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Five years ago I started down the road to dogging John Steinbeck. It’s been a tremendous trip and though my book hasn’t become as widely distributed — or profitable — as I hoped,  I don’t regret a day I spent pursuing Steinbeck’s ghost and the truth about his book. I’ve made many new friends, including fellow Dutch Steinbeck-chaser Geert Mak and master travel writer Paul Theroux. Theroux has been a loyal supporter. He tells me he mentions me and my “Dogging Steinbeck” project in his upcoming road book about the America South, “Deep South,” which was previewed last summer in Smithsonian magazine. Steinbeck’s love-blinded fans are another story. So are the academics who make their livings touting his works and protecting his reputation as a truth-teller. Despite what I proved — that “Travels With Charley” is largely fiction and riddled with literary dishonesty and deceit — the Steinbeck “scholars” at Steinbeck Review refuse to mention, review or even trash my book. But enough whining. I had a lot of fun digging into Steinbeck and his iconic travel tale. It all started in March of 2010, when I, a mere babe of 62, traveled to Central California to do some early research for what became “Dogging Steinbeck.”

A free excerpt:

2 — Stranger in Steinbeck Country

Once a journey is designed, equipped, and put in process, a new factor enters and takes over. A trip, a safari, an exploration, is an entity, different from all other journeys. It has personality, temperament, individuality, uniqueness. A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. – “Travels With Charley”

Alone on Fremont Peak

I was sitting alone and shivering on top of Fremont Peak, a spectacular little spike of marble overlooking the entire Monterey Peninsula. I couldn’t see Steinbeck’s grave or his ghost, but both of them were out there somewhere under the glare of the dying California sun as it fell toward Monterey Bay.

Everything Steinbeck was down there somewhere — the house he grew up in, the statues, the things named after him, the museum/shrine that glorifies him and his works, the places and characters he made famous for eternity in “The Red Pony,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Cannery Row” and “East of Eden.” It’s why they called it “Steinbeck Country.”

Except for the pushy wind and the chirpings of a few invisible birds, I had Fremont Peak to myself. No tourists. No park rangers. No other ex-journalists with or without dogs doing books about “Travels With Charley.” Just lucky me, my notebook, my cameras and a head full of conflicting thoughts about my famous new sidekick.

It was March 11, 2010. Day 4 of my extreme West Coast research tour. I had learned a ton of new stuff about the man, his last major book and his highway travels. I’d gone to Stanford’s Green Library, where 300 letters from Steinbeck to his agent Elizabeth Otis are kept. I’d been to San Jose State University’s Steinbeck Center. I’d been to San Francisco to meet a writer who interviewed Steinbeck on his “Charley” trip. I’d checked out Cannery Row, downtown Monterey, Steinbeck’s family cottage in Pacific Grove, plus his gravesite and the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas.

The only reason I was up on Fremont Peak was because Steinbeck said he climbed to that exact spot during his “Travels With Charley” trip. I was glad to be there. It was an awesome, rugged place, the star attraction of Fremont Peak State Park’s collection of grassy round mountains and steep wooded canyons.

The pile of gray boulders is only 3,169 feet above Monterey Bay, but its distinctive little tooth is visible from almost anywhere in the Salinas Valley. It was lonely, peaceful, beautiful, a little dangerous and a little scary. No wonder young Johnny, who played on its slopes, hoped to be buried up there someday. It was the closest you could get to a heavenly view of Steinbeck Country without putting on wings.

Though it was the end of a hazy day, I could see more than 20 miles in every direction. In the shadows behind me, dry valleys and barely green mountain ranges stretched eastward to the Sierra Nevada. The San Andreas Fault was down there somewhere too, which explains why Fremont Peak — not to mention the Monterey Peninsula, Los Angeles and the rest of the northbound Pacific Plate — had inched 8.33 feet closer to San Francisco since Steinbeck visited the area in 1960.

Twenty-five miles southwest across the valley floor, hugging chilly Monterey Bay, was the historic city of Monterey. To be honest, I couldn’t see it, even with the zoom of my video camera. I only knew it was out there somewhere in the growing darkness, hidden by a strip of low coastal mountains, because that morning I had gone to Cannery Row to watch the sun come up over Monterey Bay.

