Currently viewing the tag: "Bill Steigerwald"

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.

The 27th review of my book on Amazon.com — by a woman named Judy who grew up in Montana — is perfect. Nicely written, smart and sensible, it’s a fair and balanced assessment by a Steinbeck fan who wasn’t blinded by her love of “Travels With Charley.”

 

4.0 out of 5 stars Valuable Addition to American Road Trip Literature, April 8, 2013
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

I read just about every American travelogue and “Travels with Charley” was my first and favorite. I was a believer through the first couple of readings, but after decades of long road trips I began to be suspicious. Dogging Steinbeck confirmed my doubts. I never learned much during days spent just rocketing over highways except that this is a vast country sparsely populated with mostly kind, helpful people. The best conversations, comparable to the ones Steinbeck apparently enjoyed daily, generally occur only in hostels or while soaking nude in remote hot springs.

I believe Steinbeck did not set out to perpetrate a fraud. He could not have known that he couldn’t learn much in his mode of travel over just 11 weeks. Finding knowledge, adventure, and joy in a road trip takes skill and a propensity to dawdle.

Just as Steinbeck’s fraudulent account was not premeditated, Bill Steigerwald’s book was not motivated by the desire to unmask Steinbeck. No experienced road-tripper could miss the fictional aspects, especially armed with Steinbeck documents detailing the actual trip as was Steigerwald. One critical reviewer who obviously has not read Dogging Steinbeck called it a hatchet job. It is most certainly not. The author’s respect for both the truth and Steinbeck is obvious.

I wish John Steinbeck had been healthy and free enough to apply his wonderful literary skill to the kind of trip he needed to take to write the book that he initially envisioned. But if the book we got was the only one he could write, I forgive him. Because of Travels with Charley my life has been richer, happier, and, while travelling, I have attended Sunday services from cathedrals to adobe missions to inner-city converted store fronts. Still, Charley is the only fictionalized travelogue I will forgive. A travel book is only one perspective of one journey, and Steigerwald is right to insist that readers are owed a true account.

I felt that Steigerwald’s account of his trip and his research was as honest as he could make it. His political opinions do not detract from the book: although he did not make his book about himself, he did tell us who he is and that can only help readers to understand his perspective. I recommend this book to all who enjoy American road trip literature.

Ah, the great power of C-SPAN.

After my hour-long interview with Brian Lamb on his March 3 “Q&A” program, sales of “Dogging Steinbeck” surged nicely.

I’m not ready to retire yet.  But before my C-SPAN appearance, my ranking on Amazon’s various Journalism and Travel categories was never higher than No. 4 (which it hit briefly after a rave Weekly Standard review by Sean Macomber).

Brian Lamb and C-SPAN took me to these dizzy heights Monday morning. Staying up there will be tough without help from the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Charlie Rose, but being No. 1 in something for even just a little while is kind of fun.

Dogging Steinbeck, March 4, 2013

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,672 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
#1 in Books > Education & Reference > Writing, Research & Publishing Guides > Writing > Journalism & Nonfiction
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photoMy journalism career is complete.

Brian Lamb, founding father of CSPAN, American hero and fellow journalist, has interviewed me.

Not that I can remember anything he asked me about my book “Dogging Steinbeck” or what I answered when we met in CSPAN’s beautiful DC studios three weeks ago.

My interview with the man I like to call “St. Brian” will be displayed for the whole world to see on Lamb’s Sunday night “Q&A” program on CSPAN March 3 at 8 and 11 p.m. ET.

I dread watching my “performance” almost as much as I dreaded doing the one-on-one interview. I’m a radio Steigerwald Brother, not a TV Steigerwald Brother, as should be obvious Sunday night. But my pain and dread were worth the thrill.

Brian Lamb and CSPAN and I go way back together — or at least I do.

I first spoke to him in 1980 not long after the cable channel was born and began providing American TV watchers with their first taste of real ideological diversity.

I called CSPAN from my apartment in Hollywood USA to ask a question of  the guest, Ed Clark, the 1980 Libertarian Party presidential candidate. Clark couldn’t even buy some decent network TV-news time in those bad old oligopolistic days when the lefty liberals at CBS, ABC, NBC called the shots and set the national political agenda.

A year or two later I met Lamb for about two seconds at a party in L.A. thrown the L.A. Times’ cable TV reporter.

In 2004 I turned the tables on Lamb and interviewed him for my weekly Q&A at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.  A year later, on New Year’s Eve, if I recall, I called him on the air during CSPAN’s 25th anniversary show.

Lamb, who’s known for his laconic interviewing style and kindly, unflappable demeanor, was one of the nicest celebrity guys I ever interviewed, and I’ve interviewed hundreds of famous/important people over the years.

Here’s how I set up my Q&A with Lamb, which occurred in December of 2004 and shed light on his motives for starting CSPAN and his deliberate effort to open up America’s cablewaves to more diverse and strident political voices:

God Bless, Brian Lamb

Talk about your fair-and-balanced TV.

