Currently viewing the tag: "Bill Steigerwald"

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…

 

Seems John Steinbeck wasn’t alone when it came to inventing facts for a “nonfiction” book.

Truman Capote, the father of the nonfiction novel, apparently did a lot more fact-fudging and truth-twisting “In Cold Blood” (1966) than he ever admitted and most people thought.

The Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Helliker has the sordid details in “Capote Classic ‘In Cold Blood’ Tainted by Long-Lost Files.”

Capote’s fictional tricks and lies in “In Cold Blood” were not as  thoroughly misleading as Steinbeck’s literary fraudulence in “Travels With Charley,” which I detail in “Dogging Steinbeck.”

But Capote gives me further ammo in my crusade for a new genre — True Nonfiction.

 

Poor John Steinbeck.

Forty-four years after his death, America’s most widely read author is taking some lumps.

First I proved his 1962 “nonfiction” book  “Travels With Charley” was a literary fraud filled with fiction and lies. Now the Nobel prize people in Sweden have opened their archives and Steinbeck’s reputation has taken another hit.

It turns out Steinbeck, who had been nominated eight times before for the Noble Prize for literature, was a compromise choice for the award in 1962 and he only won because the competition was so weak.

Steinbeck didn’t get much respect from the critics in his later years. Everyone but him wanted him to write “The Grapes of Wrath” over and over.

Even when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Oct. 25, 1962, the literary mafia at the New York Times and Time magazine quickly dissed him, saying he didn’t really deserve it because he hadn’t written anything of value in decades.

Meanwhile, there’s a “Travels With Charley” connection to Steinbeck’s Nobel.

As part of its decision, the Nobel selection committee took into account the roaring success of “Charley” in the late summer and fall of 1962. When Steinbeck was given the prize in Stockholm, here is what the presentation speech said about “Travels With Charley,” the supposedly nonfiction account of his 1960 road trip that had hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestselling nonfiction list on Oct. 21, 1962.

“Steinbeck’s latest book is an account of his experiences during a three-month tour of forty American states Travels with Charley, (1962). He travelled in a small truck equipped with a cabin where he slept and kept his stores. He travelled incognito, his only companion being a black poodle. We see here what a very experienced observer and raisonneur he is. In a series of admirable explorations into local colour, he rediscovers his country and its people. In its informal way this book is also a forceful criticism of society. The traveller in Rosinante – the name which he gave his truck – shows a slight tendency to praise the old at the expense of the new, even though it is quite obvious that he is on guard against the temptation. ‘I wonder why progress so often looks like destruction,’ he says in one place when he sees the bulldozers flattening out the verdant forest of Seattle to make room for the feverishly expanding residential areas and the skyscrapers. It is, in any case, a most topical reflection, valid also outside America.”

Of course, nearly everything the committee assumed was true about Steinbeck’s road trip and his book was not true.

 

 

Worth more than the sales of my ebook “Dogging Steinbeck” are the nice, smart comments I’ve gotten from my fellow journalists and perceptive readers at Amazon.com — without having to bribe a single one.

The great travel writer Paul Theroux, who doesn’t dig it when famous travel writers lie about their trips,  hasn’t read the book. But he encouraged me to write it and has credited me for my findings of Steinbeck’s literary fraud.

“I compared his published letters with his travels and saw great discrepancies,” the author of “The Tao of Travel” told me in an email. “These facts have been public for years, but no one cared to mention them. … Steinbeck falsified his trip. I am delighted that you went deep into this.”

Curt Gentry, the author of a dozen books including “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders” (with Vincent Bugliosi), did read “Dogging Steinbeck.” He’s also a “character” in it — a mini-hero, actually.

Here’s what Curt wrote about my book in his Amazon blurb:

“I still believe John Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest writers and I still love ‘Travels With Charley,’ be it fact or fiction or, as Bill Steigerwald doggedly proved, both. While I disagree with a number of Steigerwald’s conclusions, I don’t dispute his facts. He greatly broadened my understanding of Steinbeck the man and the author, particularly during his last years. And, whether Steigerwald intended it or not, in tracking down the original draft of ‘Travels With Charley’ he made a significant contribution to Steinbeck’s legacy. “Dogging Steinbeck” is a good honest book.”

Not everyone will like my book, what I say about Steinbeck or his book, or what I say about America and what/who ails it.

But whether “Dogging Steinbeck” is a bust-seller or a best-seller, comments like Theroux’s and Gentry’s are priceless.

About three people I know have read my entire book “Dogging Steinbeck,” which is for sale on Amazon.com as an ebook for a lousy $6.99 but is still in process of becoming a print-on-demand book.

Message from Bill Steigerwald, my marketing director:

“Dogging Steinbeck” makes a fine (i.e., cheap) Christmas present for anyone who loves Steinbeck or hates Steinbeck; who loves “Travels With Charley” or hates it; who prefers American road books that aren’t written by New York or Europeans liberals; or who prefers truth and fact in nonfiction books rather than fibs and fiction.

Since I didn’t have an editor or copy editor to save my from my imperfect and mad self, my unpaid, invaluable readers have been invaluable. white_font_cover_copy_for_pg

They caught many little mistakes of fact, typos or dumb writing, which I have fixed thanks to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program that allows writers to easily add material or fix mistakes.

My friend Jim Dourgarian, aka Bookman, who’s a major West Coast book collector, a Steinbeck expert and an ex-newspaperman, saved me from my worst embarrassment.

I had at least 20 semicolons sprinkled throughout my book.

For someone who once told his one and only class of college students to never, ever, use a semicolon, as I did, it was shameful.

Of course, neither I nor my marketing director Bill Steigerwald will ever use another; again.

 

 

 

For half a century, we were told John Steinbeck’s beloved road book “Travels With Charley in Search of America” was a work of nonfiction. It wasn’t.

