Currently viewing the tag: "dogging steinbeck"

“Dogging Steinbeck” — the book itself and the reviews posted by 48 readers who either loved it or hated it – really exists in only one place – at Amazon.com.

 I’m very protective of what is said about the book and me, so I have always made it a point to rebut or correct the “reviewers” on Amazon who mis-characterize the book’s contents or my motives.

They usually one-star “Dogging Steinbeck” because they don’t like my politics, are trying to defend John Steinbeck’s tarnished honor from a nobody like me or because they feel I’ve somehow ruined the romance of all road trips by outing “Travels With Charley” as a very flawed load of fictional crap and deception.

Here is the best (i.e., most lively and most informative) example of a debate on Amazon’s “Dogging Steinbeck” site between me and my detractors. It stars an unknown hero, a smart, wise and kind man named Mr. La Tour, who ably comes to my rescue.

 The debate started with Bob Hoffmann’s annoying 1-star review on April 30, 2013.

— Bill s

Steigerwald’s “Dog” of a Companion

Bob Hoffmann

Steigerwald sets out to re-trace Steinbeck’s famous 1960 trek “In Search of America”, and along the way to describe how he had “exposed the truth about ‘Travels with Charley'”, as the subtitle suggests. His first introductory paragraph mentions that he “… found out the great author’s iconic “nonfiction” road book was a deceptive, dishonest and highly fictionalized account of his actual 10,000-mile road trip.” Although he provides a disclaimer that “my book is subjective as hell. But it’s entirely nonfiction. True Nonfiction.” So what is “subjective non-fiction,” anyway?images-1

While Steigerwald claims that Steinbeck’s work “…was not a travelogue, not a serious work of journalism and, as I soon realized, it was not an accurate, full or reliable account of his actual road trip,” he might have taken some time to put a rear-view mirror to his own work, to recognize that he was observing his own “journalistic” work through a pair of thickly-tinted red, libertarian glasses. In between his researched and verified “facts” about Steinbeck’s actual movements, he inserts slants, biases, and attacks from his own rightist POV against the Nobelist’s admittedly Democratic affiliations. His focus on “The Truth” denies Steinbeck any “narrative license” to the original story, repetitively implying that if a particular detail isn’t fully accurate, then it must fully be a lie. My understanding, as a reader of journalistic products, is that “news” and “research” is not so simply bifurcated, and it is the writer’s role to illuminate the shadings between the real and the fantasy.

Having been raised along the Missouri River divide in North Dakota, I was proud to read Steinbeck’s descriptions of my prairie homeland when the book first appeared in the early Sixties. In my own travels on the old US routes through forty-six contiguous states, mostly tenting with my Dodge Dakota, I recognize many of the character types that both authors describe. I will agree that not much has changed in a half-century (outside the metro regions), as the more recent traveler summarizes in chapter 21 – “America the Mostly Beautiful”.

Yet Steigerwald’s version of the journey could have been a useful supplement to Steinbeck’s original narrative, had he dropped off the concluding four chapters. Instead, he showed that he had traveled with his own “dog” of an attitude, taking not only Steinbeck to task, but also the entire “lamestream media.” Some things are better left at home.

bill steigerwald says:

Please. All nonfiction is subjective, as Steinbeck knew, and as I said repeatedly in my book. Of course my book is subjective — and therefore contains my politics, biases, values, tastes, etc., just as Steinbeck’s book contained his politics, etc etc. I clearly and repetitively say/admit all of that in my book (as Steinbeck did in his). This objectivity/subjectivity thing shouldn’t be so hard to understand. As for illuminating the “shadings between the real and the fantasy,” that’s what my book does. He fictionalized, exaggerated, misled or lied throughout “Charley” about what he did and who met and how he traveled. It’s true that I’m tough on Steinbeck, but I’m fair. I could have been tougher, believe me. Sorry about those last four chapters, where I defend myself from scholars and Steinbeck kin. But you may have noticed that my journalistic efforts on and off the road forced Penguin to confess — after 50 years — that “Charley” was too fictionalized to be considered a work of nonfiction. As for “True Nonfiction,” it is a joke. If you don’t get it after reading my book, it’s not my fault.

