In the hot August of 2010, before global cooling began turning our summers into fall, I spent several days in the fabulous Morgan Library & Museum in downtown New York reading the original handwritten transcript of “Travels With Charley.”
My comparison of the manuscript with the published book — something no Steinbeck scholar bothered to do in 50 years — proved illuminating. Here, in this free excerpt of “Dogging Steinbeck,” is how I describe my visit to Mr. Morgan’s treasure house of art and artifacts:
My pre-trip research ended with a bang three weeks later in New York City when I did something no one in the world had done in four years. I went to the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan and read the first draft of “Travels With Charley in Search of America.”
The handwritten manuscript – along with a typed and edited copy – had been stored at the Morgan like a holy relic for almost half a century. Few scholars, graduate students and critics had bothered to study it. If they had, the “‘Travels With Charley’ Myth” might have been debunked decades ago. To be fair, the manuscript is not something anybody can just pop into the Morgan Library and paw over. John Pierpont Morgan’s gift to posterity holds one of the world’s greatest collections of art, books and music. Security is Pentagon-tight, inside and out. You’ve got to first establish that you are a legitimate researcher or writer and make an appointment. Once you make it past the security checkpoint, you’re escorted to the reading room. You have to wash your hands, use pencils only and handle research material like it’s sacred nitroglycerin. You can’t take photos or make photocopies because of copyright restrictions.
For three days in late summer I sat in the Morgan’s reading room like a monk. The “Charley” manuscript, kept there since Steinbeck donated it in 1962, is broken up into five or six handwritten chunks. Written entirely in his barely decipherable scribble, with hardly a word crossed out or changed, each page is filled from top-to-bottom and edge-to-edge. It’s mostly in pencil on carefully numbered yellow or white legal pads. Taking notes in longhand, I compared the first draft of what Steinbeck had given the working title “In Quest of America” with the copy of “Travels With Charley” stored on my smart-phone’s Kindle app. According to Declan Kiely, the Morgan’s curator of literary and historical manuscripts, fewer than six people had looked at the manuscript since 2000. I was the first since 2006.
I learned important clues that helped me fill in some blank spots about Steinbeck’s actual trip. I also saw how much the manuscript had been edited. There were dozens of minor and major edits. The most important ones entirely removed his wife Elaine’s presence from the West Coast and stripped out 99 percent of his partisan political commentary. Given what I was learning, the most ironic edit deleted Steinbeck’s thoughts about what is really real and the writer’s struggle/duty to straighten out the “chaos” of reality and make it understandable and “reasonably real” for a reader. The most justifiable edit removed a paragraph of filth and racial hatred that would have given “Travels With Charley” an X-rating, outraged the public and crippled its sales.
The manuscript was the big smoking gun – the smoking artillery piece. Reading it was shocking and exhilarating. I couldn’t believe what I had found – or that it had been just sitting there in Manhattan for 50 years waiting to be discovered. It confirmed and reinforced my suspicions about the dubious veracity of much of “Travels With Charley.”
The first draft also explained the book’s persistent vagueness about time and place. It was not due solely to Steinbeck’s aversion to writing a travelogue or his lack of note taking. It was a result of wily editing by Viking’s editors, which hid the frequently luxurious and leisurely nature of Steinbeck’s road trip and made it seem like he spent most of his time alone.
After my last day of deciphering Steinbeck’s handwriting, I left the cool quiet of the Morgan Library and popped back onto the baked streets of Manhattan. It was 4:05. I set out for Penn Station to catch a train back to Secaucus, where my car was parked and ready to take me home. New York had so much pure city packed into a small space it was hard for someone from Pittsburgh to believe. I’d never want to live in NYC. It was 40 years too late for that adventure. But it was amazing to see the crazy energy and throbbing humanity of a real city at work and play. It was nothing like the open street markets and anarchic traffic of Lima or Guatemala City, the only teeming Third World madhouses I’d ever seen. But the sidewalks were thick with commerce and hurrying streams of people of every lifestyle and color.
Near the corner of Madison Avenue and East 33rd Street, two miles from the apartment Steinbeck died in, a prim matron with a plastic bag in one hand and a leash in the other waited for her toy poodle to take a dump at the base of a baby tree. On 34th Street a homeless man with a wild beard and dirty white shirt suddenly lunged out of the passing throng and rammed his bony shoulder hard into mine. It was no accident, it hurt, and it taught me a lesson to keep my eye out for trouble in the oncoming flow of humanity.
Closing in on Madison Square Garden and its basement of train tracks, I began tail-gaiting a hotshot in a blue blazer with a cell phone to his ear as he weaved through the crowd. He was young but had gray hair and carried a man bag swelling with paperwork. I didn’t know it, but like me he was hustling to Penn Station’s Track 11 to catch the 4:32 to Secaucus. On the un-crowded train I deliberately sat across the aisle from the hotshot so I could eavesdrop on his end of the conversation, which he made no effort to suppress. “At two billion dollars,” he said, as if he were talking about the price of eggs, “we’re going to make 800 k. I’m OK with one basis point…. We’d still be above two billion. Do me a favor. Check my math and fire me an email.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but it wasn’t how tough it was to make a living on Wall Street in the Great Recession. During my brief ride to Secaucus I scrawled what I had learned from reading the Steinbeck manuscript in my Professional Reporter’s Notebook: “Charley’s a fraud. Steinbeck himself provided the details of his trip – the real ones – and betrays ‘C’ for the fraud it is.” It was the first time I had used the f-word to describe his beloved travel book. It wouldn’t be the last.