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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.)

images-1A lot of really smart, thoughtful people — and a few dummies — have “reviewed” my book “Dogging Steinbeck” on Amazon.
Below is what I think is the best of the 60 comments and reviews that have been put on Amazon’s site so far. Whoever wrote it spent a lot of time assessing my book of “True Nonfiction” in a fair and thorough way.
He or she chose to be anonymous. But whoever they are, I thank them for their hard, high-quality work — and for not letting my libertarian politics or their own continuing affection for “Travels With Charley” blind them to the quality and value of my book.

 

4.0 out of 5 starsDogging Steinbeck, following John Steinbeck’s route fifty years later., February 25, 2013
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth about ‘Travels With Charley’ (Kindle Edition)

I remember enjoying Travels with Charley many years ago so I was intrigued when I learned of Dogging Steinbeck in which the author, Bill Steigerwald, follows Steinbeck’s famous cross-country route fifty years later. Before reading Dogging Steinbeck, I took the time to read Travels with Charley again immediately before starting Steigerwald’s book.I enjoyed Dogging Steinbeck very much and admire Steigerwald for his efforts in making and recording his own journey. The day by day observations of the seasonal weather, the local characters and conditions he encountered, and the frequent comparisons to Steinbeck’s own journey to rediscover America made interesting reading. It’s soon became apparent, however, that his experiences and extensive Steinbeck research created considerable doubt about the accuracy of Charley. Indeed, Steigerwald offers convincing evidence that Steinbeck’s beloved classic was more a work of fiction than a trip journal.One of the great pleasures in reading Steigerwald’s book was that he found so many friendly and interesting people in his travels. Certainly the mass media does not spend much time reporting about nice people; the weirdos, extremists, uberwealthy, instant celebrities, and truly dangerous are far more likely to be in the news. It was nice to read that the vast majority of average Americans were still pleasant and helpful to a traveling stranger. I was also pleased to be repeatedly reminded of the many ways that our daily lives have immeasurably improved over the past five decades. It happens that I grew up in a small town on old Route 66 (which figures in both books) so I have personal knowledge of just how dangerous those highways were 50 years ago. Likewise, our medical technology, communications and self-educational opportunities, and personal comfort today are incomparably superior to that of the past.In comparing his experience with Steinbeck’s, perhaps we should recall that old saying, “Don’t go looking for trouble… for you will surely find it.” Most people, most days go through life in a responsive mode. If we approach them in a friendly and respectful manner, they will respond in kind. Perhaps Steigerwald’s book is like another more famous volume, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in that the book also tells us a great deal about the writer. If he encountered many nice people, maybe it is because he expected them to be nice, and that he impressed them as being a nice guy himself. They were in sharp contrast with the many shallow, ungrammatical characters that Steinbeck wrote about in his book. Of the two journeys, Steigerwald probably met more interesting people and had more fun – even if he did not have the resources to indulge in high-end hotels and stay with rich friends along the route as Steinbeck did.I must mention the controversy that the book has apparently created. A significant part of Steigerwald’s book involves the responses from the Steinbeck establishment to his claims of “literary fraud”. What now seems incontrovertible was that John Steinbeck did wholly manufacture entire episodes and characters. I am willing to accept an explanation of “artistic license”; indeed, I have no problem with that. What I found more disturbing was the revelation that, rather than being a lonely, thoughtful old man taking a meandering, low-budget trip, Steinbeck was not roughing it at all. Steigerwald’s conclusion that he spent only about five nights in his entire journey actually sleeping in his camper greatly diminishes the aura of Steinbeck, the common man.

Yet, for all that, I take exception with Steigerwald’s implication that Charley was not a good book. I am now willing to accept that this is more a work of fiction than a travel book but it is still wonderful reading. I had forgotten just how good it is until I read it again. Okay, finding an itinerant Shakespearean actor/vagabond drifting across North Dakota strains credibility now that Steigerwald has brought it to my attention. But, honestly, I don’t care; in Steinbeck’s book, he was an articulate, warm character. If Steinbeck used these literary creations to make his point… well, that is what novelists do – and he did it rather skillfully, I thought. A big part of the writing challenge is in creating a picture that the reader finds believable. A great many contemporary authors are far, far less adroit with such literary devices than Steinbeck.

