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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.

(Here’s a link to 16 videos I shot as I traveled.)

 My name finally appeared the Guardian newspaper in connection with my Steinbeck exploits, but look at what happened.tumblr_n7zatwvlCA1rxrxxxo1_1280
The Guardian reviews Geert Mak’s book about his “Travels With Charley” trip around the USA, which I appear in about 10 times, but it fails to credit me for my expose.
The Guardian’s reviewer also falsely accuses me of having a web site for dog-lovers. My barrister will be contacting them. My comment is at the end.
In case it gets killed out, here is what it says, using Brit punctuation:
It’s nice to see my name in print in the Guardian, but can we get a few things straight — things that my Dutch pal (and ideological opposite) Geert Mak got straight in his fine book. First off, while I am a longtime libertarian newspaperman and columnist, and I did chase Steinbeck’s ghost concurrently with Mak in the fall of 2010, I did not have a web site for dog lovers. That was fellow Steinbeck-chaser John Woestendiek, a Pulitzer Prize winner who used to work for the Baltimore Sun. A minor quibble in a long review, to be sure, but we ex-newspapermen can get picky with our facts. Much more important to me and readers of the Guardian is the failure of the reviewer to credit me and my dogged journalism (on and off the road) for exposing, after 50 years, that “Travels With Charley” was filled with so many fictions and lies that it did not deserve to be called a work of nonfiction. (It had been deceptively marketed, reviewed and taught as a true nonfiction account of Steinbeck’s iconic 1960 road trip since 1962; because of the trouble I caused in newspapers, Reason magazine and in my book “Dogging Steinbeck”, the latest introduction to “Charley” by Jay Parini has been carefully amended to tell readers the truth — that they are about to read a work of BS, I mean fiction. My name was not mentioned by Professor Parini but the paper I was working for was.) Geert Mak — who went out of his way earlier this year to fly from new York City to Pittsburgh to meet me face-to-face — honestly/graciously credited me in his book for discovering, long before he did, the inconsistencies between Steinbeck’s first draft of “Charley” and the published version. I’ve tried many times to get the Guardian’s book people to pay attention to “Dogging Steinbeck”, which was self-published on Amazon and therefore has trouble being taken seriously, or reviewed, by newspapers and magazines. My book contains no footnotes, cracks lots of jokes and looks at 11,276 miles of the Steinbeck Highway from a refreshingly libertarian point of view (i.e., not the standard cliche-ridden East Coast liberal establishment one that Steinbeck had and Mr. Lennon betrays), but it is a serous work of journalism. “True nonfiction”, I call it. The New York Times editorial page and travel writer Paul Theroux were highly pleased with what I learned about “Charley”, its author and the lengths to which Viking Press went to create the myth that Steinbeck traveled alone, traveled rough and traveled slow. Mak gave me credit for my literary expose several times in his book, but Mr. Lennon somehow missed it. Here’s what Mak wrote to me in an email: “I wanted … first to express my personal admiration for the job you did. Second, to tell you that you became a kind of a journalistic hero in my travel-story about Steinbeck, because you did such fantastic detailed research on the subject, and you did it alone, in sometimes-difficult circumstances”. Readers who want all the crazy details of my road trip, my expose and my pain in trying to get “Dogging Steinbeck” the attention it deserves can go to Amazon or my web site, www.truthaboutcharley.com, which is not about dogs.

John Steinbeck set out to do his “Travels With Charley” trip the right way — alone and like a serious journalist. But it quickly unraveled and he had to resort to fiction and fibs to tell his tale. A free excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck,” an Amazon ebook that’s the antidote of truth to “Charley.”

A Good Trip Gone Bad

A stranger passing like a bullet through his own heartland, Steinbeck spent twice as much time relaxing on his 11-week journey than driving. He discovered no new facts or insights about the USA or its citizens, mainly because he did no real journalism and spent relatively little time with ordinary people. Yet he deserved a lot of credit just for taking the road trip.

Despite his shaky health and age, not to mention his princely lifestyle and celebrity social circle, he had the balls to roll up his sleeves and take on what was essentially a major journalism project. What other great American writer would have even considered traveling the rough way he did?

Initially, he fully intended to do his trip the right way and the only way it would work – solo and at the grassroots level. His ambitious plan – going alone, taking photos, writing dispatches to newspapers or magazines from the road, going to a different church every Sunday, spending quality time in the Jim Crow South – was basic, sound journalism and a perfect vehicle for his talents.

A nonfiction book based on his original plan wouldn’t have been as popular with readers or kept its romantic appeal for 50 years, but it would have made a better, more substantive book. It would have slowed him down, forced him to meet hundreds of other real people and given him a chance to discover more of the America he went searching for.

