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The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 2

Sept. 23-24, 1960 — Deerfield, Mass.

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The apple orchard on a dairy farm in Deerfield, Mass., where Steinbeck camped while visiting his son. (video)

Steinbeck and Charley camp Friday and Saturday nights in Rocinante in an apple orchard on a farm on top of the mountain above his son John’s exclusive boarding school, the Eaglebrook School.

In “Travels With Charley” he doesn’t say much about his visit or how many nights he spent at Eaglebrook. But in a letter to his wife Elaine, he makes it clear that he was there until Sunday morning, when he woke up late and almost missed church. Later that day he headed north on U.S. Highway 5 into Vermont and New Hampshire.

 

Steinbeck’s ‘Act of Courage’

John Steinbeck was especially brave to embark on his solo road trek in 1960 – and it had nothing to do with not having radial tires, GPS or air bags. Given his lousy health, his biographer Jackson Benson said the “Travels With Charley” trip could be best appreciated “as an act of courage.” As Steinbeck’s son Thom told the New York Times, “The book was his farewell. My dad knew he was dying, and he had been accused of having lost touch with the rest of the country. ‘Travels With Charley’ was his attempt to rediscover America.”

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The primitive, uncomfortable 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper combo Rocinante is parked in a place of honor at the National Steinbeck Center in Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, Calif.

Steinbeck’s agent, doctor and everyone who loved him tried to talk him out of his trip, which he had been thinking about taking for at least six years. What if he had a heart attack and collapsed in the middle of nowhere? He’d die for sure and he might never be found. He refused to hear such cautionary crap. He was the contemporary rival and equal of Hemingway. He was the World War II correspondent who went on daring midnight raids in PT boats off the Italian coast with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He was a future Nobel Prize-winner. He may have been born with a heart too small for his big body, as a European doctor once told him. But he was not a famous dead author yet, literally or figuratively. He was still a man – and not an old man. He still had balls. He still had stuff to say and write and prove.

Steinbeck wrote in letters to his agent and others that he was tired of being fussed over like a sick baby or an invalid who had to be “protected” and “hospitalized.”  He had to go on his great land-voyage of rediscovery – and go by himself, even though at the last minute he would ask his wife if he could take her 10-year-old standard French poodle Charley with him for company. Defending his solo project in a letter to his agent Elizabeth Otis, he said what he was proposing was not “a little trip of reporting, but a frantic last attempt to save my life and the integrity of my creative pulse.”

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

 

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 12-17

Tuesday, Oct. 4 to Oct. 9, 1960 – Chicago

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The Ambassador East Hotel’s famed Pump Room was done up in dark wood and leather and plastered to the ceiling with glossy photos of the celebrities who stayed there.

Steinbeck traveled fast from Buffalo to Chicago, a distance of about 550 miles. He left Buffalo on Monday morning and arrived at Chicago’s famous Ambassador East Hotel sometime Tuesday or Wednesday. His wife Elaine jetted out from New York.

Steinbeck describes this leg of his road trip in “Charley,” but given his haste to see his wife, his account is not plausible. He writes that he camped Monday night on private land by a lake along U.S. 20 in northern Ohio or southern Michigan and went fishing the next morning with the young man who had let him stay there. He writes that at noon (on what would have been Tuesday, Oct. 4), “growing increasingly anxious” to meet Elaine, he climbed on the Indiana Toll Road and drove almost all night, arriving at the Ambassador East early the next morning before his room was ready.

No one will ever know what Steinbeck really did between Buffalo and Chicago or what he made up. He could have covered the entire distance in one hellish day/night drive, or rented a motel room somewhere or, least likely of all, really camped overnight by a private lake and gone fishing. Steinbeck and his wife were together in Chicago until Monday, Oct. 10, and stayed at least one night with Adlai Stevenson at his farm in nearby Libertyville, Ill. (Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip.)

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The lobby of the Ambassador East, as it looked in October 2010.

In my quixotic travels with Charley about America I paused five times, in Chicago, in Seattle, in California and twice in Texas. Then I saw and felt beloved people who knew me as I knew them. It would be quite easy to recount every moment of these steps but it would be out of drawing with the rest. A book has to be one thing, just as a poem does or a chair or a table.

