Currently viewing the category: "Truth About Charley"

“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.

 

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

A Good Trip Gone Bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pulling a libertarian quote from John Steinbeck out of my book and tying it into the 4th of July, Alak Mehta of the Blaze.com gives me a priceless plug and alerts the folks in Glen Beck Land to the existence of “Dogging Steinbeck,” which he kindly — and accurately — calls “a hilarious, exuberant read that reveals much about John Steinbeck and the diversity of people, places, and attitudes that is America.”

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

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

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

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

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

 Geert Mak is lying awake thinking of the competition.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the fall 2011 issue of the Steinbeck Review, Tom Barden, a smart and sensible English professor and dean at the University of Toledo, reviewed two 2010 “Travels With Charley”-centric books.

The quarterly’s editor, who edited the 2012 book “Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War,” looked at “Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America” by Bill Barich and “Travels with Max: In Search of Steinbeck’s America Fifty Years Later” by Gregory Zeigler.

First, however, professor Barden validated my discoveries about the lack of veracity in “Charley.” He based his opinion not on my book “Dogging Steinbeck,” which did not exist yet, but on what I had revealed in my April 2011 Reason magazine article, “Sorry, Charley.” Barden also said that Steinbeck’s serial inventions were no surprise or shock to anyone, especially academics like him, since Steinbeck was a novelist.

Here’s what Barden wrote in the Review:

I was not particularly drawn to the premise of Barich’s and Zeigler’s books. Delving into 21st century America’s soul via Steinbeck’s 1961 Travels with Charley struck me as too contrived. But readers of Steinbeck Review deserve an appraisal of the resulting volumes, especially in light of Bill Steigerwald’s “Sorry, Charley” essay in the April 2011 issue of Reason magazine, so here goes.

First, I should weigh in on Steigerwald. His research into motel bills, restaurant checks, and private letters made what I found to be a thoroughly convincing case that Steinbeck’s narrative in Travels with Charley in Search of America did not reflect anything close to his actual trip. Steigerwald presented ample documentation that Steinbeck spent most of his time in posh motor hotels eating good dinners with his wife Elaine, who was with him much more than he let on. The responses to Steigerwald’s revelations varied from incensed (Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law), to defensive (Steinbeck scholars Jay Parini and Susan Shillinglaw), to sympathetic toward Steinbeck (travel writer Paul Theroux). My response was basically–so what? I was reminded of John Steinbeck IV’s comment about his father’s book in The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck. Speaking for his brother Thom and himself, he wrote “we were convinced that he never talked to any of those people in Travels with Charley. He just sat in his camper and wrote all that shit. He was too shy. He was really frightened of people who saw through him. He couldn’t have handled that amount of interaction. So the book is actually a great novel.” (p. 151) Exactly. Oh my, he invented most of the content of Travels with Charley…zoot alors! Not only that, people, he paid for stories from Mexicans when he worked at the Spraekel’s Sugar factory in Salinas as a teenager and used them later—like that one about a nursing mother who saves a starving old man by breastfeeding him.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Steigerwald’s research and the ensuing controversy was the clear assumption by everybody concerned that Steinbeck’s book is still worth discussing after fifty years. I think Travels with Charley does still matter. But I don’t think it matters because of its veracity (or lack thereof), or its ideas, or its insights about American culture. To me, it still matters because it is packed from beginning to end with terrific and terrifically idiosyncratic writing at the sentence level. Pick it up and start reading randomly and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll run into passages like this one about the giant redwoods in Northern California—“In the redwoods nearly the whole of daylight is a quiet time. Birds move in the dim light or flash like sparks through the stripes of sun, but they make little sound.” (p. 171)