Jimmy says:

I haven’t read it, and based on all the reviews I won’t bother. Bill S. sounds like a man who, to paraphrase Vonnegut, has donned a full suit of armor to attack a hot fudge sundae. Any discerning reader has known since the time “Travels With Charley” was published that they weren’t reading a pure nonfiction travelogue. That wasn’t Steinbeck’s intention…….whatever journalistic or literary coup you think you’ve scored is totally lost on me. By the way, I haven’t read the book itself in years, that’s how I stumbled across this one. I’ll be ordering a new copy of TWC for my Kindle. Thanks.

bill steigerwald says:

It amazes me how people who think they’re smart can merrily make wild assumptions and guesses and “critiques” about the author of a book they didn’t read. And Jimmy, when you settle down to enjoy that Kindle version of “Charley,” don’t miss that disclaimer that Penguin Group has quietly slipped into the introduction of its latest edition because of my expose of Steinbeck’s BS. Spoiler alert: it confesses — after 50 years — that “Charley” was not really a nonfiction book but was so fictionalized that it should not be taken literally; not that any discerning reader would have expected a great American writer in search of America to just make up a lot of stuff and pass it off as true.

Jimmy says:

The Kindle edition contains no such intro. Quick, another scandal demanding your attention.

bill steigerwald says:

Hilarious.

Jimmy says:

Thank you.

bill steigerwald says:

“Steinbeck falsified his trip. I am delighted that you went deep into this.” — Paul Theroux, Author of “The Tao of Travel”

“No book gave me more of a kick this year than Bill Steigerwald’s investigative travelogue ‘Dogging Steinbeck.'” — Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com

“… a wry, wistful, but never angry tale about a great literary deception that lasted way too long.” — Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“… an idol-slaying travelogue of truth.’ — Shawn Macomber, The Weekly Standard

T. E. La Tour says:

When you read your Kindle version, try to find any place in the book where Steinbeck suggests that he is creating false characters and situations or that he is embellishing dialogue. You won’t. He and his publishers intended for people to believe he was describing actual people, situations, and dialogue. That is phony and dishonest, period.

S. Michael Wilson says:

If Steigerwald spent less time responding to all of his negative reader reviews with personal attacks and quoting positive reviews back at them, he might find the time to finish his upcoming scathing expose on how George Orwell’s 1984 isn’t historically accurate.

T. E. La Tour says:

Orwell never said it was. But Steinbeck said TWC was real. Surely you see the difference. Steinbeck never said the Joads were a real family, but he said the characters he met in TWC were real. Surely you see the difference.

As for Steigerwald’s responses to criticism, none of that changes the fact that Steinbeck was lying to sell books. He could have written the book from his desk at home; instead he wrote it from inside his truck. But the result was the same.

Did you read both books? Some critics of DS on these pages admit to not having read Steigerwald’s book. One wonders whether they ever read TWC either.

S. Michael Wilson says:

I never said that I was making a serious suggestion or comparison, I was simply mocking the author’s tendency to personally attack every negative review he gets on Amazon. Surely you see the difference.

T. E. La Tour says:

Of course, I will take you at your word. But there is a disturbing tendency in many of the comments to make this about Steigerwald, whereas it is about Steinbeck. Anyway, I suppose all the points, pro and con, have been made by this time, and maybe it’s time to move on.

S. Michael Wilson says:

I don’t need you to take me at my word, but thank you anyway for the condescending approval. As for your assertion that none of this is about Steigerwald, I’m afraid I have to disagree. This book is not just about Steinbeck. If that were the case, the book would be nothing more than a straightforward literary criticism of Steinbeck’s novel. Instead, Steigerwald not only includes himself in the book, but refers to his own political viewpoints and personal philosophies throughout, making Dogging Steinbeck as much of a personal journey of the author as the original Travels with Charley was intended to be. Additionally, what I find disturbing is not that some reviews might take the author to task personally for items they disagree with in his book, but that instead of simply allowing readers to post their critical reviews of his work without fear of retribution, Steigerwald has consistently confronted any negative review of his book with detailed arguments, insults, and most recently (as well as most childishly and unprofessionally) just quoting positive reviews of his book back at those who didn’t like it. By taking any negative reaction to the book as a personal affront and reacting defensively and aggressively, Steigerwald has increasingly made this about him, and not Steinbeck. The audience has a right to be able to voice its own views on what they have read, and any author secure in his or her own work should be able to let their positive reviews speak for them without having to shout down any dissenting viewpoints by questioning the reviewer’s intelligence or accusing them of not having read the book.

pics of golf, canada, steinbeck fest 30

The Steinbeck Fest of 2010 was all about Steinbeck’s travels, but not about his lack of truth-telling in “Charley.”

T. E. La Tour says:

Sorry, I didn’t mean to be condescending. What I meant is that to me, the issue is whether Steinbeck made up people, situations, and conversations without making it clear that he was doing so. I understand your distaste of Steigerwald’s rebuttals, and I suppose he should lighten up. But I see them as a distraction more than anything else. Maybe he’s just doing it to keep his book up front.