Reading Dogging Steinbeck was a pleasure, a modern journalist’s trip down Memory Lane… even if he did spend many nights sleeping in Wal-mart parking lots. I recommend that readers of this book do as I did, read Charley first for the pleasure of Steinbeck’s superlative narrative. Remembering the details of Steinbeck’s book will then prepare you for the comparable experiences and revelations in Bill Steigerwald’s book.

Five years ago I started down the road to dogging John Steinbeck. It’s been a tremendous trip and though my book hasn’t become as widely distributed — or profitable — as I hoped,  I don’t regret a day I spent pursuing Steinbeck’s ghost and the truth about his book. I’ve made many new friends, including fellow Dutch Steinbeck-chaser Geert Mak and master travel writer Paul Theroux. Theroux has been a loyal supporter. He tells me he mentions me and my “Dogging Steinbeck” project in his upcoming road book about the America South, “Deep South,” which was previewed last summer in Smithsonian magazine. Steinbeck’s love-blinded fans are another story. So are the academics who make their livings touting his works and protecting his reputation as a truth-teller. Despite what I proved — that “Travels With Charley” is largely fiction and riddled with literary dishonesty and deceit — the Steinbeck “scholars” at Steinbeck Review refuse to mention, review or even trash my book. But enough whining. I had a lot of fun digging into Steinbeck and his iconic travel tale. It all started in March of 2010, when I, a mere babe of 62, traveled to Central California to do some early research for what became “Dogging Steinbeck.”

A free excerpt:

2 — Stranger in Steinbeck Country

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. – “Travels With Charley”

Alone on Fremont Peak

I was sitting alone and shivering on top of Fremont Peak, a spectacular little spike of marble overlooking the entire Monterey Peninsula. I couldn’t see Steinbeck’s grave or his ghost, but both of them were out there somewhere under the glare of the dying California sun as it fell toward Monterey Bay.

Everything Steinbeck was down there somewhere — the house he grew up in, the statues, the things named after him, the museum/shrine that glorifies him and his works, the places and characters he made famous for eternity in “The Red Pony,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Cannery Row” and “East of Eden.” It’s why they called it “Steinbeck Country.”

Except for the pushy wind and the chirpings of a few invisible birds, I had Fremont Peak to myself. No tourists. No park rangers. No other ex-journalists with or without dogs doing books about “Travels With Charley.” Just lucky me, my notebook, my cameras and a head full of conflicting thoughts about my famous new sidekick.

It was March 11, 2010. Day 4 of my extreme West Coast research tour. I had learned a ton of new stuff about the man, his last major book and his highway travels. I’d gone to Stanford’s Green Library, where 300 letters from Steinbeck to his agent Elizabeth Otis are kept. I’d been to San Jose State University’s Steinbeck Center. I’d been to San Francisco to meet a writer who interviewed Steinbeck on his “Charley” trip. I’d checked out Cannery Row, downtown Monterey, Steinbeck’s family cottage in Pacific Grove, plus his gravesite and the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

The only reason I was up on Fremont Peak was because Steinbeck said he climbed to that exact spot during his “Travels With Charley” trip. I was glad to be there. It was an awesome, rugged place, the star attraction of Fremont Peak State Park’s collection of grassy round mountains and steep wooded canyons.

The pile of gray boulders is only 3,169 feet above Monterey Bay, but its distinctive little tooth is visible from almost anywhere in the Salinas Valley. It was lonely, peaceful, beautiful, a little dangerous and a little scary. No wonder young Johnny, who played on its slopes, hoped to be buried up there someday. It was the closest you could get to a heavenly view of Steinbeck Country without putting on wings.

Though it was the end of a hazy day, I could see more than 20 miles in every direction. In the shadows behind me, dry valleys and barely green mountain ranges stretched eastward to the Sierra Nevada. The San Andreas Fault was down there somewhere too, which explains why Fremont Peak — not to mention the Monterey Peninsula, Los Angeles and the rest of the northbound Pacific Plate — had inched 8.33 feet closer to San Francisco since Steinbeck visited the area in 1960.