But Steinbeck’s great exploration never materialized. He never learned to use a camera, didn’t take notes or keep a journal and never wrote a word for publication during his 75 days away from New York. His grand plan was unraveled by the reality of his lifestyle, health and the punishment of the open road. He quickly got lonely and tired and no doubt bored.

Ironically, in one sense he may have been lucky he lost heart so early. The daily pressure and logistical nightmares of trying to do real journalism on the back roads of America in 1960 could have killed him. What’s more, in the Analog Age it was an unrealistic mission even for a man in good health to circumnavigate America alone. Transcontinental car travel was still an adventure, not the smooth ride it is today. As Steinbeck learned, just finding a public pay phone so he could call his wife every three days was a major accomplishment.

Before he left Maine he had already realized the obvious – the country was too damn big and diverse to pin down or sum up. No one person, not even a Steinbeck, could discover the real America in 11 weeks or 11 months. Anyway, as he wisely said, there was no single “real” America. As he knew and advised his readers, every traveler must take his own trip and find his own version of America.  Trouble was, his was largely a 50 mph blur interrupted by luxurious vacations with his wife. And when his journey ended, he had to sit down and make up a nonfiction book about a real country he never found, never really looked for and didn’t really like much.

My pal Michael Challik, the great veteran “shooter” at KDKA TV and a born Dutchman, did me a great favor the other day by translating part of a video interview with Steinbeck-chaser Geert Mak.

Mak, a famous and renowned Dutch journalist/historian/author,  also retraced Steinbeck’s “Charley” route in the fall of 2010 and wrote a big fat, footnoted book that became a best-seller in Holland. Mak’s book, “Travels Without John in Search of America,” is being translated into English. Mak kindly mentions me about a dozen times, favorably.

Unfortunately, the book, like the video interview, is in Dutch.

Here’s a link to the video — Geert Mak talks about the journalism & politics of “Bill Steigerwald.”

And here’s the translation of the 5-minute video, courtesy of the kind Michael Challik:

 Geert Mak is lying awake thinking of the competition.

You think you have designed a great plan, but one afternoon in a little town, Lancaster, we were looking for a place John Steinbeck had stayed.  The night, a motel, pouring down rain, got out at a gas station, asked where is the motel from the 1960’s.  I can still see him, a hat on turned backwards, “Oh Steinbeck! Right?”

(The service station attendant continues.) “Yesterday, there was also somebody here.” So you think you’re the only one.  Real quickly Googled, wondering who that could be, and got the answer in about three minutes.  Bill Steigerwald, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, retired journalist.  Did exactly the same, except took off half-an-hour sooner.  We left at at 8:30…he left at 8, so we just missed him on the ferry to the mainland.

Bill wrote in his blog on the ferry at 8:45 where he met a third journalist, a guy called  John Woesdijk (sp?), who was walking the route with a dog for a dog magazine.  Later we found out that there was a fourth.  She was with the Washington Post with her Mum.  The last two I didn’t hear anything from again.  All four wanted to follow Steinbeck’s route, but Bill S., I must be honest, tried to follow Steinbeck’s whole route.  I must say I couldn’t agree with his political views, to say the least, but he did describe the route very precisely, like where Steinbeck bought his gun, with all kinds of movies, including if you would like to follow the route through his eyes.  I really recommend his website.

QUESTION: You didn’t have any contact with him?

ANSWER: Oh yeah, later on we talked a lot about it.  I really did want to talk to him because I really did find – even though he had opinions on     Obama, etc. – he was very dedicated, and he did it by himself, and he was the only one who     was roughing it, because Steinbeck stayed in hotels mostly.  Bill really roughed it out.  I got a lot of respect for him, but I thought the only thing I can do is to use him in my book…and so it goes.

But as soon as my book was finished, I wrote him – and he had also heard of me. He heard about a book in Holland, and we talked openly and frequently, and we are planning in our lives absolutely to come together, and with a great glass of beer and talk about world problems and solve them by the end of the afternoon.

QUESTION: He is an arch-conservative, right-winger Republican?

ANSWER: No, no!  He would get real mad if you tell him that, because he really didn’t like George W. Bush.  He is a Libertarian thinker.  No, No I am a half-Socialistic, latte drinking, French loving, Volvo driving, European.

So I was really different, but Steigerwald found out that Steinbeck said things in his book that were absolutely not true, and I also discovered that too.  Because if you follow Steinbeck’s journey you find, for instance, he went fishing a whole afternoon with a companion, and talks about his marriage etc., but supposedly on the same day when you follow his iterinerary he drove 400-450 miles.  You can’t be fishing in the beginning of the afternoon – and then drive 450-miles. So you find a lot of discrepancies.