Perhaps my problem is that I read TWC for the first time just recently and then read DS right afterwards. I was left wondering why Steinbeck wasn’t truthful when no purpose was served by being otherwise. For example, suppose Steinbeck had told us that he was sleeping in nice hotels much of the time. Why would that have diminished his observations and impressions? He could have talked with hotel maids and bell boys and found out what made them tick. That would have been more interesting than a made-up Shakespearean actor, don’t you think?

That’s my only point. And by the way, I am a fan of Steinbeck’s work, at least the great majority of it. He is one of my favorite authors — a real American icon. Maybe that’s why I am so disappointed in TWC; I just didn’t find it very interesting.

As an aside, I recently discovered that Steinbeck spent some time in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. He sent dispatches back (to Newsday, I think), and they have been published recently. He shows his very idealistic side in these reports, wishing to believe we were doing great things. It didn’t take him long to sour on the war, and I think that brought on his death sooner than it might have otherwise come.

S. Michael Wilson says:

Thank you for the apology, which in all honesty was probably unwarranted – perhaps I am getting a little thin-skinned in here myself. You make some great points and insightful connections in your comments and questions regarding Steinbeck’s possible motivation for embellishment (or whatever you want to call it), and I believe that the vast majority of people leaving reviews here, both positive and negative, do as much to express their viewpoints regarding these questions raised by the book, and none of them deserve to be shouted down with insults or dismissed as invalid simply because they are in disagreement with the author. Perhaps he is just trying to stoke controversy and keep his name out there, but I’m pretty sure most successful authors out there don’t need to attack reviewers to draw attention the themselves, and that juvenile name calling and “See, I have positive reviews so you’re obviously wrong” responses may get more people looking at his Amazon page, but I seriously doubt they do anything to present him as the professional journalist he wants to be regarded as.

Bob Hoffmann says:

Having recently completed two of my goals of American travels – the entire Gulf Coast from Key West to Brownsville, and the 100th Meridian (US Highway 83) from border to border, I feel that I could sometimes write my own travelogues of the adventures of being on the road.

Along the way I enjoy reading fellow OTR travelers who are better writers – how they overcome minor adversities that could have been major disasters, the strangers who assist and guide them, and the magnificent scenery our country has to offer.

Thus, my travels led me a while ago to re-read Steinbeck’s TWC book, as well as other books that followed his original path to various degrees.

I found Down John’s Road: Recreating John Steinbeck’s 1960 American Road Trip by John R. Olsen to be closest to a historical perspective of the original journey, although he started in Washington state and followed a reverse route.

Distinguishing fact and myth seems to be an issue, although an entertaining one, in Gordon Grindstaff’s Travels With Susie: A Hilarious Account of One Couple’s RV Journey Across America.

Most enjoyable in this genre was Travels with Judy: In Search of Steinbeck’s America by Vicki Cain, who makes the journey solo as a female, something that would not likely have been attempted in Steinbeck’s day.

As in the pioneer days of sitting around the evening campfire, telling stories of adventures and characters met, it is sometimes hard to separate the “truth” from exaggerations or acquired tales absorbed from others in such story-telling. Yet it’s the story about the American adventure that’s important in all these, I think – something Steigerwald seems to have missed.

So I continue to stand by my original comments above (with a single star).

T. E. La Tour says:

I think you’re right that Mr. Steigerwald need not reply to criticism with insulting or demeaning language. I am reminded of the infamous Gore Vidal – Norman Mailer shouting matches, on the Dick Cavett show and other places, and how silly it made both of them — famous and respected authors — look. I can only assume they both enjoyed it, and maybe in a similar way Mr. Steigerwald enjoys the tone of the banter on this forum. As I mentioned, perhaps he is frustrated by remarks made by some who have admitted not to have read his book. Still, I think I would handle it differently.

I almost hesitate to admit here that I quite enjoyed Mr. Steigerwald’s book — not all of it but most of it. And I still think he reserved most of his criticism not for Mr. Steinbeck but for the “Steinbeck Industry” whose apparent purpose is to deify their namesake, an effort from which I can only assume Mr. Steinbeck himself would recoil. As for Mr. Steigerwald’s politics, which seem to be a focal point of much of the readers’ criticism, I can only admit my failure to have detected an obvious political bent except when the author mentions it himself. And even so, what difference does it make? It seems as irrelevant to me as the oft-mentioned point by Mr. Steigerwald that he wore no socks.