At my feet, sprawled on the valley floor, lay Salinas, the capital of Steinbeck Country and the barely fictionalized setting for “East of Eden.” The city was an island in a shallow sea of strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach and other crops — the “green gold” that made Salinas rich 100 years ago and earned it the nickname “The Salad Bowl of the World.” The valley’s fertile black soil and sunny, ocean-cooled climate, combined with the labor of busloads of Latino farm workers, produced 80 percent of the lettuce Americans eat every year.

Salinas’ population was 160,000. That was twice what it was in 1960 and 40 times larger than when Steinbeck was born there in 1902. The city was wracked by deadly Latino gang violence and, like most California governments in the spring of 2010, was in deep budgetary trouble.

The Great Recession had slammed Steinbeck Country hard. The unemployment rate was 13 percent and going higher. Foreclosures were running twice as high as in 2006. Poverty rates were up, property tax revenues were down. But from high atop Fremont Peak, California was as golden as ever and everything in the Salinas Valley looked fine and healthy.

Earlier that day in the old downtown of Salinas I had toured the main Steinbeck stops. I took a few photos of the restored Queen Anne-style Victorian house he grew up in. It was closed, so I didn’t see the gift shop or gourmet restaurant that features local produce and $13 entrees like Asparagus & Ham Timbale with choice of Tomato Leek Soup or Green Salad. The corner house is on the National Register of Historic Places and Oprah Winfrey taped one of her shows in the front yard when her book club was touting “East of Eden.”

Two blocks away was the National Steinbeck Center, one of the few reasons for tourists to divert from the sun and surf of the Pacific Coast to the scorched flats of Salinas. The largest museum in the country devoted to a single writer, it’s smartly designed and visitor friendly. Steinbeck’s life story and books co-star in a dozen well-staged exhibits that include loops of clips from movies like “East of Eden” and “Of Mice and Men.” Recordings of his deep voice are never out of earshot.

The enduring popularity of “Travels With Charley” was evident at the center. The bookstore sold various editions of the entire Steinbeck canon — 16 novels, six non-fiction and five short-story collections. “Travels With Charley” had been the No. 1 seller since 2003 and the center’s most popular attraction and holiest relic was the 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper combo Steinbeck rode in on his search for America.

You couldn’t get inside the cab of the truck or the camper shell, or even touch them, because “Rocinante” was corralled behind a tall fence of Plexiglas. Squared-off and primitive, the cab’s hard utilitarian interior was uncomfortable just to look at. It was proof of the punishment Steinbeck endured for 10,000 miles with only an old French dog, an AM radio and his imagination for company. Unfortunately, the $11 million Steinbeck Center was not doing well. Its annual attendance was running about 30,000, which doesn’t sound so bad but works out to about 82 people a day. Chronically short of funds, it was dependent on subsidies from a city government that itself was in serious fiscal trouble.

Across the street from the Steinbeck Center, suckered in by the permanent sidewalk sign boasting that “Steinbeck Ate Here,” I ate lunch at Sang’s Café. Under my withering questioning the owner broke down and confessed the truth. The sign should more accurately say “Steinbeck Drank Here,” because that’s what young John did too much of there in the ‘20s and ‘30s when he was a struggling writer and the place was a bar. It wasn’t the first or last time I’d bump up against a Steinbeck myth. A lot of what we know about him — good and bad — is either truer or less false than we think.

Until I began “investigating” him for my book idea, I didn’t know much about him at all. “John Steinbeck” had been reduced to a famous literary name — a “Jeopardy!” question to the answer “This Californian was the sixth American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.” Whatever I had learned about him I’d forgotten. During high school in the 1960s I was forced to read the usual Steinbeck classics, but they had no more impact on my life than “Beowulf.”

I liked “Of Mice and Men” then and appreciated it much more after re-reading it as an adult. But my social conscience wasn’t aroused by “The Grapes of Wrath’s” expose of the cruelty of capitalism and the sufferings of the migrant working class. I was a Baby Boomer from another political planet, a red one. When I was 17, in 1964, I was watching William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Firing Line” and sneaking Barry Goldwater stickers onto the bumper of my neighbor’s Country Squire station wagon.