– Cut from first draft of “Travels With Charley”

 

 

Sleeping over at Adlai’s Farm

Steinbeck and Adlai Stevenson were more than contemporaries and pen pals. They had several interests in common – liberal/New Deal politics, agriculture, dogs and the legend of King Arthur and the Round Table. Politically, Steinbeck was a Stevenson Man, 110 percent. He helped the former Illinois governor during the 1950s with some speeches and desperately wanted him to become the president in ’52 and ’56 and to win the Democrat nomination again in 1960. He was still pulling for Stevenson long after it was clear that his days as the Democrats’ standard-bearer were over.

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Adlai Stevenson, former Illinois governor and Democratic presidential candidate in 1952 and 1956, was Steinbeck’s political hero, friend and pen pal. Stevenson lived on a 70 acre farm outside Chicago in Libertyville. Steinbeck and his wife Elaine spent a night their during his layover in Chicago.

Stevenson’s white, squared-off house at “The Farm” was simple, practical and smartly designed, with airy rooms, huge windows, a wild Art Deco bathroom and a long back deck looking out at the lawn and blazing oak trees that stretched to the Des Plaines River. The house (owned by the Lake County Forest Preserve), had been restored for tours in 2008 and was used for meetings but still needed several rooms of furniture. Only Stevenson’s study – the most important room in the house, said my guide Nicole Stocker – was completely furnished. It had his old desk, his books and his address book – which happened to be opened to “S.” Steinbeck’s name and Sag Harbor phone number were there.

In 1960 Stevenson’s place was still a working farm. He grew corn and soybeans, and had horses, sheep and a pack of Dalmatians, all named after characters from King Arthur’s Court. He, like Steinbeck, lived relatively frugally for a wealthy man, but Nicole said a housekeeper and a caretaker were on the premises.

DSC_0095One of Stevenson’s near neighbors was Marshall Field, who owned a little department store in Chicago. Many historic figures of the era came to talk politics with Adlai in his ample living room – from Senator Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft of Ohio to a young, ambitious rogue with the initials JFK. Nicole said the three Steinbecks probably slept in the guest suite, where Eleanor Roosevelt would crash whenever she dropped by.

Steinbeck says nothing in “Travels With Charley” or his road letters about his visit to Stevenson’s farm, which is 35 miles north of downtown Chicago. Biographer Jackson Benson mentions Steinbeck’s visit in “John Steinbeck, Writer.” And a Steinbeck letter to Stevenson that I read at Princeton alludes to their walk together in Stevenson’s “blazing” woods in the fall of 1960. Exactly when the Steinbeck family stayed in Libertyville is not known and doesn’t matter.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 29 – 34

Friday, Oct. 21 to Oct. 26, 1960 – The Pacific Coast Highway

There are virtually no hard clues to determine where the Steinbecks stopped as they came down the Pacific Coast through redwood country to San Francisco. Based on scenes deleted from the book’s original manuscript, once they crossed the California line they stayed for at least two days at a large, nearly empty resort in the shade of redwoods. The only reliable clue is a postcard Steinbeck mailed on Monday, Oct. 24, 1960, to his editor Pascal Covici from Trinidad, California, where he said he and Elaine were staying the night in a motel by a redwood grove on U.S. 101, about 300 miles north of San Francisco. They arrived in downtown San Francisco Wednesday, Oct. 26. Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip was Sept. 23, 1960.

Not ‘Travels With Elaine’

It was on the West Coast that “Travels With Charley” reached its height of deception. In the real world, John, Elaine and Charley made their slow trip down to San Francisco in their overloaded pickup truck. But in the book Elaine is not there. It is only the author and his faithful poodle who visit Seattle, fix a flat tire on a rainy Sunday in Oregon and commune with the great bodies of the redwoods.

It wasn’t that way at all in the original manuscript, which co-stars Elaine and reads like the travel log of the Duke and Duchess of Sag Harbor. As soon as she made it to Seattle, Elaine – aka “my wife” – is in about six straight scenes at the waterfront and on the road. Some of those scenes were dropped completely and some were retained, but her presence was stripped out.

One scene completely dropped from the first draft mentions “the several days” Mr. and Mrs. Steinbeck stayed “at a partially closed resort in a big redwood grove.” Holed up in “a cottage at the base of a cluster of monster trees,” he wrote that he was sore and scraped up after having to flounder in “thick yellow muck” while fixing Rocinante’s flat tire, which he said he did as Elaine sat in the cab reading a book.

Steinbeck wrote that the cottage in the redwoods seemed like “the perfect place to rest and refurbish our souls.” Apparently, he was halfway to heaven. As he soaked in “a tub of near boiling water,” he wrote, “My lady wife slipped in and set a scotch and soda on the edge of the tub. And the world and the people there of, the grasses and the trees became very beautiful.”