In any case, it seems that you and I are both admirers of Mr. Steinbeck, as is I think Mr. Steigerwald, despite the occasional strong language he uses in referring to Mr. Steinbeck’s deception. I just wish TWC had been more interesting from cover to cover instead of just here and there. I sincerely think that had Mr. Steinbeck — from the comfort of his Sag Harbor living room — written a novel of an American rediscovering his country, it would have been authentic and much more interesting.

bill steigerwald says:

I guess I’m honored that you two intelligent guys are discussing me, my book, my motives, my sins, my politics, my omissions, my commissions, my love/hate for Steinbeck, my childish defense of myself, etc. etc. I hope you bought my book. Sales are slow.

I’m afraid I’m up to my old tricks — being unprofessional and defending myself and explaining myself. I’m an ex newspaper columnist, op-ed writer and editorial writer. That’s how I made much of my living for 35-plus years and 2.5 million words. I’m used to giving and taking and re-giving and using sarcasm, not being politically correct, and rebutting bogus or fallacious claims/arguments/attacks. When I edited letters pages at the LA Times and in Pittsburgh, I encouraged as much debate and re-debate as possible.

A couple points, and a request.

Of course my book is about me; every travel book/road book is about the traveler and what happens on his/her trip. Dogging Steinbeck is a hybrid — as I said in the book, it didn’t start out to be an attack on Steinbeck, a review of TWC, or a work of scholarship. It started as a crazy act of extreme journalism. I thought retracing Steinbeck’s original trip as faithfully as possible as a journalist 50 years later would make a good book — or at least a decent one. I got lucky and discovered a scoop — that one of America’s great writers engaged in what I so indelicately but accurately called “a literary fraud.”

What I wrote in my book is exactly how everything happened to me on and off the road and what I thought at the time. It doesn’t matter if you like me or my politics, or my writing (The more libertarian you are and the less liberal-progressive you are, the less you’ll be offended by my politics; funny how that works). What I discovered about how Steinbeck and his editors and publisher put out a phony book and passed it off as an honest work of nonfiction stands. It has, if I may toot my own horn, changed the way TWC will be read from now on (see the new intro to the latest edition). Sorry, but the truth hurts sometimes.

The notion that I would leave my politics out of my book, or that Steinbeck’s politics were not in his book, is silly. Why should I? Because my politics weren’t the same as Steinbeck’s or the NY Times editorial page? (A lot more of Steinbeck’s partisan Democrat Cold War liberal politics was in his original draft but it was cut out).

The argument that I should not respond to reviewers because it somehow demeans me as an author, is somewhere between nuts and masochistic. It could only be made by someone who hasn’t struggled to write a good, honest, accurate book.

As I said in one of my many retorts to reviewers, after you’ve spent a lot of time and money and sweat doing a book, it’s kind of annoying to see “reviews” by people who haven’t read it, or who completely misrepresent its contents, or who make absurd-to-asinine assumptions about my motives, or who call me names.

My request:

Please, one of you, show me where, with the exception of my argument with the honorable Mr. Dheere — who started off his “review” by calling me “a pathetic little man” and claiming that he could find no record of my journalism — I engaged in personal insults, “Juvenile name calling” or shouted down anyone.

Yes, I rebutted; yes I defended myself; yes I inserted positive reviews or comments from Paul Theroux; it’s called debating. Negative reviewers who think they have a right to throw around wild accusations or misrepresentations about me or what’s in my book without being called on them are the ones who are being childish, not me.

T. E. La Tour says:

Thanks for joining in, and, yes, I did buy your book. I’ve also recommended it to a couple of my friends.

When I said the debate was not about you, I meant that Steinbeck’s deception was not about you — it’s about him. And that’s the subject that many of the contributors here apparently don’t want to discuss. Of course, your book is about you, and it makes for interesting reading. I even mentioned to one reviewer here that I enjoyed it more than TWC.

As for the politics, I found it amusing that you could point to places in TWC where Steinbeck could have had a little libertarianism in him, and many contributors here clearly consider this an insult. But it is irrefutable. Among other things he carried guns, he let his dog poop wherever he wanted, and he threw away stuff that was clearly recyclable; no good liberal today would approve of these.

As for misrepresentations of your work, I guess that just comes with the territory. The way you choose to respond to them is obviously your choice. In my case I have kind of tuned out that banter in favor of trying to move the discussion to the substantive issue for me which is that Steinbeck and his publisher pulled a fast one, and you discovered it and blew the whistle. Unfortunately, the “Steinbeck Industry” circled the wagons, and instead of owning up to the truth, sought to reinvent what a memoir is (example: see the introduction to the Kindle version of TWC). Meanwhile, some Steinbeck admirers on these pages have evidently sought to kill the messenger with coarse language. I suppose it was inevitable.