By today’s definitions, Steinbeck was a ball of political contradictions. He was a highly partisan FDR big-government Democrat who went ape for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s and became a White House-sleepover friend of LBJ and frequent weekend guest at Camp David. Like most of his New Deal generation, he had a naïve trust in the federal government to solve massive social and economic problems.

But Steinbeck was never close to being the true-believing commie or socialist both his rightwing enemies and leftwing friends liked to claim he was. He was what we call today “a Cold War liberal.” He supported labor unions, the civil rights movement and LBJ’s war on poverty. He was also a staunch anti-communist who believed in containing the Soviet Union and what then was so impolitely called “Red China.”

He was a sincere patriot, which, along with becoming too friendly with LBJ, may have blinded him to the folly of Vietnam and the fallacy of the Domino Theory. He was a loud public hawk on Vietnam in its early stages, but became a quiet dove when he realized the war was unwinnable. Intolerant of anti-war protestors, whom he thought were stupid and cowardly, he despised hippies and the ‘60s youth culture.

Steinbeck the man had personal issues that didn’t appeal to me. He was a parochial New York City snob by the time he took his long road trip. He was an enthusiastic and daily boozer. And in the 1960s he forgot his earlier wise warning to artists to stay away from political power and cozied up to JFK and especially LBJ. His biographer Jackson Benson pointed out in his 1984 epic “The True Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer” that Steinbeck’s darker side included a quarrelsome nature and a “striking lack of charity and understanding.”

His sons John Steinbeck IV, who died from complications during surgery in 1991, and Thom, who is a California writer, felt their father neglected them after he divorced their mother and married Elaine, his third and final wife, in 1950. Yet whatever his faults as a father and husband, personally and politically Steinbeck was a living saint compared to many celebrities and famous writers of his era.

Despite our differences, I had grown to like the grouchy, contradictory guy. Underneath his New Yorker magazine limousine liberalism, he hid an admirable libertarian streak. He wrote fine paeans to individualism, understood the importance of private property rights and hated bureaucrats and government bullying. Plus he didn’t moralize about things like prostitution. He treated prostitutes kindly in his books and thought they provided a service to the community, which of course they do.

If I wasn’t captured by Steinbeck’s New Deal politics or his social conscience, I sure was impressed by his writing skills. When I re-read “Of Mice and Men” and “Cannery Row,” I was blown away by his spare style, beautiful descriptive powers, sense of place and storytelling. Just the first 500 words of “Cannery Row” should make any journalist envious or throw her laptop away and become a plumber. I didn’t have the casual attitude about facts that Steinbeck did, which was why I’d ultimately get pissed at him. But I totally agreed with what he said about the impossibility of objectivity and the inherent and unavoidable subjectivity of journalism and all writing — fiction or nonfiction.

My last stop in Salinas that morning before climbing Fremont Peak had been his gravesite in Garden of Memories Memorial Park. Though a colorful “Steinbeck” sign pointed right at it, his small flat marker was hard to find among the weathered grey slabs and spiky old stone monuments. Seeking anonymity, simplicity and privacy even in death, Steinbeck’s ashes are interred with his parents, wife Elaine and sister Mary in the Hamilton plot, the plot of his mother’s family.

A pot of bright yellow mums, wilted slightly and knocked over by the valley’s unrelenting wind, gave away his final whereabouts: “John Steinbeck: 1902–1968.” A 2-inch white ceramic poodle with a pink heart for its collar guarded the simple marker. I stood on Steinbeck’s grave as respectfully as possible and took a few close-ups of the tiny dog, which had been left by a “Travels With Charley” fan. Was that chintzy totem of Charley a warning to let his master’s reputation rest in peace? I had no clue. I was a journalist looking for facts, not symbols.

