After criss-crossing America in the tracks of John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley,’ Bill Steigerwald came to a conclusion: The esteemed work is something of a fraud. (Victimless, perhaps, but still.)
A cornfield near Alice, N.D., where Steinbeck supposedly camped overnight and met an itinerant Shakespearean actor in October 1960.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sunday, December 05, 2010
By Bill Steigerwald
ALICE, N.D. — “Hah!” I blurted out as a million North Dakota cornstalks rattled in the pushy October wind.
“Who were you trying to kid, John? Who’d you think would ever believe you met a Shakespearean actor out here?”
For three weeks I had been retracing the 10,000-mile road trip Steinbeck made around America for his nonfiction bestseller “Travels With Charley,” and chronicling it for the Post-Gazette.
I wasn’t in the habit of speaking directly to the ghost of John Steinbeck. But I couldn’t stop from laughing at the joke that Steinbeck played on everyone in the pages of “Travels With Charley,” released in 1962 to national acclaim and still revered as a document of the American soul.
No one could hear me talking to Steinbeck’s ghost that Oct. 12 afternoon. I was parked on an unpaved farm road in the earthly equivalent of outer space — the cornfields of North Dakota, 47 miles southwest of Fargo.
The closest “town” was Alice, N.D., a 51-person dot on the map of a state famous for its emptiness, badlands and Lawrence Welk. The closest person, a woman, was more than a mile away, hidden in the cloud of dust her combine made as it shaved the stubble of the family wheat crop down to the dirt.
Alice is the scene of one of the most egregious fictions in “Travels With Charley.” Steinbeck wrote that he camped overnight somewhere “near Alice” by the Maple River, where he just happened to meet an itinerant Shakespearean actor who also just happened to be camping in the middle of the middle of nowhere.
According to Steinbeck’s account in “Charley,” the two hit if off and had a long, five-page discussion about the joys of the theater and the acting talents of John Gielgud.
Bumping into a sophisticated actor in the boondocks near Alice would have been an amazing bit of good luck for writer Steinbeck. It could have really happened on Oct. 12, 1960.
But like a dozen other improbable/unbelievable meetings with interesting characters Steinbeck says he had on his 11-week road trip from Long Island to Maine to Chicago to Seattle to California to Texas to New Orleans to New York City, it almost certainly never did.
Steinbeck, the master American novelist and storyteller, was making stuff up in Alice. It’s possible he and Charley stopped to have lunch by the Maple River on Oct. 12, 1960, as they raced across North Dakota.
But unless the author of “The Grapes of Wrath” was able to be at both ends of the state at the same time or push his pickup truck Rocinante to supersonic speeds, Steinbeck didn’t camp overnight anywhere near Alice 50 years ago.
In the real world, the nonfiction world, on the night of Oct. 12 Steinbeck was 326 miles farther west of Alice. He was in the Badlands, staying in a motel in the town of Beach, taking a hot bath. We know this is true nonfiction because Steinbeck wrote about the motel in a letter dated Oct. 12 that he sent from Beach to his wife Elaine in New York.
Steinbeck’s non-meeting with the actor near Alice is not an honest slip up or a one-off case of poetic license being too liberally employed in the pursuit of making an otherwise true story seem truer or more interesting. “Travels With Charley” is loaded with such creative “fictions.”
Long before I arrived in the lonely aglands of Alice, long before I left on my own 43-day 11,276- mile pursuit of Steinbeck’s ghost, I knew “Charley” was full of it — fiction, that is.
I already knew Steinbeck’s beloved account of his travels was not really a nonfiction book, which is how it has been classified since the day it became an instant bestseller in 1962.
I already knew “Charley” was deliberately vague and fuzzy about time and place. Steinbeck — 58 and in poor health — took virtually no notes and discovered no great truths about the country as he sped across it, so he had to hide the truth about his actual trip and make up a lot of stuff.
And I already knew — OK, let’s say, “I already seriously suspected” — that most members of the perfect cast of characters he described meeting on his trip from New England to New Orleans were not real people but creations of a novelist’s imagination.
I didn’t learn these things because I’m a literary Woodward or Bernstein. I didn’t set out to get the goods on the great John Steinbeck or fact-check “Travels With Charley.” And I never intended to show that the basic storyline of “Travels With Charley” — world-famous author travels across the country alone, roughing it and camping out as he searches for the soul of America and its people — is a 48-year-old cultural myth.