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Elaine and John Steinbeck circa 1960.

Another completely dropped scene does not reflect well on Steinbeck’s vaunted love for the common man. After he and Elaine hear about a good restaurant nearby, they decide to get dolled up and do the “town.” They were disappointed to find that the eatery in the sticks of Northern California was not a Trader Vic’s franchise but a neon hellhole. Sounding like an old fogey, Steinbeck wrote that the restaurant possessed “every damnable feature of our civilization – cold glaring light, despondent roaring music from a cathedral juke box, batteries of coin machines, Formica counters and tables. One wall was a cemetery of ugly … pies.”

Great descriptive writing, as usual. But when Steinbeck – who rarely let a commoner he meets on his journey escape without uttering a “he don’t” or a “them people” – made fun of the waitress for saying “fried tatters” and “We ain’t got no (liquor) license,” he doesn’t sound like a friend of the working class. Later he was happy to report that while he and Elaine slept close to the redwoods, there were “no trippers, no chattering troupes with cameras” to spoil their stay. The entire restaurant tragedy was easily snipped from the final version of “Charley.” But excising Elaine from the other scenes posed a larger editorial problem. On the West Coast, whenever he writes “we” in the book he was originally referring to himself and Elaine, not himself and Charley.

Speaking of poor Charley, he all but disappears from the first draft once Elaine takes over the passenger seat. It became so obvious to some folks (i.e., the editors or Steinbeck’s agent) that the poodle was missing that Steinbeck felt obligated to explain to the reader where Charley went. He handwrote a short chapter – obviously never published – answering the criticism that Charley was being ignored and assuring everyone he was feeling fine. He explained that with the missus onboard, the standard Steinbeck family pecking order had reasserted itself: “When Charley and I traveled alone together, the dog was indeed man’s best friend. But Charley knows better than anyone when the wife is present, he is man’s second best friend, and he finds this a normal relationship and perhaps a better one.”

In the end, Charley was restored to top billing and Elaine’s presence on the West Coast for four weeks was completely eliminated. It was editorially smart – and necessary – to dump the duchess. First of all, the scenes focusing on her were boring as hell. But most important, she seriously undermined the book’s romantic conceit. With her by his side every night, Steinbeck was no longer the man alone. He was a love-struck honeymooner.

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Days 39 – 53

Monday, Oct. 31 to Monday, Nov. 14, 1960 – Monterey Peninsula/Pacific Grove

The Steinbecks John, Elaine and Charley  stayed for two weeks with his sister Beth at the modest Steinbeck family cottage two blocks from the ocean in Pacific Grove. After not having been in Monterey for about 20 years, he visited the remnants of the once thriving sardine industry on Cannery Row, the official new name for Ocean View Avenue. In his book he says he returned to one of his favorite bars on Alvarado Street  (the Keg) and went with Charley to the top of Fremont Peak. He was interviewed and photographed at the cottage by the Monterey Peninsula Herald. The newspaper article, “John Steinbeck Back – But Not to Stay,” ran Nov. 4, 1960, and included a photo of Steinbeck standing in the garden of the cottage with a cigarette in his mouth.  To start at Day 1 of Steinbeck’s trip, go here.

The Steinbeck Family Cottage

On 11th Street I parked across from the Steinbeck family cottage. Except that it was probably the least renovated and shabbiest structure on the block, it fit in well with its cramped neighborhood of little yellow-and-dark-green-trimmed stucco houses on micro-lots. Two blocks from the surf, with a low gray wood fence at the sidewalk and a dense side garden, it had been remodeled by Steinbeck so it’d have no door to the street.

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His father, who was neither poor nor un-influential, built the red-and-white cottage early in the 20th century. Steinbeck lived there with his first wife Carol from 1930 to 1936, when he wrote books like “The Red Pony” and “Tortilla Flat” that made him nationally known. Though it was still owned and used by Steinbeck heirs, no one was there when I dropped by to snoop. It was just as well, since all I wanted to do was take photos.

In 1960 the Traveling Steinbecks were at the cottage for only a day or two when the Monterey Peninsula Herald dispatched a writer and photographer to do a story. The resulting feature, which ran in the Nov. 4 paper, was very well written by Mike Thomas and included a photo of Steinbeck standing in the garden with a cigarette in his mouth.

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Thomas found Steinbeck fixing a wooden front gate, which the author said he had probably built himself 30 years earlier. Describing Steinbeck as a big man with broad features, piercing blue eyes, graying hair and small goatee, Thomas said he was wearing corduroy pants and a shapeless green sweater.