Thanks to saintly cable pioneer Brian Lamb, C-SPAN has been providing the country with a serious, unbiased and unfiltered look at the widest possible spectrum of political ideas and information for 25 years.

Operating on a puny $45 million annual budget provided by the cable industry, the multimedia empire that Lamb founded and has carefully fathered covers government, the political process, party conventions, debates, seminars and author appearances across the country and now includes three C-SPAN cable-satellite channels, a C-SPAN radio channel and the Web site c-span.org.

After 15 years and reading 801 books, Lamb recently disappointed many faithful C-SPAN viewers by recently ending “Booknotes,” his popular hour-long Sunday program which featured his gentle, quirky interviews with top nonfiction writers. I talked to him from his offices in Washington, D.C.

Q: Any regrets yet about deciding to end “Booknotes”?

A: Sure. The regrets that you have are tied to the fact that so many people seemed to value the information. You hate to give something like that up, because it meant so much to enough people that it kept me going over the years. But, I’m 63, and I want to have some more free time to do exactly what I want to do. I was really tied to reading a book all the time, so from that perspective, no, I’m ready to change my habits.

Q: Why did you start C-SPAN?

A: It’s not what most people think it was. My interest in starting C-SPAN (in 1979) was that I thought that three commercial television networks controlling what we saw was unfortunate. I was angry about it, as a matter of fact. I kept saying to myself, “Why are we watching only three television networks? And the same newscast every night? And the same lead story and the same breaks for commercials?” When I first got in it, I said, “We need more information.” It was that simple. I didn’t feel strongly about covering the House of Representatives. That just turned out to be the vehicle with which we were able to start this place.

Q: What’s C-SPAN’s greatest value to the country?

A: There are several levels there. First, its greatest value, I think, is that you can see your elected officials spending your money. Secondly, officials can talk back to their constituents, which they never were able to do before. They had to talk back through the filter. And third, it’s a national conversation, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, about the big issues that confront the country. And it’s not controlled by entertainment values. It’s not controlled by the ratings you can get by talking about Scott Peterson ad infinitum. I find that story to be of no journalistic value, and we don’t have to worry about that. It’s an unusual place, and there’s no place like it. It was luck that got us there, because if you tried to start something like this today, you couldn’t.

Q: Do you consider yourself a journalist?

A: Absolutely. I’m a journalist first and foremost, and I believe strongly in the profession.

Q: How do you define your politics?

A: I don’t. I’ve never been a member of a party. I’ve worked for both Republicans and Democrats in the first nine years of my adult life as I was in the service and worked around this town for both Nixon and Johnson. The thing on my political side that I worry about the most and think about the most that needs the most correction is the way we spend our money. It’s not very accountable right now. We don’t know how our money is being spent.

In the job we do here at C-SPAN, I really don’t care who wins. We’ve set it up so we stay out of the contest. We don’t support anybody internally. We talk all the time about politics, but we don’t give anybody any impression as to how we are voting. It works very well for us. The attitude that we have inside here — that I find often is not present in some of the other organizations that I have been around over the years — is that we never have any interest in excluding a point of view. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, we don’t want to hear that point of view, that doesn’t need to be heard.” That’s what our whole mission is about here at C-SPAN. We put on everybody. We go from the socialists to the libertarians. From the Ralph Naders to the Green Party to the Christian right and communist left. It’s all over the lot. It doesn’t matter what it is. We just don’t ever say, “Oh, we don’t think our audience ought to hear that.”

Q: At your National Press Club talk the other night you said you thought the American people really sought more “choice and freedom” in their lives. Is there a secret Brian Lamb who is really politically opinionated?

A: Yes. I have strong opinions about openness. I’m a small “d” democrat. I basically said it at that press club speech that I feel very strongly in the First Amendment and that it’s absolute and it’s the only thing that really keeps us free, because I’ve watched politicians hoard information and control information, and control our access to information. It’s the only chance we have of being different than other places. There are democracies all over the world. Lots of countries have democracies. There are very few that have the strong First Amendment that we have. I guess I feel so strongly that people who don’t understand the First Amendment or the value of it would miss it if their side or their ox is being gored.

Q: Is C-SPAN an organization that can live on without you?

A: I can walk out of the door today, and you’ll never notice the difference. People who follow the details of networks like ours think that I matter. But most of the people in this country don’t know who I am, don’t care who I am, and do not watch C-SPAN for me. They watch it for the events.

Q: What have you learned about the American people by creating and working on C-SPAN all these years?

A: Well, I guess, first of all, I’ve learned that some of the people in the body politic — it’s probably 10 percent of the country — are very aware of what is going on and are very smart about politics and can ask as good a question as anybody in our profession.

Secondly, I’ve learned — and I suppose I should have known this — that the politician loves to control what we hear and see, loves to control his own image, which is human nature. But I didn’t realize to what degree they would go to do that.