Anyway, it didn’t matter. In the spring of 2010 I was a guy with no job, a melting 401(k), a fat mortgage and too many leased cars. I had already invested too much of my life in Mr. Steinbeck, his travels around the USA and what I already suspected was his blatant fudging of the truth in “Travels With Charley.” Chasing his ghost across America had become my destiny, my mission, my mad obsession, my brilliant act of entrepreneurial journalism, my big waste of money and time — I wasn’t sure which. I only knew I was too many miles down the Steinbeck Highway to turn back.

Following in the unreliable footsteps of Steinbeck

Geert Mak: In America – Travels With John Steinbeck.

It looks like I’ll be spending the rest of my life trying to get the credit I deserve for exposing Steinbeck’s fictions and lies in “Travels With Charley” and ruining the fun for Steinbeckies everywhere.
The Herald Scotland reviewed Geert Mak’s “In America: Travels With John Steinbeck” on Jan. 10.
It was a good review, but it made the usual mistake of not crediting me for what I did. (“Several scholars and journalists” outed Steinbeck, wrote reviewer Ian Bell.
I doubt that this self-promoting comment I sent to the Herald will get past its moderators, who don’t work weekends and  have  better hours (and more dumb rules) than bureaucrats or government regulators.
For the record, here is what I wrote:
If the readers of Scotland want to know the sordid details of just how much fictionalizing and fibbing Steinbeck did in “Travels With Charley,” and how I exposed his literary crime after 50 years, I urge them to seek out my Amazon ebook “Dogging Steinbeck.” As Geert Mak generously points out in his fine book, in 2010 I proved with my journalism on and off the road that “Travels” was so full of fiction that it could no longer be considered an honest work of nonfiction. (Because of my troublemaking, Penguin Group changed the introduction to “Travels” to say just that.) Also: Mak and I retraced Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile road trip concurrently in the fall of 2010, but we saw two different countries through our windscreens. That’s because he’s a proud Euro-socialist and I’m a proud libertarian. I like the (mostly) prosperous, safe and psychologically healthy country I saw better than the impoverished, fearful and diminished one he saw. Everything any Scot would want to know about my Steinbeck trip — including links to video and many photos — can be had at www.truthaboutcharley.com

Jan. 10 Update:

My mad attempt to penetrate the Herald Scotland’s over-regulated and asinine comment process continues. I hope this email — which I posted on their web site to give their mindless moderators something to do — annoys them. I repeat what I wrote here, so as to shame them for their tight-ass stupidity. The Herald Scotland is one of the oldest newspapers in the world and it acts like it.
As far as I can tell, my three attempts to add a comment to the Jan. 10 review of Geert Mak’s book “In America” have failed because I dared to mention my own Amazon ebook, “Dogging Steinbeck.”
Will a rational adult — and not a lawyer or former bureaucrat or mindless robot — please moderate my attempts to add a comment?
Pick one, any one, of the comments I’ve sent you. Ask Rosemary Goring’s advice.
 The fact that I am the veteran newspaper journalist who first exposed the heavy fictional content of “Travels With Charley” in 2010 and changed the way “Charley” will be read forever, is, while admittedly self-promotional (sorry), both important and interesting to the larger discussion of Steinbeck and “Charley.” No?
Despite what Mr. Bell implies in his review, in recent years “several scholars and journalists” did not simultaneously come to the same conclusion about “Charley’s” untruthfulness by accident; they only did so after I blew the literary whistle on Steinbeck’s fraudulent work, which had been passed off as a work of nonfiction for 50 years.
Geert Mak mentions me about 10 times in his book, credits me with my discoveries, repeats them and generously praises my dogged journalism.
Further proof of my claim: The New York Times editorial page praised my expose here in 2010 after its arts and entertainment section wrote about me here.
Travel writer Paul Theroux, Reason magazine, the Weekly Standard, NPR and the CBC, among many others, have covered my discovery and mentioned or reviewed my book, which I dare not mention again in a promotional way so as not to offend a publication that makes its profit selling advertising.
Your reviewer, unlike the reviews of Mak’s book in the Spectator and the Guardian, did not mention me. Fine.
But the Guardian and Spectator both allowed me to add my comments, criticize their reviews, correct their mistakes about me and blatantly flog my self-published book without posing a threat to the sanctity of their commenting processes or the credibility of their publications.
Is it too much to ask that the Herald — which, not surprisingly, has zero comments attached to the Mak review — figure out how to allow me to do the same?