As for how you defend yourself in these pages, that’s up to you. Naturally you consider your book to be a part of yourself, and it’s hard to ignore personal affronts. But I’m sure you know that you have won the battle. No one anymore is willing to argue that Steinbeck’s characters, situations, and conversations actually occurred as he presented them, and you have exposed the deliberate hiding of the deception by the “Steinbeck Industry.” You’ve got them running around trying to justify Steinbeck’s words, but it won’t work. The asterisk next to TWC is there forever, thanks to you.

bill steigerwald says:

Thanks extremely, Mr. La Tour. If I had a check to send you, it’d be in the mail.

 

 

route66 cover - 2 - finalHalf literary expose and half American road book, “Dogging Steinbeck “is the honest and accurate account of my long journey with the great John Steinbeck and his beloved work of BS, “Travels With Charley.”

It details how I stumbled on to the truth about Steinbeck’s iconic 1960 road trip with his dog Charley and how I exposed the fraudulent nature of the allegedly nonfiction book Steinbeck wrote about his journey.

“Charley” is not very true or honest. It’s mostly fiction and a few lies. For only $5.99 you can learn every true thing I found out about Steinbeck’s trip, plus read about my crazy 2010 road trip on the Steinbeck Highway.

My “true nonfiction” book is a multi-hybrid — literary detective story, traditional American road book, primer in drive-by journalism and how the media work. All from an openly libertarian point of view.

It’s also part history lesson of 1960 America, part book review, part Steinbeck bio and part indictment of the negligence of Steinbeck scholars who failed to discover Steinbeck’s literary deceit for 50 years and then blithely excused it as inconsequential or irrelevant after I told them about it.

Guess I should have included footnotes.

The liberals manning the New York Times editorial page liked what I learned. So did the leftward boys at “On the Media” on NPR. So did Paul Theroux, Brian Lamb and my 96-year-old Mom.

But a lot of people — especially young and/or romantic diehard “Charley” fans — don’t appreciate me for ruining the romance of Steinbeck’s flawed book. Just look at the dumb 1-star reviews on Amazon.

But sorry, Steinbeckies, what I did with my humble work of journalism has changed the way “Travels With Charley” will be read forevermore. From now on, no 14-year-old who reads Steinbeck’s classic road book will be fooled into thinking it’s a true story.

The author Curt Gentry was a big Steinbeck fan and he went out of his way to kindly help me with my book “Dogging Steinbeck.”  Here’s the beginning of his obit from the San Francisco Chronicle today:

Curt Gentry, a San Francisco author who wrote or co-wrote 13 books including best-sellers “Helter Skelter” about the Charles Manson case and a harshly critical biography of FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, died July 10 in a San Francisco hospital.

Gentry was incredibly kind to me when I met him in the spring of 2010 while doing research for what became “Dogging Steinbeck.” He bought me lunch twice and gave me his notes and the draft of his Chronicle article (see below) from his encounter/interview with Steinbeck in the fall of 1960, when Steinbeck and wife Elaine stopped at the St. Francis Hotel on Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” trip.

Gentry was one of the first to read my book and he wrote a wonderful blurb about it. When I read it at my book store/library appearances, I can hardly keep from choking up.

He was a great guy with great stories. I’ll always be sorry he was too sick to meet with me the last time I was in San Francisco.

The article the late, great Curt Gentry wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about his encounter with John Steinbeck in 1960.

The article the late, great Curt Gentry wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle about his encounter with  Steinbeck in 1960.

The blurb Gentry wrote for my book, which was perfect and fair:

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.

– Curt Gentry

Author of “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders” (with Vincent Bugliosi)

The great travel writer Paul Theroux is done with the continents of Asia, Africa and South America and is now working on North America.

He’s written a long article in Smithsonian magazine, “the Soul of the South,” that will be part of the book he’s writing about the American South.

He was also interviewed by NPR’s midday news program “Here and Now,” so you can listen to him. Here’s a previous interview with him from NPR, before he took off on his Southern trip.

Here are some pull quotes taken from WBUR’s interview:

 

Interview Highlights: Paul Theroux

On reactions to being a Northerner traveling through the American South

“I stuck to the rural areas. And rural America has its deep roots, and, I think, great values. I said to a man in Aiken, South Carolina, ‘I’m a stranger.’ He said, ‘You’re not a stranger, there ain’t no strangers here.’ And a woman said the same thing to me in Tuscaloosa [Alabama]. ‘I’m a stranger.’ She said ‘You’re not a stranger, there are no strangers here.’”

