Currently viewing the category: "Truth About Charley"

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.

It doesn’t happen too often in Hollywood, where art and reality go to be tortured and distorted in the name of “good” drama.

But in 1940 a miracle occurred when Darryl Zanuck  produced the movie version “The Grapes of Wrath,” Steinbeck’s mega-selling, culture-shocking, politically correct story of the Okies and Tom Joad.

The film version was better.

Time magazine’s Richard Corliss does a great job of explaining how that miracle occurred in the latest issue of what’s left of Time.

In his essay he reprints the opening paragraph of Time’s original unsigned review of the movie, which premiered 75 years ago Jan. 24 and was written by none other than then-ex-Commie Whittaker Chambers.

Chambers’ review, which can be read in its entirety here,  shows how sharp he was. Here are the opening paragraphs, which still hold true.

The Grapes of Wrath.The Grapes of Wrath (20th Century-Fox). It will be a red rag to bull-mad Californians who may or may not boycott it. Others, who were merely annoyed at the exaggerations, propaganda and phony pathos of John Steinbeck’s best selling novel, may just stay away. Pinkos who did not bat an eye when the Soviet Government exterminated 3,000,000 peasants by famine, will go for a good cry over the hardships of the Okies. But people who go to pictures for the sake of seeing pictures will see a  great one. For The Grapes of Wrath is possibly the best picture ever made from a so-so book. It is certainly the best picture Darryl F. Zanuck has produced or Nunnally Johnson scripted. It would be the best John Ford had directed if he had not already made The Informer.

Part of the credit belongs accidentally to censorship and the camera. Censorship excised John Steinbeck’s well-meant excesses. Camera-craft purged the picture of the editorial rash that blotched the Steinbeck book. Cleared of excrescences, the residue is the great human story which made thousands of people, who damned the novel’s phony conclusions, read it. It is the saga of an authentic U. S. farming family who lose their land. They wander, they suffer, but they endure. They are never quite defeated, and their survival is itself a triumph.

As I write about in “Dogging Steinbeck,” Time (i.e., Luce) hated Steinbeck because of “Grapes” and bashed him and “Travels With Charley”  (though its unsigned reviewer believed it was a true account of Steinbeck’s phony travels).

Here’s Time’s mean — but accurate review of ”Charley” from 1962:

TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, by John Steinbeck (246 pp.; Viking; $4.95). Put a famous author behind the wheel of a three-quarter-ton truck called Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse), equip him with everything from trenching tools to subzero underwear, send along a pedigreed French poodle named Charley with prostatitis, follow the man and dog on a three-month, 10,000-mile trip through 34 states, and what have you got? One of the dullest travelogues ever to acquire the respectability of a hard cover.

Vagabond Steinbeck’s motive for making the long, lonely journey is admirable: ‘To try to rediscover this monster land’ after years of easy living in Manhattan and a country place in Sag Harbor, L.I. He meets some interesting people: migrant Canucks picking potatoes in Maine, an itinerant Shakespearean actor in North Dakota, his own literary ghost back home in California’s Monterey Peninsula. But when the trip is done, Steinbeck’s attempt at rediscovery reveals nothing more remarkable than a sure gift for the obvious observation.

It’s not surprising Steinbeck hated Time.

Geert Mak’s Steinbeck book, “In America,” was reviewed in the Spectator magazine by a guy with a great British name, Lewis Jones.

Unfortunately, though Jones manages to give me credit for discovering the literary fraudulence of “Travels With Charley,” he screws up my politics.

Jones doesn’t know what a libertarian is, obviously, or he wouldn’t have said that libertarianism is the same as being stridently Republican.

Go to the Spectator to read the review, which is of the typical lefty variety. Or just stay here and read my comment, which gave me the opportunity to plug my book to the good people of the UK.

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Steinbeck (with wife Elaine) as he really looked a month after completing his “Charley” trip — not as he is pictured in the Spectator.

Thanks much to Lewis Jones for mentioning me, my book ‘Dogging Steinbeck’ and my role in exposing the fictions and fibs in Steinbeck’s iconic work of non-nonfiction, ‘Travels With Charley’.