So, to return to the books under review, I used the yardstick of Steinbeck’s spectacular prose to review Barich and Zigler’s books. By that measure, one of them holds up pretty well and the other doesn’t. I’ll start with the latter. Zeigler’s little yappy-looking dog Max appears on both the front and back covers of his book and is also featured in many of the photos interspersed throughout the text. I did not take the dog or the illustrations as a good sign. Flipping through the text before I started reading, I felt as if I were about to be subjected to somebody’s boring vacation slideshow. My suspicions were confirmed when I started reading—the prose, like the dog, was too cute, the Steinbeck trope was too labored, and any intellectual or emotional stimulation was pretty much absent. Zeigler covered 15,000 miles in nine weeks, and it felt like it took that long to get through his book. He wove references to Steinbeck’s trip, his poodle, his biography, and even his family’s feud over copyright issues into his narrative, and all the while maintained a running commentary on such interesting roadside attractions as the Lion’s Den Adult Bookstore, geezer geyser gazers, a veterinary insemination operation that bragged “we do cows,” and the general beauty and/or scuzziness of the American landscape. But, for me, it never coalesced into a meaningful trip or travel narrative. The cover blurb says “Travels with Max offers a retrospective on Steinbeck and his work, as well as an insightful, humorous and upbeat perspective on modern America.” But I didn’t get the insights, the humor, or the retrospectives. For instance, here’s Zeigler’s description of a saguaro cactus that was located in too close proximity to a golf course: “Wild hitters like me had slammed drives into their green flesh. Some were studded with several balls, like buttons on a stout man’s vest.” I couldn’t help comparing that negatively with Steinbeck’s description of the giant redwoods.

Barich’s book, on the other hand, is well conceived, well written, and, fortunately, un-illustrated. Even before starting, I was impressed by the effusive cover blurbs about Barich’s writing. Jim Harrison, a Michigan-based poet and novelist for whom I have huge respect said simply “Barich is a splendid prose stylist.” And Larry McMurtry, a master storyteller by anybody’s standards, agreed. They are right. He writes with measured dignity and has a good ear for dialog and a sharp eye for telling detail.

As to content, Barich follows Steinbeck’s lead in avoiding major cities and typical tourist attractions. Although he visits Washington, D.C. and passes through St. Louis on Interstate 70 (where the drivers’ aggression terrified him), he focuses mostly on small towns like Culpeper, Virginia, Chillicothe, Ohio and Florence, Kansas. There’s humor in Barich’s book, but it is not of the corny variety Zeigler indulged and it is more connected to ideas and thoughtful observations. In Shenandoah National Park, for example, he notices that “Americans used to travel to beautiful spots to get away from it all, but now they bring it all with them.” Unlike Steinbeck’s, Barich’s road trip is one-way–east to west. He arrives in California via Needles and makes his way to Monterey on the coast, where he muses at length on “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” both of which he loves and respects. Finally, he pulls in to San Francisco – a city he lived in for many years – just in time for Election Day, 2008.

That election looms large over Long Way Home. The book ends in a mood buoyed by the fact that America, for all its historical racism and injustice, has just elected the young, smart and eloquent Barack Hussein Obama. All through the book, but especially at the end, he rejects the world-weariness and gloom that hung over Steinbeck’s trip with Charley. Where Steinbeck found moral and spiritual malaise, Barich found America renewing itself after eight years of George W. Bush. It is a thrill to feel, but that buoyancy seems pretty raveled and frayed now. Bigotry, ignorance and fear-mongering didn’t fade away; in fact, they seem to have gotten stronger in response to Obama’s cerebral calmness. The wrenching ending of Steinbeck’s book stands in contrast to Barich’s optimistic finale, but the venom of those “cheerleaders” who screamed profanities at little African American girls as they walked to school in Civil Rights Era Mississippi is on daily display now on Fox News, on talk radio, and in much of the Republican Party. On finishing Barich’s book, I felt a strong surge of missing John Steinbeck. I think he would be more effective than most of our current progressive voices in confronting and refuting today’s Rush Limbaughs, Pat Robertsons and Glenn Becks head-on.

Getting emails from smart, satisfied but critical readers of “Dogging Steinbeck” — whether it’s travel master Paul Theroux or an Everyreader — is gratifying.

This one, from a Missouri man who’s teaching English somewhere in the vastness of China, is one of the best-written pieces of correspondence I’ve  received in my journalism career — and I’ve gotten probably a thousand of them. I’ve deleted his last name at his request.

Dear Mr. Steigerwald,

My name is Randy and I am writing concerning your book, Dogging Steinbeck. I will begin by telling you that I enjoyed it very much and admire you for your effort and your reporting. Your book came to my attention as I was browsing and downloading books for my Kindle.

Although I had not read “Travels With Charley” for many years, I remembered enjoying it as a kid — I am now 63 years old — and was intrigued by your concept. I hope you don’t mind if I raise three points which came to mind after reading your book.

Perhaps it would be relevant to tell you at this point that, since 2004, I have been living in China, working as an English teacher in a strange combination of semi-retirement and self-exile. However, most of my life was spent in a much more conventional setting of a small town in central Missouri.