His fingers were nicotine stained and he had a Zippo cigarette lighter on a string around his neck. Wife Elaine was there. So was “an aging poodle sitting in a car at the curbside.” When Thomas asked if he would ever move back to the Monterey area, Steinbeck said he felt like a stranger on the peninsula and repeated his Thomas Wolfe mantra – “You can’t go home again.”

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Election Day, 1960

Going into Election Day, the presidential race was close in both California and the nation, with Kennedy leading Nixon in the Time and Newsweek polls. On Nov. 2, with six days to go, JFK came through San Jose on his way to a fundraiser in San Francisco and Nixon was about to fly into Fresno. The Peninsula Herald put its endorsement of Richard Nixon and Henry Cabot Lodge at the top left of its front page. It ran the same recommendation on Page 1 every day for the next six days.

The plug for “Tricky Dick” may have helped Nixon take Monterey County by a 56-43 majority and narrowly carry the state by 35,000 votes out of 6.5 million cast. But it couldn’t sway Steinbeck. On Nov. 8, he cast an absentee vote. Unless he wrote-in the name of his hero Adlai Stevenson, he voted for John F. Kennedy.

Two months later he’d attend JFK’s inauguration and begin his personal relationship with Kennedy and LBJ. Steinbeck would be pleased to know the voters of Steinbeck Country have done a political 180 in the last half-century. In 2008 they voted 66-33 for President Obama, a nail-biter compared to the 80-20 Obama landslide in San Francisco….

 

Steinbeck’s Partisan Politics

Part of John Steinbeck’s original mission had been to take the political pulse of the country. He was quickly disappointed to find how difficult that was. As he wrote in his first draft, he was saddened to learn that the greatest number of Americans he saw “did not have political opinions, or if they did, concealed them whether out of fear or expediency I do not know.”

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Their silence didn’t stop him from lacing his original manuscript with his running commentary on the election, which he obviously followed closely. He was a stanch New Deal Democrat and didn’t pretend otherwise. In the first draft of “Charley,” he wrote, “It must not be thought that my wife and I are or were nonpartisan observers. We were and are partisan as all get out, confirmed, blown in the glass democrats and make no bones about it.”

That confession was axed. So was nearly every overt political comment or crack he put in the first draft. For example, all four televised Nixon-Kennedy debates occurred while he was on the road. Based on his letters and the original manuscript, he saw or heard each one in full or in part.

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A Stevenson Man until the bitter end, Steinbeck didn’t swoon over the prospects of a President John Kennedy. But he loathed Nixon, as the manuscript repeatedly makes clear. At one point, after watching a Nixon-JFK debate on the big TV in his motel room, he criticized Nixon and Herbert Hoover and went on for about 150 words, making fun of their pedestrian Republican reading habits and comparing their low intelligence levels to Kennedy’s high one.  “Being a democrat,” he wrote without capitalizing Democrat, “I wanted Kennedy to win….” That scene was axed.

Also cut was his commentary following the third presidential debate, which he watched in his room at a “pretty auto court” in Livingston, Montana. He sarcastically asked himself if Montanans had any real interest in the major geopolitical issue of that debate – whether the United States should defend the tiny islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which the Red Chinese were shelling and threatening to take from Taiwan. Other political comments he made in San Francisco, Monterey and Amarillo – some of them refreshingly bipartisan in their cynicism – were chopped out completely. So were two pokes at the John Birch Society, a favorite punching bag.

Though it took some of the edge away from an already nearly edgeless book, cutting 99 percent of the presidential politics from “Travels With Charley” was smart and logical editing. First of all, by the time the book would hit bookstores – in late July of 1962 – the 1960 election was ancient history. Who would care by then what Steinbeck thought about the third JFK-Nixon debate?

Plus, his political sniping was petty and one-sided, though that probably bothered no one at the Viking Press. It was also boring and at odds with the rest of the book’s grouchy but generally likable tone. The trouble was, removing all of the politics left a glaring hole in what was supposed to be a nonfiction account of what was going on in the nation….

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

In my never-ending quest to get a legacy publisher to publish “Dogging Steinbeck” so it can get into libraries and bookstores where it deserves to be, I left a phone message and sent a token pitch to the University of Nevada Press.

The folks there were nice and responded, which itself was a rare treat.

