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.