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The ‘Travels With Charley’ Timeline — Day 2

Sept. 23-24, 1960 — Deerfield, Mass.

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

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

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

 

Steinbeck’s ‘Act of Courage’

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

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

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

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

— Excerpted from “Dogging Steinbeck”

 

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On Sept. 23, 1960,  John Steinbeck set out alone on the cross-country road trip that he would turn into his best-selling 1962 nonfiction book “Travels With Charley in Search of America.”

Exactly 50 years later, on Sept. 23, 2010, I left Steinbeck’s summer house on the eastern end of Long Island and followed his cold trail as faithfully as possible as a journalist.

Steinbeck’s journey was much tougher and braver than mine.  In 1960 America’s cars were like tanks and its two-lane highways were narrow, thick with traffic and deadly.

The world famous writer drove 10,000 hard and furious miles in his uncomfortable and primitive 1960 GMC pickup truck/camper.

Touching the top of Maine and speeding across the top of the USA to Seattle, he drove back to New York City by way of California, Texas and New Orleans. His trip, which included long layovers on the West Coast and in Texas, took about 75 days. He took no notes or photos.

I had originally set out to retrace Steinbeck’s tire tracks as a serious act of journalism. I simply hoped to write a book comparing the America of 1960 he saw on “The Steinbeck Highway” with the America of 2010 I saw.

My circumnavigation of the USA was even more fast and furious than his. As I traveled doglessly for 11,276 miles, I blogged to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette web site, interviewed dozens of Americans and took thousands of photos. As I drove I wrote about 10 travel stories for the PG’s Sunday paper.

I got lucky and during my research on and off the road I discovered new or “forgotten” information about Steinbeck, his actual trip and the devious editing and publishing of his iconic book.

My discoveries about the major discrepancies between Steinbeck’s actual trip and the one he described in “Charley” got me written up in the New York Times and ultimately changed the way Steinbeck’s classic will be read forever.

I didn’t get a New York publishing deal — or a Hollywood movie deal. But I have no regrets. As I detail in my book “Dogging Steinbeck,” chasing Steinbeck’s ghost around the country for 43 days at age 63 was a trip of a lifetime. Here are two great reviews of “DS” from Robert Dean Laurie in The Daily Caller and Shawn Macomber in  the Weekly Standard.

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A Steinbeck & Charley Timeline

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This fine illustration by Stacey Innerst accurately shows where Steinbeck and Charley were on various dates in the fall of 1960.

Below are excerpts from my book “Dogging Steinbeck” and a timeline of where I believe John Steinbeck was each day during his trip in the fall of 1960. Many photos have video links.

It’s based on “Travels With Charley,” the unedited  first draft of the book, letters Steinbeck wrote from the road to his wife Elaine and others, biographies of Steinbeck, newspaper articles, interviews and best-guesses.

It’s as accurate as I could make it.

More than half a century ago, on Oct. 25, 1962, John Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature he should have received years earlier.

The Swedish Academy of Letters hailed Steinbeck for his “realistic and imaginative writings” and called his “Grapes of Wrath”  a “poignant description of life as it is lived by the common man.” The committee also favorably mentioned “Travels With Charley,” his last major work, which was high atop the New York Times nonfiction list that fall.

This excerpt from my expose “Dogging Steinbeck” discusses the generally positive critical reaction to “Charley,” which, as we now know, was a mostly made-up and deceitful account of Steinbeck’s trip of discovery around the USA.

 

 Critics Cheer

Steinbeck was never liked by the East Coast literary mafia, which alone is a good reason to friend him. The big critics dismissed him for snobbish intellectual reasons, according to his friendly biographer Jackson Benson: He was from out West. He had a sense of humor. He was too popular, too sentimental, too accessible and insufficiently political (i.e., he didn’t keep writing “The Grapes of Wrath” over and over to please diehard lefties like Mary McCarthy at Nation magazine).

Yet when “Travels With Charley” was published, it generally got raves from reviewers in mainstream newspapers and magazines. Most of them embraced/swallowed the romantic man-and-dog-on-the-road storyline. Even critical reviews didn’t question the authenticity of Steinbeck’s supporting cast of cardboard characters. Harper’s, Saturday Review and a few other highbrow places were not particularly impressed by Steinbeck’s “predictable” observations. But the New York Times, Newsweek and the Atlantic loved the book.

The Times’ reviewer, Eric F. Goldman, lost his grip. The Princeton history professor and world authority on modern American culture blubbered in the Sunday Book Review on July 29 that it was “a pure delight, a pungent potpourri of places and people interspersed with bittersweet essays on everything from the emotional difficulties of growing old to the reasons why giant Sequoias arouse such awe.”

Goldman wasn’t 100 percent pleased, however. He pointed out, correctly, that the America Steinbeck saw was “hardly coincident” with the real American heartland because he had avoided the most significant new developments of the 1960s – the big cities and the growing suburbs. But Goldman, like other reviewers, bought completely into the myth of “Travels With Charley.”

Goldman assumed Steinbeck had exhausted himself on a grueling, undercover, three-month road trip in a truck. He wrote sentences like “To avoid hotel stays and certain recognition he had a manufacturer build for him a cabin body equipped for day-and-night living. He traveled accompanied only by his aged French poodle.”

John Steinbeck and his third wife Elaine, who spent almost as much time on the road during his "Charley" trip than the poodle did.

John Steinbeck and his third wife Elaine, who spent almost as much time on the road during his “Charley” trip than the poodle did.

