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The Steinbeck Review is supposed to be devoted to scholarship, but is it?

Here’s what SR says it is all about:

Steinbeck Review is an authorized publication on the life and works of American novelist John Steinbeck (1902-1968). It publishes scholarly articles; notes; book and performance reviews; creative writing; original artwork; short intercalary pieces offering fresh perspectives, including notes on contemporary references to Steinbeck, discussions of the contexts of his work, and an occasional poem. Review has a three-fold mission of broadening the scope of Steinbeck criticism, promoting the work of new and established scholars, and serving as a resource for Steinbeck teachers at all levels.

Sounds like a fair and honest publication, right? Comprehensive. Reliable. A trustworthy site for all things Steinbeck. Too bad its scholars haven’t reviewed my 2013 book “Dogging Steinbeck.” Or even mentioned it.

In the spring of 2011 the SR did print a shall-we-say less-than scholarly article by a Steinbeck fan in response to what the New York Times wrote about my discoveries of Steinbeck’s many fictions and lies. But SR hasn’t mentioned my book or seriously addressed what I proved four years ago — that John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” was a work of fiction and not the true or honest nonfiction account of his 1960 road trip and what he thought about America.

For half a century Steinbeck scholars blew it on “Charley.”

They never bothered to look with a skeptical eye at the iconic American road book, which has flashes of good writing and glints of wise humor but is awful in many many ways that have nothing to do with telling the truth in a nonfiction book.

As I’ve said in my book, which exposed “Charley” for the literary fraud it was for 50 years, I don’t expect the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex to give me an honorary masters in literary studies.

And I recognize that it is possible for English professors with Ph.D’s to argue with a straight face that the fictions and lies Steinbeck told were told in the interest of telling larger truths about America.

But the most recent issue of the Steinbeck Review shows just how sloppy and stupid or just plain smug and arrogant its editors can be (Editor-in-Chief Barbara A. Heavilin, Associate Editor Mary M. Brown and Book Review Editor Thomas E. Barden).

In its back pages the most recent SR presents a list of the “Major Steinbeck Publications of 2012–2013.”

The compiler of that list didn’t mention my 2013 Amazon.com e-book “Dogging Steinbeck” — or even one of several newspaper and magazine articles I wrote in 2012 about the fictional (and deceptive) nature of Steinbeck’s classic.

Steinbeck scholars dismiss “Dogging Steinbeck” for various reasons. It didn’t have a big publisher. It doesn’t have footnotes. It’s not an academic work. It wasn’t peer-reviewed (unless the great Brian Lamb of C-SPAN counts).

But “Dogging Steinbeck” is a serious work of journalism that should interest all Steinbeck lovers/scholars, pro and amateur.

I discovered a lot of interesting, new (and previously unpublicized) information about Steinbeck, his real 1960 “Charley” trip, the slippery editing of “Charley” and the devious lengths to which Viking Press editors went to shape Steinbeck’s original draft into what I call the “Travels With Charley” Myth.

What I proved also changed the way “Travels With Charley” will be read for the rest of eternity.  Hint: It will no longer be considered a work of nonfiction.

As Jay Parini wrote when he was forced — by my trouble-making — to sneakily add disclaimers to his introduction in the 50th anniversary edition of the book last fall, “Charley” is a work of fiction by a great novelist. (That rather important adjustment by Parini also has been ignored by the Steinbeck Review, as far as I know.)

As they say, the truth about “Charley” is all in my book. I encourage all Steinbeck lovers — and editors of the SR — to read it and critique it or trash it. Just please don’t ignore it before this oversight gets any more embarrassing.

Besides not mentioning the publication of “Dogging Steinbeck,” here is what else the Steinbeck Review’s bibliographer (Kathleen Hicks) forgot to include in her list of 2012-2013 publications:

Reason magazine, July 25, 2012: “Whitewashing John Steinbeck: Why partisan politics and virulent racism were cut from the celebrated ‘non-fiction’ road book Travels With Charley” Steinbeck’s “Paragraph of Filth,” which was edited out of his first draft in 1961 because it was too vulgar to publish then or now, is seen by the public for the first time.

Reizen zonder John: Op zoek naar Amerika (“Traveling Without John: In Search of America”), August, 2012: In his 573-page book famed Dutch journalist and author Geert Mak recounts his 2010 retracing of Steinbeck’s “Charley” trip, publicizes my discoveries about Steinbeck’s fictions and lies and praises my dogged journalism (in Dutch). It’ll be published in English for the UK market in November of 2014, so it will have to be included in SR’s next bibliography.