Third, people in this country, more than anything else, want choice. They want choice in soaps and they want choice in television, and they’re going to get what they want eventually. That’s really what’s been going on for the last 30 years — in television the public has demanded more and more. And finally, after being protected for many, many years by the government, the television industry has had to offer choice. And that’s the best thing that’s happened.

 

 

I’ve gotten many thoughtful comments on and off the record about “Dogging Steinbeck” from readers in China and Minnesota and Belgium.

Travel master Paul Theroux sent me a nice note saying how much he liked “Dogging Steinbeck.” He’s publicly endorsed my expose of the fictions and lies that John Steinbeck and his truth-challenged editors/publishers passed off as a work of nonfiction in “Travels With Charley.”

Brian Lamb of CSPAN liked “Dogging Steinbeck” so much he invited me on his show to make a tongue-tied fool of myself (my global debut is Sunday, March 3, at 8 p.m. on CSPAN’s “Q&A”).

But then I also get nasty ad hominem attacks like this one from a disturbed person named Heidi:

“It would appear that you are bitter hack who is spending your retirement trying to justify your failures by breaking down the successes of those who came before you. Attempting to expose the fraudulence of other authors is a testament to the truth of your character. You are a man who is wasting the opportunity to write on far reaching criticism of books whose meaning are out of your reach. Even if your assertions are true, it matters not as Steinbeck and Capote were gifted writers. You, Sir, are a fraud and you spend your days running from that truth. I’ll take Steinbeck’s lies over your bullshit any day.”

If turnabout is fair play, I get to make some wild-assed assumptions about Heidi’s troubled psyche.

I’d guess that  Heidi, who clearly doesn’t understand the difference between journalism and fiction, apparently was so unhappy to learn that one of her favorite childhood books was full of shit that she decided to take out her unhappiness on little old me.

I’m sure she didn’t read my book or take the time to find out how I came to discover Steinbeck’s literary fraud.

But, as I like to do when I get these kinds of irrational attacks, I hereby offer Heidi a free ebook copy of “Dogging Steinbeck” so that she find out how wrong she is about me, my motives and why I spent  three years and a lot of my own money writing my book.

 

 

I don’t get too many emails about my expose of Steinbeck and my debunking of “Travels With Charley,”  but most of them are pretty smart and supportive.

Then I get really silly/dumb emails like this one:

“You sad, sad man. Why couldn’t you leave it alone AND us with our reading pleasure ?  What’s next, the REAL invasion of Poland or the TRUE story of the Omaha Beach landing? It’s history and doesn’t need the bones laid bare.”

I hope this is from a 12-year-old, but if not, here’s my annoyed response.

“Perhaps you don’t mind if famous writers make up books and pass them off as true accounts; perhaps you don’t think there’s anything wrong about a major publisher, Viking Press, making tens of millions of dollars selling a book under false pretenses; perhaps you would rather remain ignorant of the truth about “Charley” so that you can continue to believe your romantic notions about a book that is not only full of fictions and lies but is not a very good book; I’m a journalist who set out on a mission to faithfully retrace Steinbeck’s route but quickly learned that his book was mostly fiction and a lot of carefully crafted lies. There’s nothing sad about what I did or who I am. In the real world, this is what honest journalists do — follow the facts as they find them/see them and report the results honestly. If you can’t take the truth on this silly book like a man/woman, what do you do when you find out the truth about things that matter. Unless you’re about 12, I’d say it’s time to grow up.”

 

 

I have an obvious interest in reading what Amazon’s readers have thought of “Blue Highways” and “Travels With Charley.”

Most people liked “Blue Highways.” I thought it was pretty good — much better than “Charley” — though the first time I picked it up 20 years ago I couldn’t get through more than 30 pages.

After I forced myself to read “BH” in 2010 as prep for my road trip, however, I changed my tune.

William Least Heat-Moon, who is really English prof William Trogdon and is only about 1/16th more Indian than I am, is a fine writer and good journalist with superior descriptive abilities and the ability to meet regular people and capture their charms.

Trogdon, naturally, given his profession, carried the usual East Coast left-liberal baggage with him on his late 1970s road trip — America was too commercialized, homogenized, franchised, etc., etc.  If his book wasn’t excerpted in the New Yorker, it should have been.

Overall, I’d give  “Blue Highways” four stars on Amazon’s rating scale. But my favorite review is this great hatchet job from 2000 by “A Customer”:

12 of 74 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer

(Make that star rating up there NEGATIVE 5 stars) I can’t believe I’m actually taking the time to write this for such an awful book, but I read all of the other reviews here and I can’t understand why everyone thinks this book is so incredible. I thought it was the most uninteresting, torturous book I have ever read. If this book is any indication of what Heat-Moon’s personality and his English classes were like, I understand why he was laid off (and why his wife cheated on him!). 400-something pages of grueling, thick, unconnected text ruined my entire summer and destroyed any previous desire that I might have had to travel cross-country. I would not recommend this book to anyone; I think it should be destroyed.

I hope “A Customer” has died by now so he doesn’t get a chance to take his axe to “Dogging Steinbeck.”