On visiting the infamous Bryant’s Grocery in Money, Miss.

“Bryant’s Store where Emmett Till met his doom, is still standing. It’s on a crossroads. Money, Mississippi, is a back road, there’s a railway running through it. Train doesn’t stop. The walls are crumbling, there are vines and roots sort of holding it together. They don’t know whether it’s a monument, a horror — it’s a haunted building. And Money, Mississippi, is a very tiny place. I doubt there are two dozen people who live there.”

On unexpected encounters in the Delta

“I was in the Delta, in the town of Greenville [Mississippi] in the Delta. And I must say, the Delta is a very poor place — poor in money, great in spirit. I was asking a lady about the B.B. King Museum and this woman’s colleague said, ‘Should we tell him?’And she said, ‘I don’t know.’ And the [colleague] said, ‘This is B.B. King’s ex-wife.’ His last wife! Most recent wife. So we talked about B.B. King.”

 

And here’s quote from Theroux about how helpful people are when you travel — alone.

 

THEROUX: When you’re traveling in the South, you get a warm welcome. I mean you, I go from New England, rather chilly and, you know, people barely say hello to each other in the post office. They kind of stare and think, you know, you look – they look at you as though you might be asking them not to pay their taxes or something. And, you know, in the South, I mean one of my earlier experiences was I was stuck.

I was looking in a map in my car and the woman in the car next to me said: You lost, baby? I said, yeah, I’m looking for this church. And she said: Well, I can tell you – I told her the church – she said I can take you there. Follow me. She drove three miles out of her way. I mean, we had been in a parking lot and she was going to church that morning too but not there and took me to the church. And I thought, this is wonderful, I like this.

And afterwards, I thanked her profusely. And she said: Be blessed. And I thought that’s the South: Be blessed.

I had a handful of encounters during my road trip in 2010. A guy in Minnesota drove across town to lead me to a diner and the women of New England took great pity on me, as I recount in this excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck”:

 

I had my first face-to-face encounter with a human on state Route 11 when I drove through the sad little burg of Patten.

I had doubled back to photograph a bush-choked old house on Main Street that was obviously inhabited when Steinbeck hurried by 50 years ago. As I got out of my car, a young woman stopped, rolled her passenger window down and asked if I needed any help. She thought I was lost, which it looked like I was. But I was just driving as if traffic laws didn’t apply to journalists. When I told her I was chasing Steinbeck, she gave me a quick history of her town of 1,200 mid-Mainers.

The future didn’t sound too promising for Patten. It owed its existence to the lumber boom of the 1800s and still relied on forestry, hunting, fishing and the wood products industries for a disproportionate share of its jobs. Before the woman drove off she suggested I take a picture of the Patten General Store down the road. “Why?” I asked. “Because it’s going to be torn down tomorrow.”

She wasn’t the first woman in timeless/spaceless/changeless Maine to think I was a helpless man in distress. She was the fourth in less than 24 hours. The first time was in Calais. After I left Karen’s Main Street diner and the Calais Book Shop, I stopped by the side of the road on my way out of town to write what I thought would be a quick blog item.

It was a pleasant spot by the St. Croix River, but mainly I wanted to take advantage of the sudden surge in Verizon’s cell phone signal. (Three weeks later, when my wife got our bill, I’d learn the strong signal had been coming from across the river in Canada. Two days of cross-border roaming charges in upper Maine would cost $900. In Billings, Montana, I’d waste an afternoon at a Verizon store getting the charges reduced to zero.) I wrote a blog entry about Calais and its people while sitting in the driver’s position, but because my laptop was on my “bed” in the back I had to twist around between the front seats to type. Because I am journalism’s slowest writer, the blog, which was really more like a long newspaper feature story, took almost two hours to write.

The first visitor was a U.S. Customs and Border Control officer, who pulled up behind me in her patrol car.  She had passed me three times and seen me in the same strange position, so she naturally thought I had a heart attack or had been the victim of a Canadian mob hit. Apologizing as abjectly as possible, I assured her I was fine and explained what I was doing. She was as sweet as any police person could legally be and with a smile left me to my pathetic, contorted typing.

Ten minutes later, I looked up from my keyboard to see two cars parked behind my RAV4 and a pair of women with worried faces hurrying toward me. They too thought I was dead or dying and were genuinely relieved, and not the least bit annoyed, to be told I was physically fine, just mentally challenged. I finally drove across the road to a parking lot, feeling like a jerk.

