloved work of BS, “Travels With Charley.”

It details how I stumbled on to the truth about Steinbeck’s iconic 1960 road trip with his dog Charley and how I exposed the fraudulent nature of the allegedly nonfiction book Steinbeck wrote about his journey.

“Charley” is not very true or honest. It’s mostly fiction and a few lies. For only $5.99 you can learn every true thing I found out about Steinbeck’s trip, plus read about my crazy 2010 road trip on the Steinbeck Highway.

My “true nonfiction” book is a multi-hybrid — literary detective story, traditional American road book, primer in drive-by journalism and how the media work. All from an openly libertarian point of view.

It’s also part history lesson of 1960 America, part book review, part Steinbeck bio and part indictment of the negligence of Steinbeck scholars who failed to discover Steinbeck’s literary deceit for 50 years and then blithely excused it as inconsequential or irrelevant after I told them about it.

Guess I should have included footnotes.

The liberals manning the New York Times editorial page liked what I learned. So did the leftward boys at “On the Media” on NPR. So did Paul Theroux, Brian Lamb and my 96-year-old Mom.

But a lot of people — especially young and/or romantic diehard “Charley” fans — don’t appreciate me for ruining the romance of Steinbeck’s flawed book. Just look at the dumb 1-star reviews on Amazon.

But sorry, Steinbeckies, what I did with my humble work of journalism has changed the way “Travels With Charley” will be read forevermore. From now on, no 14-year-old who reads Steinbeck’s classic road book will be fooled into thinking it’s a true story.