The English version of Geert Mak’s Steinbeck/America book, “In America: Travels With John Steinbeck,” is the hit of the UK’s book pages.

Geert Mak sent me an English version of his 2012 book, which has been updated. The inscription reads: To Bill Steigerwald, Who really did what Steinbeck only suggested.”

It’s been reviewed  fairly favorably in the last two weeks by the bookies at the Guardian newspaper, the Spectator magazine and now the Herald, the Scottish paper that is the longest running national newspaper in the world.

Mak’s book — an impressive combination history book and travel book aimed at informing his fellow Dutch — is more than 500 pages and covers a lot of American ground.

A 2013 bestseller in Holland, it was hooked around the idea of following John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” route exactly 50 years later.

An ocean apart, we had the same book idea — to show how much America had changed from 1960 to 2010 by retracing Steinbeck’s “Charley” trip and comparing what we saw on the road with what he did.

Mak mentions me about a dozen times in his book and repeatedly praises me for my drive-by journalism and for digging up and exposing the fictions and lies Steinbeck filled “Charley” with.

It was/is a great honor to be praised by a great journalist like him.

We didn’t meet on the Old Steinbeck Highway in the fall of 2010, but we’ve met since. (He flew from New York City to Pittsburgh last year just to meet me and buy me lunch.)
We were only a day or two apart on the road as he and his wife drove behind me in their rented Jeep.

Mak slept in motels and behaved like a mature mid-60s author and journalist while I slept in my car and drove like a mad teenager.

Mak is a major Dutch media figure, best-selling historian and journalist who had a sweet book deal. I, being a nobody, could not get a publisher and so I had to travel on my own dime and time.

As I’ve said often, I had a blast chasing Steinbeck’s ghost, exposing his ethical lapses and dueling with the Steinbeck scholars. I would not rewind the tape of the last five years to do it any other way.

I’ll get my payoff when Kevin Costner options my book so he can play Steinbeck, the great author who at age 58 bit off more than he could chew when he set out to rediscover America.

Mak and I are not political soul mates, though we are both against the war on drugs, the wars in the Middle East and poor city planning.

He is a self-defined “euro-socialist” and therefore what we say is right and wrong about the Americas we saw in our books differs by about 180-degrees when it comes to economic policy, the wage gap and the efficacy  of government welfare programs.

The America he found was an ocean of impoverishment with outposts of prosperity that needed more government, not less; the America I found was an ocean of prosperity with outposts of poverty that had the federal government and both parties to blame for the economic woes of the Great Recession.

Someday I hope we will have a debate in Holland, where Mak jokes he has made Bill Steigerwald a household name.

