Currently viewing the category: "Truth About Charley"

But after half a century of masquerading as a work of nonfiction, and after almost 1.5 million copies sold, John Steinbeck’s iconic road book “Travels With Charley” has quietly come clean with its readers.

Penguin Group, which owns the rights to Steinbeck’s works, didn’t quite come out and call “Travels With Charley” a literary fraud, as I did first in the Post-Gazette in December 2010 and five months later in Reason magazine.

But the company has been forced to admit that the beloved book about a great American writer traveling around the country in a camper with his poodle is so heavily fictionalized it should not be taken literally.

Before I detail Penguin’s confession, some background is in order. For the past two years I’ve caused trouble for a lot of the “Travels With Charley” fans, scholars and publishers who live on Steinbeck World.

It started innocently. In the fall 2010, as part of a book project to show how much America has changed in the past 50 years, I wanted to retrace faithfully Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile road trip. The Post-Gazette granted me a blog, “Travels Without Charley,” to chronicle the journey, and published a series of my pieces in the Sunday Magazine.

While doing research in libraries and reading the original manuscript of the book, however, I stumbled onto a 50-year-old literary “scoop.”

As I revealed in my Dec. 5, 2010, PG article “The Fabulism of ‘Travels With Charley,’ ” there were major discrepancies between Steinbeck’s actual road trip and what he wrote in the book.

Though it had always been marketed, sold, reviewed and taught as the true account of Steinbeck’s circumnavigation of the USA in the fall of 1960, “Charley” was not very true or accurate or honest at all.

It was not nonfiction. It was mostly fiction — plus a few lies and deliberate distortions thrown in by Steinbeck and his sly editors at the Viking Press to create the myth that he traveled alone, roughed it and spent a lot of time studying and thinking about America and its people.

It took a while for my charges against Steinbeck to escape the gravitational field of Pittsburgh. But in April 2011, five months after my article for the PG, The New York Times “discovered” me and made my accusations globally famous — for the usual 15 minutes.

Most of my fellow journalists praised me for my discovery. But I was cursed by Steinbeck groupies around the world for spoiling their fun with my fierce fetish for facts. It was hard to persuade them I didn’t hate Steinbeck or “Charley,” which, despite its lapses in the truth department, flashes with his great nature writing, wisdom and humor.

And some college English professors who believe the use of creative fictional techniques in nonfiction is a good and common thing dismissed me for wasting so much energy proving what they claimed was irrelevant or always obvious.

Penguin’s recent admission of the fictional genetic makeup of “Charley” was subtle — so subtle no one noticed it but professional-Steinbeck-watchdog me. It had been quietly slipped into the introduction of a new edition of “Charley,” which was released on Oct. 2 to co-celebrate the book’s 50th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

The lengthy introduction was first written for a 1997 paperback edition by esteemed Middlebury College English professor, author and Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini.

In his original introduction, Mr. Parini had pointed out Steinbeck’s heavy use of fictional elements, especially dialogue. Otherwise he treated “Charley” just as 2.5 generations of Steinbeck scholars had always treated it — as if it was the true and honest account of the author’s road trip and what he thought about America and Americans.

Into the latest edition, however, Mr. Parini inserted the cold truth:

“Indeed, it would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist, and he added countless touches — changing the sequence of events, elaborating on scenes, inventing dialogue — that one associates more with fiction than nonfiction. (A mild controversy erupted, in the spring of 2011, when a former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did some fact-checking and noticed that Steinbeck’s itinerary didn’t exactly fit that described in the book, and that some of the people he supposedly interviewed, such as an actor at a campsite in North Dakota, never existed.)

“It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative.”

Naturally I was pleased to see that the truth had come out because of my efforts. Naturally I was not pleased to see that my name was not mentioned.

I sent a sarcastic email to Mr. Parini for making a mistake no rookie journalist would have made. Ignoring my serial insults, Mr. Parini took the classy, professorial road. He apologized profusely, near abjectly. I forgave him, though I really don’t know why.

It took half a century, and it cost me a lot of time and work and money, but at least the truth had triumphed. At least from now on anyone who buys a new copy of “Travels With Charley” will not be fooled.

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 1

Sept. 23, 1960 — Sag Harbor, N.Y.

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On Sept. 23, 2010, I left John Steinbeck’s summer home in Sag Harbor on Long Island and hit the Steinbeck Highway. (video)

Early Friday morning John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley leave his summer home in Sag Harbor, Long Island, in the pickup truck-camper hybrid he named Rocinante after Don Quixote’s horse.

To get back in touch with America and regular Americans after living in ”the island” of New York, he plans to circle the country counterclockwise and stick to two-lane highways.