Here’s the response I got:

Thank you for telling us about your book Dogging Steinbeck.  I regret that we cannot take on this project because it has already been published and is available on Amazon.  I do agree that there will be new attention to Steinbeck this year, given the anniversary celebration of The Grapes of Wrath. You might find that the best use of your time is to try again to promote the book you have already released.

 

It was a typical response. And so, in response to their response, I wrote this gripe, which applies to every publishing company big and small in America:

It’s a pretty annoying and strange publishing system we non-famous, non-tenured authors are up against.

I couldn’t get a book advance from a major New York publisher in 2010 — despite my fine proposal — because I was not famous, because road books don’t sell and/or because no one cared about Steinbeck anymore (these were the top reasons I was 0-35, despite my readable, crazy style, according to my Madison Avenue agent).

I went ahead anyway, did my trip and wrote my book. On my own time, on my own dime.

I got lucky, I met many memorable Americans along the Steinbeck Highway, I made real literary news by exposing the deceptions of a major American writer. And I forced a major publisher, Penguin Group, to confess that, after 50 years of masquerading as a work of nonfiction, “Travels With Charley” was really a bunch of fiction and dishonest BS.

You’d think that in the declining world of publishing, all this would be worthy of a book. But after I took my road trip I still had no interest from legacy publishers.

I did everything right and got really lucky, thanks to the Steinbeck scholars who were asleep at their desks for half a century.

I wrote a road  book that tells, in an entertaining and authoritative way, how I made major literary news, how I changed the way “Travels With Charley” will be read forevermore, and how I — by my self-promoting self — got media attention and editorial-page praise from the New York Times, got praise and plugs from the world’s most celebrated travel writer (Paul Theroux), got on NPR and CBC radio in Canada, got written up in the pages of the Washington Post and, best of all, got an hour of airtime with Brian Lamb on CSPAN.

I also got grief, not praise or thanks, from the Steinbeck scholars.

Then, after I self-publish my book and have some success, I hear from some small and medium publishers that they can’t publish my book because I did too good of a job promoting it and my “scoop.”

Then I hear from other publishers that it’s too late for them to publish my book in print (so it can get into its natural market of libraries and bookstores) because I already published it as an ebook on Amazon. (I’m sure you know I can take it off Amazon in 30 seconds.)

Then, when it turns out I was ahead of the curve on the 2014 Resurrection of John Steinbeck and my book is timely and topical, it still doesn’t matter.

What earthly difference does it make to librarians and independent bookstore owners, and their clientele, whether my book already exists as an ebook somewhere?

It doesn’t exist yet in print, in stores. How can a small publisher looking to sell 10,000 copies of a book with a long commercial tail that has already proved its value and credibility not want to take advantage of the work I’ve already done?

It has nothing to do with an advance or royalty terms. It’s just a “rule.” I bet if my book started selling 100 ebooks a day a publisher would break the rule — I know it’s happened with other books.

So far I’ve sold 1,000 copies without any help from a publisher or its marketing department.

I’ve heard a dozen newspaper book editors say they don’t review self-published books.

I’ve heard two dozen very short-sighted bookstore owners tell me they won’t carry my self-published book because they can’t return it.

Other, even more clueless, bookstore owners have told me I can’t even appear in their stores to talk about my book and sell POD copies of it because I was hooked up with the Devil — Amazon.

I know Amazon is the bad guy who’s mean to bookstores (most of whom are stuck in 1850 and can’t handle the competition).

So I guess it makes the soon-to-be-gone bookstore owners feel good to do unto nobody authors like me what Amazon does unto them. Can you understand why I might not shed a single tear when I hear a bookstore had died?

Thank God for Amazon.

I wouldn’t have a book without it. I would never have gotten emails of praise from Holland, where the book “Travels Without John in Search of America” by super-star Geert Mak is a best-seller, has been translated into several languages and is headed to America soon. (Mak retraced Steinbeck’s 1960 trip the same time I did in the fall of 2010 and he credits me and my dogged journalism a dozen times in his book — in Dutch.)

Amazon made it possible for me to get around the braindead publishing industry and get a book distributed around the world without costing me a quarter. Now Amazon is keeping me from getting a “real” publisher?

I’ve proven in the marketplace and in the conflicting worlds of journalism and academia that my book “Dogging Steinbeck” is a valuable piece of literary and travel journalism.

I caught Steinbeck and his publisher with their literary ethics down. I got praise from some of the smartest travel writers and journalists on the planet.

And all I get — still — from publishers is the same Catch 22s.

It’s no wonder the publishing industry is collapsing. It deserves to.