Maine people – Mainers? Manians? Mainsters? – of both sexes couldn’t have been more pleasant and they obviously had been brought up to be kind to strangers. But it was comforting to know the good women of The Pine/Potato State were looking out for me.  I’d meet dozens of other women on my trip who were unnecessarily sweet or went out of their way to help me – waitresses, motel managers, county government officials, mothers at home. Whether they were just doing their job or answering my fool questions when I appeared unannounced at their front door, not a one was sour or unfriendly or even wary. When you are old and scraggly and alone, as I was, you’re an object of pity and a threat to no one.

John Steinbeck set out to do his “Travels With Charley” trip the right way — alone and like a serious journalist. But it quickly unraveled and he had to resort to fiction and fibs to tell his tale. A free excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck,” an Amazon ebook that’s the antidote of truth to “Charley.”

A Good Trip Gone Bad

A stranger passing like a bullet through his own heartland, Steinbeck spent twice as much time relaxing on his 11-week journey than driving. He discovered no new facts or insights about the USA or its citizens, mainly because he did no real journalism and spent relatively little time with ordinary people. Yet he deserved a lot of credit just for taking the road trip.

Despite his shaky health and age, not to mention his princely lifestyle and celebrity social circle, he had the balls to roll up his sleeves and take on what was essentially a major journalism project. What other great American writer would have even considered traveling the rough way he did?

Initially, he fully intended to do his trip the right way and the only way it would work – solo and at the grassroots level. His ambitious plan – going alone, taking photos, writing dispatches to newspapers or magazines from the road, going to a different church every Sunday, spending quality time in the Jim Crow South – was basic, sound journalism and a perfect vehicle for his talents.

A nonfiction book based on his original plan wouldn’t have been as popular with readers or kept its romantic appeal for 50 years, but it would have made a better, more substantive book. It would have slowed him down, forced him to meet hundreds of other real people and given him a chance to discover more of the America he went searching for.

But Steinbeck’s great exploration never materialized. He never learned to use a camera, didn’t take notes or keep a journal and never wrote a word for publication during his 75 days away from New York. His grand plan was unraveled by the reality of his lifestyle, health and the punishment of the open road. He quickly got lonely and tired and no doubt bored.

Ironically, in one sense he may have been lucky he lost heart so early. The daily pressure and logistical nightmares of trying to do real journalism on the back roads of America in 1960 could have killed him. What’s more, in the Analog Age it was an unrealistic mission even for a man in good health to circumnavigate America alone. Transcontinental car travel was still an adventure, not the smooth ride it is today. As Steinbeck learned, just finding a public pay phone so he could call his wife every three days was a major accomplishment.

Before he left Maine he had already realized the obvious – the country was too damn big and diverse to pin down or sum up. No one person, not even a Steinbeck, could discover the real America in 11 weeks or 11 months. Anyway, as he wisely said, there was no single “real” America. As he knew and advised his readers, every traveler must take his own trip and find his own version of America.  Trouble was, his was largely a 50 mph blur interrupted by luxurious vacations with his wife. And when his journey ended, he had to sit down and make up a nonfiction book about a real country he never found, never really looked for and didn’t really like much.

My pal Michael Challik, the great veteran “shooter” at KDKA TV and a born Dutchman, did me a great favor the other day by translating part of a video interview with Steinbeck-chaser Geert Mak.

Mak, a famous and renowned Dutch journalist/historian/author,  also retraced Steinbeck’s “Charley” route in the fall of 2010 and wrote a big fat, footnoted book that became a best-seller in Holland. Mak’s book, “Travels Without John in Search of America,” is being translated into English. Mak kindly mentions me about a dozen times, favorably.

Unfortunately, the book, like the video interview, is in Dutch.

Here’s a link to the video — Geert Mak talks about the journalism & politics of “Bill Steigerwald.”

And here’s the translation of the 5-minute video, courtesy of the kind Michael Challik:

 Geert Mak is lying awake thinking of the competition.

You think you have designed a great plan, but one afternoon in a little town, Lancaster, we were looking for a place John Steinbeck had stayed.  The night, a motel, pouring down rain, got out at a gas station, asked where is the motel from the 1960’s.  I can still see him, a hat on turned backwards, “Oh Steinbeck! Right?”

(The service station attendant continues.) “Yesterday, there was also somebody here.” So you think you’re the only one.  Real quickly Googled, wondering who that could be, and got the answer in about three minutes.  Bill Steigerwald, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, retired journalist.  Did exactly the same, except took off half-an-hour sooner.  We left at at 8:30…he left at 8, so we just missed him on the ferry to the mainland.