He takes three ferries across Long Island Sound to New London, Conn., 36 miles away, then heads for his son’s boarding school in Deerfield, Massachusetts.

 

Steinbeck’s ambitious plans went awry

While doing research on Steinbeck’s exact 10,000-mile route around the USA I found a letter he wrote to an aide of Adlai Stevenson’s in the summer of 1960 describing how he hoped to travel on his upcoming trip.

In the summer of 1960 Steinbeck wrote a letter to an aide to Adlai Stevenson describing what he hoped to do on his coming road trip around the USA.

Steinbeck’s ambitious plans quickly fell apart. He actually did little of what he said he’d do on his journey, including traveling alone, but he had the right idea and it really didn’t matter. His beloved 1962 road book “Travels With Charley” was his only Number 1 New York Times best-seller (on the nonfiction list) and still sells around the world today.

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 4

Sept. 26, 1960 — Deer Isle, Maine

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Rocinante’s interior was compact but contained a stove, a refrigerator and a table, like the cabin of a small boat.

Steinbeck writes that he left New Hampshire on what would have been Monday, Sept. 26, and drove east across the neck of Maine. He says he stopped at a motel near Bangor but that he was so put off by the sterile and plastic environment in his room that he went out and slept in the back of his truck.

In fact, on Sept. 26 he drove 250 miles from Lancaster, New Hampshire, to Deer Isle, Maine, a beautiful little island south of Bangor. He was expected at the seaside home of Eleanor Brace, a friend of his agent Elizabeth Otis.

On the Monday night that 70 million Americans watched the first televised Nixon-JFK debate from Chicago, he slept on Brace’s property by the sea in the back of Rocinante.

 

South of Bangor

I wanted only to do what Steinbeck did in 1960 – cut through the city of Bangor quickly on my way to the seacoast paradise of Deer Isle, where he spent two days at a gorgeous old house I hoped to find.  Driving into the suburbs on state Route 15, the 55-mile trip to Deer Isle became a highlight reel of Maine’s L.L. Bean culture. Boats and RVs of every size, truck caps, kayaks, logs, shingles and gigantic piles of firewood lined the roadside or adorned front lawns. Gas was $2.62 a gallon. The billboard “Guns, Ammo and Camo” pretty much said it all. The closer I got to Deer Isle, the farther back in time I went and the more upscale and artsy-crafty things got.

— Excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 5

Sept. 27, 1960 Deer Isle, Maine

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Steinbeck spent two nights at Eleanor Brace’s spectacular house on Deer Isle, Maine, where his agent Elizabeth Otis rented a cottage each year.

Steinbeck and Charley continue their stay on beautiful Deer Isle, Maine, at the fabulous home of Eleanor Brace. He wrote in a letter to his wife from Deer Isle that on Tuesday he “saw the island and talked to people.”

He visited the quaint fishing port of Stonington, where he buys a kerosene lamp at a nautical hardware store on Main Street. He ate a lobster dinner at Brace’s house with Brace and her woman friend and went to bed early, sleeping another night in his camper Rocinante.
In a letter he mailed from Deer Isle to his friend and political hero Adlai Stevenson, Steinbeck said he had heard part of the first televised presidential debate between Richard M. Nixon and John F. Kennedy on Monday, Sept. 26. He was distressed that both candidates were so courteous toward each other.

Steinbeck’s Partisan Politics

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

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 6

Wednesday, Sept. 28, 1960 – Deer Isle, Maine

John Steinbeck left Eleanor Brace’s house on Deer Isle in on Wednesday afternoon and drove north along the coast on U.S. Highway 1 toward the top of Maine. He called his wife from a grocery store, but where he stopped for the night is not known. It was probably in or near Calais, in northeast Maine on the Canadian border.

 

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Waitress Traci Brown takes care of some locals at Karen’s Diner in Calais, Maine.

Breakfast in Calais

We’ll never know if Steinbeck stopped at the border town of Calais for a bed or a cup of bad coffee, but he had to pass down its main street as he drove north on U.S. 1 toward the top of Maine. Pronounced callous despite or perhaps in spite of its French origins, Calais is in Washington County, the state’s poorest. Across the St. Croix River from New Brunswick, Calais was only 22 miles from my beach resort at Gleason Cove. Its economy was far healthier in 1960, according to one of the local “Down Easters”/”Up Easters” I met at the counter in Karen’s Main Street Diner.

The 60-something man, wearing a pristine gold and black United States Army baseball cap, told a familiar story of change and decline. Hundreds of good-paying jobs had disappeared at the paper mills. Young people were leaving and would never come back. The town had lost 25 percent of its population since 1990 and was now about 3,100. Local unemployment was 11 percent compared to the state average of 7.9 percent. If it weren’t for the fact that the department of homeland security beefed up the three border crossings with Canada after it learned one of the 9/11 hijackers entered the States at Calais, he said, there’d be even fewer jobs around.