 My name finally appeared the Guardian newspaper in connection with my Steinbeck exploits, but look at what happened.tumblr_n7zatwvlCA1rxrxxxo1_1280
The Guardian reviews Geert Mak’s book about his “Travels With Charley” trip around the USA, which I appear in about 10 times, but it fails to credit me for my expose.
The Guardian’s reviewer also falsely accuses me of having a web site for dog-lovers. My barrister will be contacting them. My comment is at the end.
In case it gets killed out, here is what it says, using Brit punctuation:
It’s nice to see my name in print in the Guardian, but can we get a few things straight — things that my Dutch pal (and ideological opposite) Geert Mak got straight in his fine book. First off, while I am a longtime libertarian newspaperman and columnist, and I did chase Steinbeck’s ghost concurrently with Mak in the fall of 2010, I did not have a web site for dog lovers. That was fellow Steinbeck-chaser John Woestendiek, a Pulitzer Prize winner who used to work for the Baltimore Sun. A minor quibble in a long review, to be sure, but we ex-newspapermen can get picky with our facts. Much more important to me and readers of the Guardian is the failure of the reviewer to credit me and my dogged journalism (on and off the road) for exposing, after 50 years, that “Travels With Charley” was filled with so many fictions and lies that it did not deserve to be called a work of nonfiction. (It had been deceptively marketed, reviewed and taught as a true nonfiction account of Steinbeck’s iconic 1960 road trip since 1962; because of the trouble I caused in newspapers, Reason magazine and in my book “Dogging Steinbeck”, the latest introduction to “Charley” by Jay Parini has been carefully amended to tell readers the truth — that they are about to read a work of BS, I mean fiction. My name was not mentioned by Professor Parini but the paper I was working for was.) Geert Mak — who went out of his way earlier this year to fly from new York City to Pittsburgh to meet me face-to-face — honestly/graciously credited me in his book for discovering, long before he did, the inconsistencies between Steinbeck’s first draft of “Charley” and the published version. I’ve tried many times to get the Guardian’s book people to pay attention to “Dogging Steinbeck”, which was self-published on Amazon and therefore has trouble being taken seriously, or reviewed, by newspapers and magazines. My book contains no footnotes, cracks lots of jokes and looks at 11,276 miles of the Steinbeck Highway from a refreshingly libertarian point of view (i.e., not the standard cliche-ridden East Coast liberal establishment one that Steinbeck had and Mr. Lennon betrays), but it is a serous work of journalism. “True nonfiction”, I call it. The New York Times editorial page and travel writer Paul Theroux were highly pleased with what I learned about “Charley”, its author and the lengths to which Viking Press went to create the myth that Steinbeck traveled alone, traveled rough and traveled slow. Mak gave me credit for my literary expose several times in his book, but Mr. Lennon somehow missed it. Here’s what Mak wrote to me in an email: “I wanted … first to express my personal admiration for the job you did. Second, to tell you that you became a kind of a journalistic hero in my travel-story about Steinbeck, because you did such fantastic detailed research on the subject, and you did it alone, in sometimes-difficult circumstances”. Readers who want all the crazy details of my road trip, my expose and my pain in trying to get “Dogging Steinbeck” the attention it deserves can go to Amazon or my web site, www.truthaboutcharley.com, which is not about dogs.

About 54 years ago today, John Steinbeck finished his failed “Travels With Charley” road trip and dragged his tired and unhappy ass back home to New York City.

He had driven Rocinante about 10,000 miles in the fall of 1960 and spent the next 10 months, off and on, writing “Charley.”  As we now know, and as I put into “Dogging Steinbeck,” he had to make up a lot of stuff to fill his slim travel book — which was, quite deviously, edited and marketed as a true nonfiction account of his search for the America he had lost touch with.

When I followed Steinbeck’s trail faithfully in the fall of 2010, I didn’t know it but I was a few days ahead of famed Dutch historian/journalist Geert Mak. I only found out in 2012 that Mak too had had the idea of retracing Steinbeck’s journey as a way to compare the changes that have beset/improved America in the last 50 years.

The English edition of Mak’s “In America: Travels With John Steinbeck” — a fat and footnoted bestseller in Holland — has just come out.

Mak is a self-defined Euro-socialist. Therefore his view of the USA is more pessimistic than mine, which is libertarianly tilted and critical of the current media and the  snooty liberal East Coast view of Flyover Country that Steinbeck also held.

The Independent in London has reviewed  Mak’s book critically but fairly. There’s only one comment — mine.

Here’s how Stuart Evers’ review starts….

In America: Travels with John Steinbeck by Geert Mak, book review: A depiction of a country in decline, but was he looking in the right places?

The cultural life of America – film, music, literature – so important in founding and reasserting a national identity, is almost totally ignored by the author

Geert Mak’s retracing of John Steinbeck’s celebrated American journey, Travels with Charley, first appeared in the Netherlands in 2012 under the title Travels Without John: In Search of America.

In this fluid English translation by Liz Waters, the title has been transposed and refocused to In America: Travels with John Steinbeck. In purely commercial terms, one can see why the publisher would want to amplify the Steinbeck link, make him a part of the action. Yet this is a disparity that points to the problem at the heart of this book: it doesn’t quite know exactly what it wants to be.