Twenty-five miles southwest across the valley floor, hugging chilly Monterey Bay, was the historic city of Monterey. To be honest, I couldn’t see it, even with the zoom of my video camera. I only knew it was out there somewhere in the growing darkness, hidden by a strip of low coastal mountains, because that morning I had gone to Cannery Row to watch the sun come up over Monterey Bay.

At my feet, sprawled on the valley floor, lay Salinas, the capital of Steinbeck Country and the barely fictionalized setting for “East of Eden.” The city was an island in a shallow sea of strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach and other crops — the “green gold” that made Salinas rich 100 years ago and earned it the nickname “The Salad Bowl of the World.” The valley’s fertile black soil and sunny, ocean-cooled climate, combined with the labor of busloads of Latino farm workers, produced 80 percent of the lettuce Americans eat every year.

Salinas’ population was 160,000. That was twice what it was in 1960 and 40 times larger than when Steinbeck was born there in 1902. The city was wracked by deadly Latino gang violence and, like most California governments in the spring of 2010, was in deep budgetary trouble.

The Great Recession had slammed Steinbeck Country hard. The unemployment rate was 13 percent and going higher. Foreclosures were running twice as high as in 2006. Poverty rates were up, property tax revenues were down. But from high atop Fremont Peak, California was as golden as ever and everything in the Salinas Valley looked fine and healthy.

Earlier that day in the old downtown of Salinas I had toured the main Steinbeck stops. I took a few photos of the restored Queen Anne-style Victorian house he grew up in. It was closed, so I didn’t see the gift shop or gourmet restaurant that features local produce and $13 entrees like Asparagus & Ham Timbale with choice of Tomato Leek Soup or Green Salad. The corner house is on the National Register of Historic Places and Oprah Winfrey taped one of her shows in the front yard when her book club was touting “East of Eden.”

Two blocks away was the National Steinbeck Center, one of the few reasons for tourists to divert from the sun and surf of the Pacific Coast to the scorched flats of Salinas. The largest museum in the country devoted to a single writer, it’s smartly designed and visitor friendly. Steinbeck’s life story and books co-star in a dozen well-staged exhibits that include loops of clips from movies like “East of Eden” and “Of Mice and Men.” Recordings of his deep voice are never out of earshot.

The enduring popularity of “Travels With Charley” was evident at the center. The bookstore sold various editions of the entire Steinbeck canon — 16 novels, six non-fiction and five short-story collections. “Travels With Charley” had been the No. 1 seller since 2003 and the center’s most popular attraction and holiest relic was the 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper combo Steinbeck rode in on his search for America.

You couldn’t get inside the cab of the truck or the camper shell, or even touch them, because “Rocinante” was corralled behind a tall fence of Plexiglas. Squared-off and primitive, the cab’s hard utilitarian interior was uncomfortable just to look at. It was proof of the punishment Steinbeck endured for 10,000 miles with only an old French dog, an AM radio and his imagination for company. Unfortunately, the $11 million Steinbeck Center was not doing well. Its annual attendance was running about 30,000, which doesn’t sound so bad but works out to about 82 people a day. Chronically short of funds, it was dependent on subsidies from a city government that itself was in serious fiscal trouble.

Across the street from the Steinbeck Center, suckered in by the permanent sidewalk sign boasting that “Steinbeck Ate Here,” I ate lunch at Sang’s Café. Under my withering questioning the owner broke down and confessed the truth. The sign should more accurately say “Steinbeck Drank Here,” because that’s what young John did too much of there in the ‘20s and ‘30s when he was a struggling writer and the place was a bar. It wasn’t the first or last time I’d bump up against a Steinbeck myth. A lot of what we know about him — good and bad — is either truer or less false than we think.

Until I began “investigating” him for my book idea, I didn’t know much about him at all. “John Steinbeck” had been reduced to a famous literary name — a “Jeopardy!” question to the answer “This Californian was the sixth American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.” Whatever I had learned about him I’d forgotten. During high school in the 1960s I was forced to read the usual Steinbeck classics, but they had no more impact on my life than “Beowulf.”