Karen’s had to be the best diner in a hundred miles – maybe the only one. A friendly pit stop for anyone following Steinbeck’s trail into upper Maine, it’s one of those priceless family-run eateries where getting a perfect breakfast is routine, not a matter of chance. I ordered what would become my signature breakfast for the rest of my trip. It was a #2 at Karen’s – two eggs over medium, sausage, home fries, wheat toast and coffee. It cost $6.25 and became the standard against which I compared 25 others like it that followed. Steinbeck wrote that getting a bad breakfast on the road was almost impossible, and he was still right.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

 

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 7

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It’s not a very accurate representation of Steinbeck’s foray into New England, but it makes the point — he went north and east before heading west.

Thursday, Sept. 29, 1960 – To the top of Maine

From wherever he stopped Wednesday night in northeast Maine, Steinbeck drives north into Aroostook County on U.S. Highway 1. Tracing the U.S.-Canadian border on the south side of the St. Croix River, he reaches the top of Maine, turns south on state Route 11 and plunges deep into the pine wilderness of Maine’s interior. He has to park alone Thursday night somewhere on Route 11 under a concrete bridge in the rain.

Aroostook County

Aroostook County is famous for two things – potatoes and its enormous size. It’s one fifth of Maine and bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. No one traveling north from Calais along the pretty St. Croix River would challenge those facts. I was 929 miles from Steinbeck’s Sag Harbor driveway. Steinbeck drove the same stretch of U.S. Route 1 on Sept. 29, 1960, exactly 50 years ahead of me. He had a weird thing about wanting to touch the top of Maine before heading west, a weird thing he ultimately regretted as he realized how endless and empty the state was. Steinbeck also wanted to see the famed potato fields of Aroostook County, then the foremost spud-producing area of the country.

***

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Maine’s State Route 11, which Steinbeck took south from Fort Kent, is beautiful, empty and devoid of motels, as Steinbeck learned.

After 2,400 miles tracing the edge of the East Coast all the way from Key West, U.S. Highway 1 evaporates without fanfare in the town of Fort Kent. As Steinbeck did, when Route 1 vanished I turned south on state Route 11 for the long haul back to New Hampshire and the way West.

Before I left Fort Kent, I suffered a shock that made me realize what a strange, atypical part of America I had been traveling through. It happened when I saw a black college student on the street. She was the first non-white person I could remember seeing since a pizza shop in downtown Northampton.

The 2010 Census tells the statistical tale. The previous three states I had been in – Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine – might be full of color in the fall, but year round their lilywhite populations don’t look like much of the rest of the country. Each had black populations of about 1 percent. The national percentage was 12.6 percent. The same lack of color would be true for other long stretches of the Steinbeck Highway.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

 

The ‘Travels with Charley’ Timeline — Day 8

Friday, Sept. 30, 1960 – Lancaster, N.H.

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What’s left of one of the Whip ‘o Will cabins is still used as a shed.

After sleeping Thursday night in his truck in the middle of Maine’s woods, Steinbeck drives ”long and furiously” all day Friday. He goes south and then west on U.S. 2 to get back to Lancaster, New Hampshire, which he had passed through earlier in the week going east to Bangor. He sleeps in his camper at a ”ghost” motel/lunch counter by the Connecticut River because, though the office is open, no one is around to rent him a cabin. The motel was the Whip o’ Will, which is now trailer court and convenience store.

 

The dark, empty gut of Maine

The middle of Maine feels even emptier when the sun is gone. It was dark when I pulled into Millinocket, the lumber mill town where the Pelletier family of “American Loggers” fame lived. After a surprisingly good spinach salad and a beer at Pelletier’s crowded family restaurant/bar, I drove into the black night for the next major town, Milo. In the dark I covered a distance of 39 miles to Milo, but the road I traveled could have been a high-speed treadmill in a tunnel. As far I could tell, except for Brownville Junction, it was deep forest all the way. I took photos of the twisting road ahead as I chased its white lines at 60 mph, straddling the centerline through a narrow channel of trees.

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A few mailboxes flashed by, a house with no lights, maybe a river. My Sirius XM radio, cranked up extra-loud with jazz, cut in and out because of the terrain or overhanging trees, I didn’t know which. I met my third car after 17 miles. In 45 minutes I counted 12. Steinbeck, who slept overnight in his camper shell by a bridge somewhere along Route 11, traveled the same lonely desolate way, but probably in daylight, when the local moose population would have been awake. Maine has 30,000 moose but I didn’t run into one.

— excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”