Currently viewing the tag: "John Steinbeck"
images-1A lot of really smart, thoughtful people — and a few dummies — have “reviewed” my book “Dogging Steinbeck” on Amazon.
Below is what I think is the best of the 60 comments and reviews that have been put on Amazon’s site so far. Whoever wrote it spent a lot of time assessing my book of “True Nonfiction” in a fair and thorough way.
He or she chose to be anonymous. But whoever they are, I thank them for their hard, high-quality work — and for not letting my libertarian politics or their own continuing affection for “Travels With Charley” blind them to the quality and value of my book.

 

4.0 out of 5 starsDogging Steinbeck, following John Steinbeck’s route fifty years later., February 25, 2013
Verified Purchase(What’s this?)
This review is from: Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth about ‘Travels With Charley’ (Kindle Edition)

I remember enjoying Travels with Charley many years ago so I was intrigued when I learned of Dogging Steinbeck in which the author, Bill Steigerwald, follows Steinbeck’s famous cross-country route fifty years later. Before reading Dogging Steinbeck, I took the time to read Travels with Charley again immediately before starting Steigerwald’s book.I enjoyed Dogging Steinbeck very much and admire Steigerwald for his efforts in making and recording his own journey. The day by day observations of the seasonal weather, the local characters and conditions he encountered, and the frequent comparisons to Steinbeck’s own journey to rediscover America made interesting reading. It’s soon became apparent, however, that his experiences and extensive Steinbeck research created considerable doubt about the accuracy of Charley. Indeed, Steigerwald offers convincing evidence that Steinbeck’s beloved classic was more a work of fiction than a trip journal.One of the great pleasures in reading Steigerwald’s book was that he found so many friendly and interesting people in his travels. Certainly the mass media does not spend much time reporting about nice people; the weirdos, extremists, uberwealthy, instant celebrities, and truly dangerous are far more likely to be in the news. It was nice to read that the vast majority of average Americans were still pleasant and helpful to a traveling stranger. I was also pleased to be repeatedly reminded of the many ways that our daily lives have immeasurably improved over the past five decades. It happens that I grew up in a small town on old Route 66 (which figures in both books) so I have personal knowledge of just how dangerous those highways were 50 years ago. Likewise, our medical technology, communications and self-educational opportunities, and personal comfort today are incomparably superior to that of the past.In comparing his experience with Steinbeck’s, perhaps we should recall that old saying, “Don’t go looking for trouble… for you will surely find it.” Most people, most days go through life in a responsive mode. If we approach them in a friendly and respectful manner, they will respond in kind. Perhaps Steigerwald’s book is like another more famous volume, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in that the book also tells us a great deal about the writer. If he encountered many nice people, maybe it is because he expected them to be nice, and that he impressed them as being a nice guy himself. They were in sharp contrast with the many shallow, ungrammatical characters that Steinbeck wrote about in his book. Of the two journeys, Steigerwald probably met more interesting people and had more fun – even if he did not have the resources to indulge in high-end hotels and stay with rich friends along the route as Steinbeck did.I must mention the controversy that the book has apparently created. A significant part of Steigerwald’s book involves the responses from the Steinbeck establishment to his claims of “literary fraud”. What now seems incontrovertible was that John Steinbeck did wholly manufacture entire episodes and characters. I am willing to accept an explanation of “artistic license”; indeed, I have no problem with that. What I found more disturbing was the revelation that, rather than being a lonely, thoughtful old man taking a meandering, low-budget trip, Steinbeck was not roughing it at all. Steigerwald’s conclusion that he spent only about five nights in his entire journey actually sleeping in his camper greatly diminishes the aura of Steinbeck, the common man.