I liked “Of Mice and Men” then and appreciated it much more after re-reading it as an adult. But my social conscience wasn’t aroused by “The Grapes of Wrath’s” expose of the cruelty of capitalism and the sufferings of the migrant working class. I was a Baby Boomer from another political planet, a red one. When I was 17, in 1964, I was watching William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line” and sneaking Barry Goldwater stickers onto the bumper of my neighbor’s Country Squire station wagon.

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 protestors, whom he thought were stupid and cowardly, he despised hippies and the ‘60s youth culture.

Steinbeck the man had personal issues that didn’t appeal to me. He was a parochial New York City snob by the time he took his long road trip. He was an enthusiastic and daily boozer. And in the 1960s he forgot his earlier wise warning to artists to stay away from political power and cozied up to JFK and especially LBJ. His biographer Jackson Benson pointed out in his 1984 epic “The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer” that Steinbeck’s darker side included a quarrelsome nature and a “striking lack of charity and understanding.”

His sons John Steinbeck IV, who died from complications during surgery in 1991, and Thom, who is a California writer, felt their father neglected them after he divorced their mother and married Elaine, his third and final wife, in 1950. Yet whatever his faults as a father and husband, personally and politically Steinbeck was a living saint compared to many celebrities and famous writers of his era.

Despite our differences, I had grown to like the grouchy, contradictory guy. Underneath his New Yorker magazine limousine liberalism, he hid an admirable libertarian streak. He wrote fine paeans to individualism, understood the importance of private property rights and hated bureaucrats and government bullying. Plus he didn’t moralize about things like prostitution. He treated prostitutes kindly in his books and thought they provided a service to the community, which of course they do.

If I wasn’t captured by Steinbeck’s New Deal politics or his social conscience, I sure was impressed by his writing skills. When I re-read “Of Mice and Men” and “Cannery Row,” I was blown away by his spare style, beautiful descriptive powers, sense of place and storytelling. Just the first 500 words of “Cannery Row” should make any journalist envious or throw her laptop away and become a plumber. I didn’t have the casual attitude about facts that Steinbeck did, which was why I’d ultimately get pissed at him. But I totally agreed with what he said about the impossibility of objectivity and the inherent and unavoidable subjectivity of journalism and all writing — fiction or nonfiction.

My last stop in Salinas that morning before climbing Fremont Peak had been his gravesite in Garden of Memories Memorial Park. Though a colorful “Steinbeck” sign pointed right at it, his small flat marker was hard to find among the weathered grey slabs and spiky old stone monuments. Seeking anonymity, simplicity and privacy even in death, Steinbeck’s ashes are interred with his parents, wife Elaine and sister Mary in the Hamilton plot, the plot of his mother’s family.

A pot of bright yellow mums, wilted slightly and knocked over by the valley’s unrelenting wind, gave away his final whereabouts: “John Steinbeck: 1902–1968.” A 2-inch white ceramic poodle with a pink heart for its collar guarded the simple marker. I stood on Steinbeck’s grave as respectfully as possible and took a few close-ups of the tiny dog, which had been left by a “Travels With Charley” fan. Was that chintzy totem of Charley a warning to let his master’s reputation rest in peace? I had no clue. I was a journalist looking for facts, not symbols.

Anyway, it didn’t matter. In the spring of 2010 I was a guy with no job, a melting 401(k), a fat mortgage and too many leased cars. I had already invested too much of my life in Mr. Steinbeck, his travels around the USA and what I already suspected was his blatant fudging of the truth in “Travels With Charley.” Chasing his ghost across America had become my destiny, my mission, my mad obsession, my brilliant act of entrepreneurial journalism, my big waste of money and time — I wasn’t sure which. I only knew I was too many miles down the Steinbeck Highway to turn back.

Following in the unreliable footsteps of Steinbeck

Geert Mak: In America – Travels With John Steinbeck.