My initial motives for digging into “Travels With Charley” were totally innocent. I simply wanted to go exactly where Steinbeck went in 1960, see what he saw on the Steinbeck Highway and then write a book about the way America has and has not changed in the last 50 years.
I had a lot of Steinbeck homework to do, and I did it. I read “Travels With Charley” — and immediately became suspicious about the credibility of almost every character Steinbeck said he met, from the New England farmers who sound like crosses between Adlai Stevenson and Descartes to the archetypal white Southern racist in New Orleans.
Using clues from the “Charley” book, biographies of Steinbeck, letters Steinbeck wrote from the road, newspaper articles and the first draft of the “Charley” manuscript, I built a time-and-place line for Steinbeck’s trip from Sept. 23, 1960 to Dec. 5, 1960.
The more I learned about Steinbeck’s actual journey, however, the less it resembled the one he described in “Travels With Charley.” Some really smart people, not just high school kids with road fever in their blood, believe parts of the prevailing “Travels With Charley” myth without questioning.
One is writer Bill Barich, author of “Long Way Home,” a new Steinbeck-themed book about his six-week road trip up the gut of middle American on U.S. Route 50 in 2008. He told the Los Angeles Times recently that he thought Steinbeck’s pessimistic view of the America he found in 1960 (but didn’t put into “Charley”) was partly a result of spending so much time alone on the road with only a dog and a cache of booze to keep him company.
That’s the prevailing “Charley” myth, but it’s totally wrong.
Based on my research, my drive-by journalism and my best TV-detective logic, during his entire trip Steinbeck was almost never alone and rarely camped in the American outback.
Steinbeck was gone from New York for a total of about 75 days. On about 45 days he traveled with, stayed with and slept with his beloved wife Elaine in the finest hotels, motels and resorts in America, in family homes, and at a Texas millionaire’s cattle ranch near Amarillo.
Adding up all the other nights we know Steinbeck stayed in motels, slept in his camper at busy truck stops or stayed with friends, etc., there were roughly 70 nights in which Steinbeck wasn’t alone in his camper in the middle of nowhere or alone anywhere else.
Since he also socialized for weeks with his pals and family while he was on the West Coast and in Texas, the real question is, “Was Steinbeck ever alone in the fall of 1960?”
Even when he was driving cross-country by himself, he wasn’t alone for long. He was constantly stopping for gas, stopping to talk to locals in coffee shops and bars and visiting places like the Custer Monument and Yellowstone Park.
So let’s see: 75 minus 70. That leaves about five nights of Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” trip unaccounted for. In the book, which is rarely reliable, he tells us he camped overnight alone on a farm in New Hampshire, in Alice, N.D., and in the Badlands of North Dakota. But he really didn’t; he almost certainly made up or heavily embellished those campouts under the stars.
Did Steinbeck actually camp out on a second farm in New England or near the Continental Divide along Route 66 in New Mexico? Did he sleep in his camper in the rain under that bridge in Maine? Did he really camp out on private land in Ohio and Montana?
Only his ghost knows for sure — but so what?
“Travels With Charley” has always been classified as a work of nonfiction, but no one ever claimed it was a “Frontline” documentary.
Does it really matter if Steinbeck made up a lot of stuff he didn’t do on his trip or left out a lot of stuff he did do? Should we care that “Charley” could never be certified as “nonfiction” today or pass Oprah’s Truth Test? All nonfiction is part fiction, and vice versa. It’s not like Steinbeck wrote a phony Holocaust memoir that sullies the memories and souls of millions of victims.
“Travels With Charley” is almost 50 years old. It’s got its slow parts and silly parts and dumb parts. It contains obvious filler, but in many ways it is a wonderful, quirky and entertaining book. It contains flashes of Steinbeck’s great writing, humor and cranky character and appeals to readers of all ages. That’s why it’s an American classic and still popular around the world.
It doesn’t matter if it’s not the true or full or honest story of Steinbeck’s quixotic road trip. It was never meant to be. It’s a metaphor, a work of art, not a AAA travelogue.
Steinbeck himself insisted in “Charley” — a little defensively — that he wasn’t trying to write a travelogue or do real journalism. And he points out more than once that his trip was subjective and uniquely his, and so was its retelling.
My work is done. I’ll let the scholars sort out whether Steinbeck’s ghost deserves to be hauled on to Oprah’s stage to defend himself for his 50-year-old crimes against nonfiction. I don’t know where John Steinbeck will take me next.
But I’m glad I got to take my own strange trip down his highway — and got to laugh out loud in Alice.