Now, except for brief trips each summer back to visit my parents in Missouri, all of my knowledge of current events and trends in America comes via the Internet — principally from Yahoo news when I go online to check email. That leads to my first point…

One of the great pleasures in reading your book is that you found so many friendly and interesting people in your travels. Certainly the mass media does not spend much time talking about nice people; the weirdos, extremists, instant celebrities, and truly dangerous are far more likely to be in the news that I see. It was nice to be told that the vast majority of average Americans were still pleasant and helpful to a traveling stranger.

I was also very pleased to be repeatedly reminded by you of the many ways that our daily lives have vastly improved over the past five decades. It happens that my small town in Missouri is on old Route 66 so I have personal knowledge of just how dangerous those highways were 50 years ago. Likewise, our medical technology, self-educational opportunities, and personal comfort today are incomparably superior to that of our youth.

Do you recall that old saying, “Don’t go looking for trouble… for you will surely find it.”? It seems to me that 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. (If, on the other hand, you act like a jerk, you will quickly encounter obstacles and reciprocation.)

Perhaps your 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 you encountered many nice people, maybe it is because you expected them to be nice and that you impressed them as being a nice guy yourself.

Still, compared to the shallow, ungrammatical characters that Steinbeck wrote about in his book, you probably met more interesting people and had more fun — not counting his lavish expenditures at high-end hotels and with his wife’s rich Texas friends.

The second point I would like to mention is about the controversy that your book has apparently created. I have to say “apparently” because I was not aware of this literary turmoil until I read your book.

Frankly, I am not a huge Steinbeck aficionado. In my younger years, I read several of his books and enjoyed them but I have not thought of them (or him) for many years. Therefore, before I read your book, I also downloaded the original “Charley” at the same time and read it again — for probably the first time in 40 years.

Immediately after I finished it, I began your book. It was interesting to me to read about how the Steinbeck establishment went into damage control mode and, indeed, even attacked your credibility, truthfulness, and motives. What now seems incontrovertible was that 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 your revelation that, rather than being a lonely, thoughtful old man taking a meandering, low-budget trip, Steinbeck was not roughing it at all. Your 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.

My third point is that I wish to take exception with your conclusion that “Charley” was not a good book. I am willing to grant you that this is more a work of fiction than a travel book but I still maintain that it is wonderful reading. I had forgotten just how good it is until I read it again last week.

Okay, finding an itinerant Shakespearean actor/vagabond drifting across North Dakota strains credibility now that you have brought it to my attention. But, honestly, I don’t care; 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 understandable. In browsing through many of the books available to download on my Kindle, a great many authors are far, far less adroit with such literary devices than Steinbeck.

In conclusion, if you somehow managed to tarnish the reputation of this American icon, to show his literary feet of clay and expose his wealthy lifestyle and attitudes, so be it.

I have a great many concerns about our society, many of which you addressed in your book. However, one of the brightest aspects of our current and near-future condition as a nation is the transparency made possible by our new technology in all of its forms — Internet searches, viral news (even if mostly fluff), and self-publishing, among others.

If our business and political leaders begin to realize that their “good ol’ boy” network is being carefully scrutinized — even, as in this case, 50 years later — they may curtail some of the more outrageous behaviors and deceptions.

In closing, I send you best wishes from China for your continued literary success. I hope it is a commercially successful future also.

Best regards…

The Weekly Standard, the smart and sassy 15-year-old conservative answer to the liberal New Republic, has produced the world’s first official book review of “Dogging Steinbeck.”

Bearing the very clever headline, “Chicanery Row,” entertainingly and sagely written by Shawn Macomber, it can be found here.

The first known plug for “DS” was by Reason mag’s Nick Gillespie, who kindly named it his favorite book of 2012 — and my ebook was only out for three weeks of the year.

My marketing and promotion director, Bill Steigerwald, has been bombarding the book people at the New York Times, L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post with emails, trying to get their attention, if not a book review. It’s not easy. But maybe the Standard has lit the spark.

Meanwhile, in the Big Apple, the blog site GalleyCat, aka “The First Word on the Publishing Industry,” blurbed a “DS” blurb on Friday, finally succumbing to a barrage of promo pitches from me.

And look for Paul Theroux’s mention of me and “Dogging Steinbeck” in his New York Times travel piece on Sunday Jan. 13.

Self-publishing is hard work, but maybe I’m getting somewhere.