As former Post-Gazette staffer Bill Steigerwald proved on the road and in libraries during 2010, Steinbeck’s iconic bestseller was a literary fraud. It was not a true or honest account of the cross-country trip Steinbeck made in the fall of 1960. It was mostly fiction and lies.

“Dogging Steinbeck” is Steigerwald’s new ebook.

Part literary detective story, part American travel book, part history book, part book review, part critique of the mainstream media, part primer in drive-by journalism, it is the true story of his own 11,276-mile road trip across America and how he stumbled upon the truth about Steinbeck’s last major work, ruffled the PH.Ds of some top Steinbeck scholars and forced the publisher of “Charley” to tell readers the book was too fictionalized to be taken literally.

“Dogging Steinbeck” will soon be for sale on Amazon.com for $5.99 — only $1.04 more than what Steinbeck’s hardback sold for in 1962. Anyone who’s interested in John Steinbeck, the truth about “Travels With Charley” and how much America has changed in the last half century America should read it — and help Steigerwald recover the costs of his adventure.

Bill Steigerwald

From the Oct. 14 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, here is the latest news in my quest to bring John Steinbeck’s iconic fraud of a road book to justice. Penguin Group, the book’s publisher has confessed. “Travels With Charley” is not fact but fiction — laced with lies and other distortions of reality.

 

“Travels With Charley”: Now officially mostly fiction

By Bill Steigerwald

There were no puffy press releases from John Steinbeck’s publisher. No stories in The New York Times culture pages or news flashes on feisty book industry blogs such as GalleyCat.

But after half a century of masquerading as a work of nonfiction, and after almost 1.5 million copies sold, John Steinbeck’s iconic road book “Travels With Charley” has quietly come clean with its readers.

Penguin Group, which owns the rights to Steinbeck’s works, didn’t quite come out and call “Travels With Charley” a literary fraud, as I did first in the Post-Gazette in December 2010 and five months later in Reason magazine.

But the company has been forced to admit that the beloved book about a great American writer traveling


“TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY”
By John Steinbeck
Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition ($16, paperback).

around the country in a camper with his poodle is so heavily fictionalized it should not be taken literally.

Before I detail Penguin’s confession, some background is in order. For the past two years I’ve caused trouble for a lot of the “Travels With Charley” fans, scholars and publishers who live on Steinbeck World.

It started innocently. In the fall 2010, as part of a book project to show how much America has changed in the past 50 years, I wanted to retrace faithfully Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile road trip. The Post-Gazette granted me a blog, “Travels Without Charley,” to chronicle the journey, and published a series of my pieces in the Sunday Magazine.

While doing research in libraries and reading the original manuscript of the book, however, I stumbled onto a 50-year-old literary “scoop.”

As I revealed in my Dec. 5, 2010, PG article “The Fabulism of ‘Travels With Charley,’ ” there were major discrepancies between Steinbeck’s actual road trip and what he wrote in the book.

Though it had always been marketed, sold, reviewed and taught as the true account of Steinbeck’s circumnavigation of the USA in the fall of 1960, “Charley” was not very true or accurate or honest at all.

It was not nonfiction. It was mostly fiction — plus a few lies and deliberate distortions thrown in by Steinbeck and his sly editors at the Viking Press to create the myth that he traveled alone, roughed it and spent a lot of time studying and thinking about America and its people.

It took a while for my charges against Steinbeck to escape the gravitational field of Pittsburgh. But in April 2011, five months after my article for the PG, The New York Times “discovered” me and made my accusations globally famous — for the usual 15 minutes.

Most of my fellow journalists praised me for my discovery. But I was cursed by Steinbeck groupies around the world for spoiling their fun with my fierce fetish for facts. It was hard to persuade them I didn’t hate Steinbeck or “Charley,” which, despite its lapses in the truth department, flashes with his great nature writing, wisdom and humor.

And some college English professors who believe the use of creative fictional techniques in nonfiction is a good and common thing dismissed me for wasting so much energy proving what they claimed was irrelevant or always obvious.

Penguin’s recent admission of the fictional genetic makeup of “Charley” was subtle — so subtle no one noticed it but professional-Steinbeck-watchdog me. It had been quietly slipped into the introduction of a new edition of “Charley,” which was released on Oct. 2 to co-celebrate the book’s 50th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize for Literature.

The lengthy introduction was first written for a 1997 paperback edition by esteemed Middlebury College English professor, author and Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini.

In his original introduction, Mr. Parini had pointed out Steinbeck’s heavy use of fictional elements, especially dialogue. Otherwise he treated “Charley” just as 2.5 generations of Steinbeck scholars had always treated it — as if it was the true and honest account of the author’s road trip and what he thought about America and Americans.

Into the latest edition, however, Mr. Parini inserted the cold truth:

“Indeed, it would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist, and he added countless touches — changing the sequence of events, elaborating on scenes, inventing dialogue — that one associates more with fiction than nonfiction. (A mild controversy erupted, in the spring of 2011, when a former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did some fact-checking and noticed that Steinbeck’s itinerary didn’t exactly fit that described in the book, and that some of the people he supposedly interviewed, such as an actor at a campsite in North Dakota, never existed.)

“It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative.”

Naturally I was pleased to see that the truth had come out because of my efforts. Naturally I was not pleased to see that my name was not mentioned.

I sent a sarcastic email to Mr. Parini for making a mistake no rookie journalist would have made. Ignoring my serial insults, Mr. Parini took the classy, professorial road. He apologized profusely, near abjectly. I forgave him, though I really don’t know why.

It took half a century, and it cost me a lot of time and work and money, but at least the truth had triumphed. At least from now on anyone who buys a new copy of “Travels With Charley” will not be fooled.