As my new friend Geert Mak knows, for 50 years ‘Travels’ was marketed, reviewed and taught as work of nonfiction — until I came along, did some basic snooping in libraries and on the road, got lucky, proved it was mostly made up and occasionally outright deceptive and declared it a ‘literary fraud’.

(Not that I haven’t said it somewhere in a blog or interview, but the phrase ‘a very flawed load of fictional crap and deception’ does not appear in my book, which, while full of jokes, void of footnotes and liberally sprinkled with my libertarian politics, is a serious work of journalism that has changed the way ‘Travels’ will be read forever. Anyone interested in learning more is urged to buy my ‘literary expose’ at Amazon.com.UK or go to www.truthaboutcharley.com).

I especially urge Mr. Lewis to read my book — or at least skim it — before jumping to any more conclusions or launching any more of his ‘surmises’ (i.e., wild and uninformed guesses) about my politics, my affection for the Republican Party or my adherence to Fox News’ historical interpretations.

He’d find evidence in ‘Dogging Steinbeck’ that I dislike (i.e., hate) both major parties for their bipartisan plundering and wrecking of our land, which is still great in spite of them:

“It was Nov. 2 – Election Day. The historic date the Tea Party was going
to seize America from the Democrats and give it back to the Republicans,
the party that had taken us to a foolish war in Iraq, copiloted the
economy into a mountainside and squandered federal money it didn’t have
like drunken Democrats.”

And the morning after the election, I write:

“Overnight America supposedly underwent a historic political change. Republican Tea Partiers had seized the U.S. House and a new Golden Age of limited government, lower taxes and personal freedom was allegedly on the way. It was the usual hype and hysteria. Nothing would be changing on the U.S.S. Big Government except a few deck chairs.”

Based on his review, I surmise Lewis won’t like my politics. Nor will he appreciate what I say about the political biases and cultural snobbery of liberal New Yorkers like Steinbeck (that’s what he was in 1960) who’ve made it a habit to sneer at the politics, culture and values of the Americans they encounter in Flyover Country when they dare to travel by car between Manhattan and the Hollywood Sign.

When Lewis wrote that I take “an ‘openly libertarian’ (i.e. stridently Republican) line against the Democrat Steinbeck” he demonstrated that he has absolutely no idea what a libertarian is. (A primer: it’s someone who favors, stridently, maximum individual freedom, a weak and limited state, a system of free market — not crony — capitalism and a non-interventionist foreign policy; Brits should think John Stuart Mill, Manchester Liberalism, Bright & Cobden, Lord Acton, Hayek, etc.).

Libertarians — especially this one — wouldn’t be caught dead being ‘stridently Republican’. And while Fox News does have good libertarians like John Stossel and Andrew Napolitano, its prime-time all-stars — O’Reilly, Kelly and Hannity — are awful conservatives and/or partisan Republicans.

The America I found along the Old Steinbeck Highway in 2010 was opposite from the gloomy one my esteemed Euro-socialist colleague Mak found. I described 11,276 miles of it as well as I could, as a veteran newspaper journalist, albeit through libertarian eyes, not socialist ones.

Where Mak saw islands of prosperity in a sea of poverty and anguish, I saw the opposite. Where Mak saw the failure of the federal government to make things right in the hinterland and cities, I saw evidence of the federal government’s century-old habit of doing things wrong. Etc. Etc. From a libertarian, not Republican, point of view.

Same country, same roads, same time; two people, two very different sets of opinions and conclusions. Steinbeck knew it would work that way and said in ‘Travels’ that the country he found would not be the same one others coming behind him would find 10 minutes later. He wasn’t lying about that, at least.

For the record: The missing Washington Post woman was/is Rachel Dry, who wrote a nice piece about her pursuit of Steinbeck’s ghost and her accidental encounter with me. http://www.washingtonpost.com/… And your photo of Steinbeck is not what he looked like in 1960, but more like 20 years earlier.

Finally, I stridently apologize to all proper Brits who might be offended by my use of the slang term ‘dogging’ in my title. I had no idea.

 

 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.

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.