It looks like I’ll be spending the rest of my life trying to get the credit I deserve for exposing Steinbeck’s fictions and lies in “Travels With Charley” and ruining the fun for Steinbeckies everywhere.
The Herald Scotland reviewed Geert Mak’s “In America: Travels With John Steinbeck” on Jan. 10.
It was a good review, but it made the usual mistake of not crediting me for what I did. (“Several scholars and journalists” outed Steinbeck, wrote reviewer Ian Bell.
I doubt that this self-promoting comment I sent to the Herald will get past its moderators, who don’t work weekends and  have  better hours (and more dumb rules) than bureaucrats or government regulators.
For the record, here is what I wrote:
If the readers of Scotland want to know the sordid details of just how much fictionalizing and fibbing Steinbeck did in “Travels With Charley,” and how I exposed his literary crime after 50 years, I urge them to seek out my Amazon ebook “Dogging Steinbeck.” As Geert Mak generously points out in his fine book, in 2010 I proved with my journalism on and off the road that “Travels” was so full of fiction that it could no longer be considered an honest work of nonfiction. (Because of my troublemaking, Penguin Group changed the introduction to “Travels” to say just that.) Also: Mak and I retraced Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile road trip concurrently in the fall of 2010, but we saw two different countries through our windscreens. That’s because he’s a proud Euro-socialist and I’m a proud libertarian. I like the (mostly) prosperous, safe and psychologically healthy country I saw better than the impoverished, fearful and diminished one he saw. Everything any Scot would want to know about my Steinbeck trip — including links to video and many photos — can be had at www.truthaboutcharley.com

Jan. 10 Update:

My mad attempt to penetrate the Herald Scotland’s over-regulated and asinine comment process continues. I hope this email — which I posted on their web site to give their mindless moderators something to do — annoys them. I repeat what I wrote here, so as to shame them for their tight-ass stupidity. The Herald Scotland is one of the oldest newspapers in the world and it acts like it.
As far as I can tell, my three attempts to add a comment to the Jan. 10 review of Geert Mak’s book “In America” have failed because I dared to mention my own Amazon ebook, “Dogging Steinbeck.”
Will a rational adult — and not a lawyer or former bureaucrat or mindless robot — please moderate my attempts to add a comment?
Pick one, any one, of the comments I’ve sent you. Ask Rosemary Goring’s advice.
 The fact that I am the veteran newspaper journalist who first exposed the heavy fictional content of “Travels With Charley” in 2010 and changed the way “Charley” will be read forever, is, while admittedly self-promotional (sorry), both important and interesting to the larger discussion of Steinbeck and “Charley.” No?
Despite what Mr. Bell implies in his review, in recent years “several scholars and journalists” did not simultaneously come to the same conclusion about “Charley’s” untruthfulness by accident; they only did so after I blew the literary whistle on Steinbeck’s fraudulent work, which had been passed off as a work of nonfiction for 50 years.
Geert Mak mentions me about 10 times in his book, credits me with my discoveries, repeats them and generously praises my dogged journalism.
Further proof of my claim: The New York Times editorial page praised my expose here in 2010 after its arts and entertainment section wrote about me here.
Travel writer Paul Theroux, Reason magazine, the Weekly Standard, NPR and the CBC, among many others, have covered my discovery and mentioned or reviewed my book, which I dare not mention again in a promotional way so as not to offend a publication that makes its profit selling advertising.
Your reviewer, unlike the reviews of Mak’s book in the Spectator and the Guardian, did not mention me. Fine.
But the Guardian and Spectator both allowed me to add my comments, criticize their reviews, correct their mistakes about me and blatantly flog my self-published book without posing a threat to the sanctity of their commenting processes or the credibility of their publications.
Is it too much to ask that the Herald — which, not surprisingly, has zero comments attached to the Mak review — figure out how to allow me to do the same?

The English version of Geert Mak’s Steinbeck/America book, “In America: Travels With John Steinbeck,” is the hit of the UK’s book pages.

Geert Mak sent me an English version of his 2012 book, which has been updated. The inscription reads: To Bill Steigerwald, Who really did what Steinbeck only suggested.”

It’s been reviewed  fairly favorably in the last two weeks by the bookies at the Guardian newspaper, the Spectator magazine and now the Herald, the Scottish paper that is the longest running national newspaper in the world.

Mak’s book — an impressive combination history book and travel book aimed at informing his fellow Dutch — is more than 500 pages and covers a lot of American ground.

A 2013 bestseller in Holland, it was hooked around the idea of following John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” route exactly 50 years later.

An ocean apart, we had the same book idea — to show how much America had changed from 1960 to 2010 by retracing Steinbeck’s “Charley” trip and comparing what we saw on the road with what he did.