Steinbeck, at least at first, had a clear idea of both what he was writing, and why he was writing it. In 1960, after an illness had forced him to take stock, he set off from Sag Harbour – with his dog, Charley – journeying through 33 of the 50 American states, to find the country he loved. It’s the last of Steinbeck’s major works, and one that begins in hope and macho endeavour, and ends in downbeat disappointment. It’s a journey riven with great writing, moments of drama and self-reflection; it is also hugely fictionalised, and most probably more imagination than fact.

 

 

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.

On Sept. 23, 1960, John Steinbeck and his faithful French-born poodle Charley left Sag Harbor, N.Y., and began the road trip that would become “Travels With Charley in Search of America,” one of the best-selling nonfiction books of 1962.9780143107002L

As I discovered in 2010, Steinbeck’s beloved, iconic road book, which turned 50 on July 27, is not a work of nonfiction. It is a highly fictionalized and dishonest account of his actual trip, who he traveled with and what he really thought about the America he found.

On Sept. 25 Penguin Group will release a 50th anniversary edition of the book, which it describes on its web site as:

“At age fifty-eight, John Steinbeck and his poodle, Charley, embarked on a journey across America. This chronicle of their trip meanders from small towns to growing cities to glorious wilderness oases. Still evocative and awe-inspiring after fifty years, Travels with Charley in Search of America provides an intimate look at one of America’s most beloved writers in the later years of his life—a self-portrait of a man who never wrote an explicit autobiography. Written during a time of upheaval and racial tension in the South—which Steinbeck witnessed firsthand—Travels with Charley is a stunning evocation of America on the eve of a tumultuous decade.”

Considering the true nature of Steinbeck’s trip, that’s a disingenuous and overly generous description of a multi-flawed book that never deserved its nonfiction designation and has been outed as a 50-year-old literary fraud.

In an email a few weeks ago I asked if the Penguin Group had “an official response to my discovery that ‘Charley,’ though marketed and reviewed and taught as a nonfiction account of Steinbeck’s 1960 trip, is heavily fictionalized?”

The company’s PR department in New York declined to comment.

Penguin, which for obvious reasons is not interested in helping me find more smoking guns, also told me that the company does not have Vikings’ old “Travels With Charley” files “on site” and that they are probably with Steinbeck’s estate. Perhaps future scholars will want to study them.

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You can read about how I stumbled upon the truth about Steinbeck’s last major work in “Sorry, Charley” in the Post-Gazette or the April 2011 issue of Reason magazine. At Reason.com you also can read “Whitewashing John Steinbeck,” which for the first time publicly revealed a highly X-rated paragraph of filthy language that was cut from the original manuscript of “Charley” in 1962.

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Meanwhile, if you can read Dutch, you can order Geert Mak’s new book “Traveling Without John in Search of America.” Mak, a well-known journalist and author in the Netherlands, did what I did and carefully repeated Steinbeck’s trip in the fall of 2010.

Mak did a lot of the same research I did and his nearly 600-page book includes much of what I discovered about Steinbeck’s real trip and how Steinbeck’s original manuscript was edited to hide the fact that he traveled in luxury and did not travel alone.

Here, translated by Google’s clever but imperfect computers, is how the book is described on Mak’s web site:

Travelling without John

Looking for America

On September 23, 1960 left the legendary writer John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley for an expedition across the American continent. He wanted his country and his countrymen again know. Exactly fifty years later, on the hour, was Geert Mak again for the old house of Steinbeck. It was the beginning of a renewed inspection tour in the footsteps of Charley and John, but now with the eyes of 2010. What is the past half century in American cities and towns changed? Where is Main Street USA go?

Which dreams chased the Americans over the centuries their ideals? What is it ended? What remains of that “city on the hill”, the Promised Land which was once the world looked? And above all, what we have together, America and Europe in the 21st century?

Geert Mak avoided, like John Steinbeck, the beaten path. He drove thousands of miles through the potato fields of Maine and the infinity of the Midwest, sat day after day at the table with farmers, laborers, fishermen and schoolmasters, met with shiny suburbs and boarded-up village shops, searched, again and again, to the stories of this country which nobody ever gets finished.