I read just about every American travelogue and “Travels with Charley” was my first and favorite. I was a believer through the first couple of readings, but after decades of long road trips I began to be suspicious. Dogging Steinbeck confirmed my doubts. I never learned much during days spent just rocketing over highways except that this is a vast country sparsely populated with mostly kind, helpful people. The best conversations, comparable to the ones Steinbeck apparently enjoyed daily, generally occur only in hostels or while soaking nude in remote hot springs.
I believe Steinbeck did not set out to perpetrate a fraud. He could not have known that he couldn’t learn much in his mode of travel over just 11 weeks. Finding knowledge, adventure, and joy in a road trip takes skill and a propensity to dawdle.
Just as Steinbeck’s fraudulent account was not premeditated, Bill Steigerwald’s book was not motivated by the desire to unmask Steinbeck. No experienced road-tripper could miss the fictional aspects, especially armed with Steinbeck documents detailing the actual trip as was Steigerwald. One critical reviewer who obviously has not read Dogging Steinbeck called it a hatchet job. It is most certainly not. The author’s respect for both the truth and Steinbeck is obvious.
I wish John Steinbeck had been healthy and free enough to apply his wonderful literary skill to the kind of trip he needed to take to write the book that he initially envisioned. But if the book we got was the only one he could write, I forgive him. Because of Travels with Charley my life has been richer, happier, and, while travelling, I have attended Sunday services from cathedrals to adobe missions to inner-city converted store fronts. Still, Charley is the only fictionalized travelogue I will forgive. A travel book is only one perspective of one journey, and Steigerwald is right to insist that readers are owed a true account.
I felt that Steigerwald’s account of his trip and his research was as honest as he could make it. His political opinions do not detract from the book: although he did not make his book about himself, he did tell us who he is and that can only help readers to understand his perspective. I recommend this book to all who enjoy American road trip literature.