July 27th will be an important date for “Travels With Charley in Search of America.”
John Steinbeck’s classic/iconic/beloved but not very true/honest bestseller will celebrate its 50th birthday.
For half a century, Steinbeck’s last major work masqueraded as a nonfiction book.
But as I innocently/accidentally learned in the fall of 2010 by hanging around in university libraries and driving down thousands of miles of two-lane highways, “Travels With Charley” is more fiction and fibs than fact.
The critics were overly kind to “Travels With Charley” in late summer 1962. Most of them raved blindly; none of them seemed to notice the book’s lineup of cardboard characters or their stilted dialogue, which was made of the same hard wood.
Time magazine broke from the pack, however, ripping Steinbeck in a two-paragraph review that seemed unnecessarily harsh when I first read it.
But now, given what I/we know about how Steinbeck actually traveled and how little time he spent alone or spent studying the state of the changing country, Time’s hatchet job looks sharper than ever.
Here’s what Time wrote in August 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.”
For 50 years, the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex and everyone else of importance who read or taught the book had taken Steinbeck’s words for it.
Then I stumbled along.
I didn’t set out to fact-check Steinbeck, ruin anyone’s reading fun or make two generations of Steinbeck scholars look bad. I just followed the facts I found in the Steinbeck books and archives and it turned out that it’s fair to conclude that Steinbeck’s “nonfiction” book was “something of a fraud.”
My discovery of Steinbeck’s literary fraudulence, for all the mainstream media attention it got in the spring of 2011, hasn’t put much of a dent in “Travels With Charley’s” reputation as a true account of Steinbeck’s trip.
If the Google alerts I get are representative of “TWC” readers, most people still think they are reading an honest, factual account of a great writer’s famous road trip. And most new readers love the book as much as those unquestioning critics of 1962.