Mak mentions me about a dozen times in his book and repeatedly praises me for my drive-by journalism and for digging up and exposing the fictions and lies Steinbeck filled “Charley” with.

It was/is a great honor to be praised by a great journalist like him.

We didn’t meet on the Old Steinbeck Highway in the fall of 2010, but we’ve met since. (He flew from New York City to Pittsburgh last year just to meet me and buy me lunch.)
We were only a day or two apart on the road as he and his wife drove behind me in their rented Jeep.

Mak slept in motels and behaved like a mature mid-60s author and journalist while I slept in my car and drove like a mad teenager.

Mak is a major Dutch media figure, best-selling historian and journalist who had a sweet book deal. I, being a nobody, could not get a publisher and so I had to travel on my own dime and time.

As I’ve said often, I had a blast chasing Steinbeck’s ghost, exposing his ethical lapses and dueling with the Steinbeck scholars. I would not rewind the tape of the last five years to do it any other way.

I’ll get my payoff when Kevin Costner options my book so he can play Steinbeck, the great author who at age 58 bit off more than he could chew when he set out to rediscover America.

Mak and I are not political soul mates, though we are both against the war on drugs, the wars in the Middle East and poor city planning.

He is a self-defined “euro-socialist” and therefore what we say is right and wrong about the Americas we saw in our books differs by about 180-degrees when it comes to economic policy, the wage gap and the efficacy  of government welfare programs.

The America he found was an ocean of impoverishment with outposts of prosperity that needed more government, not less; the America I found was an ocean of prosperity with outposts of poverty that had the federal government and both parties to blame for the economic woes of the Great Recession.

Someday I hope we will have a debate in Holland, where Mak jokes he has made Bill Steigerwald a household name.

About 54 years ago today, John Steinbeck finished his failed “Travels With Charley” road trip and dragged his tired and unhappy ass back home to New York City.

He had driven Rocinante about 10,000 miles in the fall of 1960 and spent the next 10 months, off and on, writing “Charley.”  As we now know, and as I put into “Dogging Steinbeck,” he had to make up a lot of stuff to fill his slim travel book — which was, quite deviously, edited and marketed as a true nonfiction account of his search for the America he had lost touch with.

When I followed Steinbeck’s trail faithfully in the fall of 2010, I didn’t know it but I was a few days ahead of famed Dutch historian/journalist Geert Mak. I only found out in 2012 that Mak too had had the idea of retracing Steinbeck’s journey as a way to compare the changes that have beset/improved America in the last 50 years.

The English edition of Mak’s “In America: Travels With John Steinbeck” — a fat and footnoted bestseller in Holland — has just come out.

Mak is a self-defined Euro-socialist. Therefore his view of the USA is more pessimistic than mine, which is libertarianly tilted and critical of the current media and the  snooty liberal East Coast view of Flyover Country that Steinbeck also held.

The Independent in London has reviewed  Mak’s book critically but fairly. There’s only one comment — mine.

Here’s how Stuart Evers’ review starts….

In America: Travels with John Steinbeck by Geert Mak, book review: A depiction of a country in decline, but was he looking in the right places?

The cultural life of America – film, music, literature – so important in founding and reasserting a national identity, is almost totally ignored by the author

Geert Mak’s retracing of John Steinbeck’s celebrated American journey, Travels with Charley, first appeared in the Netherlands in 2012 under the title Travels Without John: In Search of America.

In this fluid English translation by Liz Waters, the title has been transposed and refocused to In America: Travels with John Steinbeck. In purely commercial terms, one can see why the publisher would want to amplify the Steinbeck link, make him a part of the action. Yet this is a disparity that points to the problem at the heart of this book: it doesn’t quite know exactly what it wants to be.

Steinbeck, at least at first, had a clear idea of both what he was writing, and why he was writing it. In 1960, after an illness had forced him to take stock, he set off from Sag Harbour – with his dog, Charley – journeying through 33 of the 50 American states, to find the country he loved. It’s the last of Steinbeck’s major works, and one that begins in hope and macho endeavour, and ends in downbeat disappointment. It’s a journey riven with great writing, moments of drama and self-reflection; it is also hugely fictionalised, and most probably more imagination than fact.

 

 

“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.