Calling it “affecting and highly entertaining,” Newsweek praised Steinbeck for his “quick mind and honest heart” but damned him for “his self-indulgent loathing of every city he drove through.” The reviewer in Atlantic’s August issue predicted that it was a book “to be read slowly for its savor, and one which, like Thoreau, will be quoted and measured by our own experience.”

The Boston Herald enthused that “Travels With Charley” was one of “the best books John Steinbeck has ever written. Perceptive, revealing, and completely delightful.” The San Francisco Examiner deemed it “profound, sympathetic, often angry . . . an honest and moving book by one of our great writers.”

Only Time magazine, whose owner Henry Luce reportedly never forgave Steinbeck for “The Grapes of Wrath’s” attacks on capitalism, broke from the slobbering mainstream pack. It ripped Steinbeck in a two-paragraph review in August 1962:

TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY, by John Steinbeck (246 pp.; Viking; $4.95). Put a famous author behind the wheel of a three-quarter-ton truck called Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse), equip him with everything from trenching tools to subzero underwear, send along a pedigreed French poodle named Charley with prostatitis, follow the man and dog on a three-month, 10,000-mile trip through 34 states, and what have you got? One of the dullest travelogues ever to acquire the respectability of a hard cover.

 Vagabond Steinbeck’s motive for making the long, lonely journey is admirable: ‘To try to rediscover this monster land’ after years of easy living in Manhattan and a country place in Sag Harbor, L.I. He meets some interesting people: migrant Canucks picking potatoes in Maine, an itinerant Shakespearean actor in North Dakota, his own literary ghost back home in California’s Monterey Peninsula. But when the trip is done, Steinbeck’s attempt at rediscovery reveals nothing more remarkable than a sure gift for the obvious observation.

Tough stuff.

Time’s hatchet job seemed unfair and unnecessarily mean-spirited when I first read it. But given what I’ve learned since, it looks about right. Yet even Time’s hardhearted reviewer didn’t question the existence of that “interesting” Shakespearean actor from Central Casting.

As “Travels With Charley” rocketed to the top of the nonfiction bestseller list in the fall of 1962, shocking news came from Sweden. Steinbeck, who had been nominated eight times for the Nobel Prize for Literature, had finally won it. The Swedish Academy’s choice was influenced in part by “Charley,” which the selection committee clearly believed was the true account of Steinbeck’s road trip in search of America. Steinbeck’s triumph was a surprise that left many displeased. A Swedish paper called it one of the Academy’s biggest mistakes. The New York Times wondered why the award was given to a has-been whose talent was “limited” and whose best books were “watered down by tenth-rate philosophizing.”

Fifty years later Steinbeck’s award would be further discredited. According to Academy archives opened in 2012 and released in January of 2013, though Steinbeck was as worthy of a Nobel as any American writer who ever wielded a pen, he was a compromise choice. Apparently, the other nominees — including British writer Robert Graves and Denmark’s “Out of Africa” author Karen Blixen — were considered so weak that Steinbeck took the prize.

Time magazine didn’t care what Steinbeck had won. It kicked him and “Charley” around again with a nasty Nov. 2, 1962 article defaming the author and his entire body of work. The magazine sniped that the decision of the Nobel judges “was also reportedly influenced by Steinbeck’s latest, bestselling ‘Travels with Charley,’ which manages to recapture the banality, mawkish sentiment and pseudo philosophy that have marked Steinbeck at his worst.”

Academics weren’t so rude. But in subsequent years some of their assessments found the book to be too subjective and too personal. Peter Lisca, a godfather of Steinbeck studies, said it represented “all the baggage of the third-rate journalist who sees only the stereotype and the cliché.” Lisca apparently never realized, nor suspected, that Steinbeck didn’t actually “see” those stereotypes and clichés. He made up most if not all of them.

Robert Gottlieb, the book editor and former editor of the New Yorker, saw through the mask when he critiqued “Charley” and Steinbeck’s later works of fiction in the New York Review of Books in April of 2008. In “The Rescue of John Steinbeck” Gottlieb wrote that “Steinbeck’s heart, as always, is in the right place, but there’s something artificial about ‘Charley’: many of the encounters he reports sound like pure inventions.”

To be fair to Steinbeck, he said upfront that his book was never meant to be serious journalism or deep social commentary – and it wasn’t. It was nowhere near as deep, wide or historically important as Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” It was not as journalistically meticulous or prolonged or detailed or soul-searching as William Least Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways.”

In “Travels With Charley” Steinbeck went out of his way, preemptively perhaps, to make it clear what his book actually was: the exceedingly subjective account of one man’s unique, unrepeatable trip around the USA. It was exactly that. He just didn’t bother also to point out that his account was so subjective it was no longer accurate or true.

The Weekly Standard, the smart and sassy 15-year-old conservative answer to the liberal New Republic, has produced the world’s first official book review of “Dogging Steinbeck.”

Bearing the very clever headline, “Chicanery Row,” entertainingly and sagely written by Shawn Macomber, it can be found here.

The first known plug for “DS” was by Reason mag’s Nick Gillespie, who kindly named it his favorite book of 2012 — and my ebook was only out for three weeks of the year.

My marketing and promotion director, Bill Steigerwald, has been bombarding the book people at the New York Times, L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post with emails, trying to get their attention, if not a book review. It’s not easy. But maybe the Standard has lit the spark.

Meanwhile, in the Big Apple, the blog site GalleyCat, aka “The First Word on the Publishing Industry,” blurbed a “DS” blurb on Friday, finally succumbing to a barrage of promo pitches from me.

And look for Paul Theroux’s mention of me and “Dogging Steinbeck” in his New York Times travel piece on Sunday Jan. 13.

Self-publishing is hard work, but maybe I’m getting somewhere.