Bill wrote in his blog on the ferry at 8:45 where he met a third journalist, a guy called  John Woesdijk (sp?), who was walking the route with a dog for a dog magazine.  Later we found out that there was a fourth.  She was with the Washington Post with her Mum.  The last two I didn’t hear anything from again.  All four wanted to follow Steinbeck’s route, but Bill S., I must be honest, tried to follow Steinbeck’s whole route.  I must say I couldn’t agree with his political views, to say the least, but he did describe the route very precisely, like where Steinbeck bought his gun, with all kinds of movies, including if you would like to follow the route through his eyes.  I really recommend his website.

QUESTION: You didn’t have any contact with him?

ANSWER: Oh yeah, later on we talked a lot about it.  I really did want to talk to him because I really did find – even though he had opinions on     Obama, etc. – he was very dedicated, and he did it by himself, and he was the only one who     was roughing it, because Steinbeck stayed in hotels mostly.  Bill really roughed it out.  I got a lot of respect for him, but I thought the only thing I can do is to use him in my book…and so it goes.

But as soon as my book was finished, I wrote him – and he had also heard of me. He heard about a book in Holland, and we talked openly and frequently, and we are planning in our lives absolutely to come together, and with a great glass of beer and talk about world problems and solve them by the end of the afternoon.

QUESTION: He is an arch-conservative, right-winger Republican?

ANSWER: No, no!  He would get real mad if you tell him that, because he really didn’t like George W. Bush.  He is a Libertarian thinker.  No, No I am a half-Socialistic, latte drinking, French loving, Volvo driving, European.

So I was really different, but Steigerwald found out that Steinbeck said things in his book that were absolutely not true, and I also discovered that too.  Because if you follow Steinbeck’s journey you find, for instance, he went fishing a whole afternoon with a companion, and talks about his marriage etc., but supposedly on the same day when you follow his iterinerary he drove 400-450 miles.  You can’t be fishing in the beginning of the afternoon – and then drive 450-miles. So you find a lot of discrepancies.

Bill Emerson of Kansas City read my book and liked it enough to give it four stars, for which I am grateful.
But he couldn’t understand why I had put so much of my  libertarian politics in the book.
Here’s his comment from Amazon.com, followed by my explanation/response.

I had read several Steinbeck books, but not Charley.

I really did like the “investigative” parts to this. Bill
Steigerwald does a great job of tying the time of Steinbeck
in with today.

One thing I did not understand and would like to ask the author:

What in the hell does Libertarian have to do with it?

Don’t you know that there are only 17 Libertarians
anywhere in the world at any one time? Except when a Democrat is
president, then it mushrooms to most of the Republican party…..

 

My response:

Thanks for the nice comments. As I write somewhere in the book, when you drive the miles and write a road book about America you — the author — get to air/spew your political opinions about what you see and think. Steinbeck did, though most of his (liberal Democrat) comments were taken out of his original manuscript. Bill Barich did in “Long Way Home.” Philip Caputo just did in “The Longest Road.” Heat-Moon did.Everyone does.

Sprawl, commercial development, cars, the environment, energy policy, city planning, race relations, the ups and downs of the economy — they’re all driven by politics (unfortunately) and open to debate. Most travel books are written by liberal Democrats who, as I point out in the book, all sound like they’re reading from the editorial page of the NY Times. They hate sprawl, they hate malls, they make fun of free markets, they unthinkingly embrace government regulation, they hate the culture and the conservative politics of Flyover Country — and they say so in their books. Most reviewers don’t even notice or mention the authors’ left-liberal-East Coast politics, mainly because the reviewers invariably are liberals too. I’ve been an open libertarian journalist/columnist/media critic for 30-plus years. For me to pretend not to disagree with Steinbeck’s political point of view or the liberal Democrat point of view of Barich et al., or to let their political commentaries or biased asides about America or its people pass without comment, would have been dishonest and phony, not to mention foolish.

Road books are about the road, the country, the people you meet, etc., but they’re all filtered through the author — his life, his thoughts, his politics. Not everyone is a Republican or a Democrat, thank god. The two major parties have brought us a national government that is a Big Nanny/Big Snoop at home and World Cop overseas.

It’s pretty sad that my libertarian politics — that peaceful people should be as personally, economically and socially free as possible; that government should be as decentralized and weak and unnoticed in our daily lives as possible; and that America should mind its business overseas — would seem exotic or out of place to a fellow America today. Those basic libertarian principles have been forgotten and abused. But they would be very familiar — and very dear — to Jefferson or Washington or Grover Cleveland or Twain or Mencken or Milton Friedman or hundreds of other dead great Americans whose politics were essentially libertarian.