Yet, for all that, I take exception with Steigerwald’s implication that Charley was not a good book. I am now willing to accept that this is more a work of fiction than a travel book but it is still wonderful reading. I had forgotten just how good it is until I read it again. Okay, finding an itinerant Shakespearean actor/vagabond drifting across North Dakota strains credibility now that Steigerwald has brought it to my attention. But, honestly, I don’t care; in Steinbeck’s book, he was an articulate, warm character. If Steinbeck used these literary creations to make his point… well, that is what novelists do – and he did it rather skillfully, I thought. A big part of the writing challenge is in creating a picture that the reader finds believable. A great many contemporary authors are far, far less adroit with such literary devices than Steinbeck.

Reading Dogging Steinbeck was a pleasure, a modern journalist’s trip down Memory Lane… even if he did spend many nights sleeping in Wal-mart parking lots. I recommend that readers of this book do as I did, read Charley first for the pleasure of Steinbeck’s superlative narrative. Remembering the details of Steinbeck’s book will then prepare you for the comparable experiences and revelations in Bill Steigerwald’s book.

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.

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.

 

 

“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.

 

For anyone who wants to see and hear the John Steinbeck of 1961, here’s your chance.

Steinbeck and his wife Elaine were invited to JFK’s inaugural address in DC on January 20, 1961.

They went to the speech on a bitter cold day with JFK insider John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife Catherine, but skipped the inaugural ball that night and watched it on TV.

It was about six weeks after John Steinbeck returned to New York following his 1960 “Travels With Charley” road trip. Steinbeck, 58 but looking 70-something, shared a limo ride with the Galbraiths to and from the speech. On board with them was a camera crew that was shooting a Robert Drew  documentary produced for an ABC “Close Up” TV program called “Adventures on the New Frontier.”

In the documentary footage the Steinbecks and the Galbraiths are seen praising Kennedy’s inauguration speech and making jokes. The Galbraiths went to the inaugural ball in Washington that night, which is where the video ends.

The original chapter Steinbeck wrote for “Charley” was entitled “L’Envoi” and was about his trip to the inaugural. Never seen publicly until 2002, it was cut from the book for good reason — it didn’t fit with the rest of  “Charley’ and it was pretty boring.

photo

John and Elaine Steinbeck take a limo ride with John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife after the JFK inaugural speech of Jan. 20, 1961.

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.

Just when I start to think everyone who reads and writes has finally gotten the word that “Travels With Charley” is not nonfiction but fiction, I stumble upon something like “Books Professors Made Me Read: Travels with Charley” on TheBigSlice.org web site.

Tragically, its author, Angelo Pizzullo, wrote an essay about how John Steinbeck’s great travel book captured the reality of 1960 America and its denizens — most of whom, of course, Steinbeck actually made up.

Here’s the last paragraph of Pizzullo’s piece:

From a historical perspective, Travels with Charley is an artistic recital of a first-hand perspective into America at the dawn of a decade rife with radical social change.  Social historians, who look at life of everyday people from a particular era, can find a valuable source in the conversations and create a well-defined understanding of what makes Americans, well, American.  Casual readers will enjoy the masterful wordsmith that was John Steinbeck.  His style was a simplistic complexity; a down-to-Earth approach that reflected sophisticated intelligence mixed with the social conscience of a writer who was quite comfortable in jeans, flannel, and an old British sailor’s cap.

 

Ever helpful, ever vigilant, I wrote this comment:

A nice piece. But please. Nearly everything you think you know about Steinbeck’s book, what you think he saw on his trip, who you think he met and what you think he thought or taught us about 1960 America is wrong. You tragically assume that “Charley” is a work of nonfiction and that it is an accurate and honest account of Steinbeck’s trip, where he went, who he met, etc. It isn’t. It’s mostly fiction. He never met 90 percent of those Americans he talked to in his book — certainly not on his road trip. Please read — or at least check out — the synopsis and opening chapters of my book “Dogging Steinbeck” on Amazon.com to find out the cruel truth about the depths of Steinbeck’s fabrication. You might not like my tone or my libertarian politics. But I bet you’ll want to edit your essay.