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Jon McNaught did the cover for Dutchman Geert Mak’s English-language edition.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Oct. 14, 2012: ‘Travels With Charley’: Now officially mostly fiction” My article points out that because of my discoveries Penguin Group had quietly inserted disclaimers into the introduction of their latest edition of “Charley,” making it clear the book was so fictionalized it should not be believed as the true story of Steinbeck’s trip.

C-SPAN, March 3, 2013: “Q&A” C-SPAN founding father Brian Lamb interviewed me for an hour about how I came to write “Dogging Steinbeck” on his “Q&A” program.

For its past issues, Steinbeck Review could add these references from 2010 and 2011:

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Dec. 5, 2010: “Sorry, Charley” Though “Travels With Charley” has been marketed, reviewed and taught as a work of nonfiction for half a century, I charge that it is mostly fiction and a dishonest account of his actual journey.

NPR media watchdog show “On the Media” with Bob Garfield, Dec. 24, 2010: The first national media coverage of me and my literary “scoop.”

Monterey County Weekly, Jan. 20, 2011: In “Travels With Steinbeck” Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw discredits my journalism and pooh-poohs my findings when interviewed for a feature story on Bill Barich’s Steinbeck-inspired 2010 book, “Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America.” My response.

Reason magazine, April, 2011: “Sorry, Charley: Was John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’ a Fraud?” A stronger indictment of Steinbeck’s literary fraud.

New York Times, April 4, 2011: “A Reality Check for Steinbeck and Charley” The Times “discovers” my story and culture writer Charles McGrath interviews me and two Steinbeck scholars, San Jose State English professor Susan Shillinglaw and Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini, who don’t think much of my discovery.

New York Times editorial, April 10, 2011: In “The Truth About Charley” the Paper of Record’s editorial page credits me with having made an “intriguing” and “disheartening” discovery about the high level of untruth and dishonesty in “Charley” and is irritated that Steinbeck scholars were so blasé about my findings.Wikipedia: Its “Travels With Charley” entry quickly added information about my indictment of the book’s veracity and in 2013 it added a portion of the disclaimer Penguin Group asked Professor Jay Parini to add to the introduction of the 50th anniversary edition of “Charley.”

In the fall 2011 issue of the Steinbeck Review, Tom Barden, a smart and sensible English professor and dean at the University of Toledo, reviewed two 2010 “Travels With Charley”-centric books.

The quarterly’s editor, who edited the 2012 book “Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War,” looked at “Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America” by Bill Barich and “Travels with Max: In Search of Steinbeck’s America Fifty Years Later” by Gregory Zeigler.

First, however, professor Barden validated my discoveries about the lack of veracity in “Charley.” He based his opinion not on my book “Dogging Steinbeck,” which did not exist yet, but on what I had revealed in my April 2011 Reason magazine article, “Sorry, Charley.” Barden also said that Steinbeck’s serial inventions were no surprise or shock to anyone, especially academics like him, since Steinbeck was a novelist.

Here’s what Barden wrote in the Review:

I was not particularly drawn to the premise of Barich’s and Zeigler’s books. Delving into 21st century America’s soul via Steinbeck’s 1961 Travels with Charley struck me as too contrived. But readers of Steinbeck Review deserve an appraisal of the resulting volumes, especially in light of Bill Steigerwald’s “Sorry, Charley” essay in the April 2011 issue of Reason magazine, so here goes.

First, I should weigh in on Steigerwald. His research into motel bills, restaurant checks, and private letters made what I found to be a thoroughly convincing case that Steinbeck’s narrative in Travels with Charley in Search of America did not reflect anything close to his actual trip. Steigerwald presented ample documentation that Steinbeck spent most of his time in posh motor hotels eating good dinners with his wife Elaine, who was with him much more than he let on. The responses to Steigerwald’s revelations varied from incensed (Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law), to defensive (Steinbeck scholars Jay Parini and Susan Shillinglaw), to sympathetic toward Steinbeck (travel writer Paul Theroux). My response was basically–so what? I was reminded of John Steinbeck IV’s comment about his father’s book in The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck. Speaking for his brother Thom and himself, he wrote “we were convinced that he never talked to any of those people in Travels with Charley. He just sat in his camper and wrote all that shit. He was too shy. He was really frightened of people who saw through him. He couldn’t have handled that amount of interaction. So the book is actually a great novel.” (p. 151) Exactly. Oh my, he invented most of the content of Travels with Charley…zoot alors! Not only that, people, he paid for stories from Mexicans when he worked at the Spraekel’s Sugar factory in Salinas as a teenager and used them later—like that one about a nursing mother who saves a starving old man by breastfeeding him.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Steigerwald’s research and the ensuing controversy was the clear assumption by everybody concerned that Steinbeck’s book is still worth discussing after fifty years. I think Travels with Charley does still matter. But I don’t think it matters because of its veracity (or lack thereof), or its ideas, or its insights about American culture. To me, it still matters because it is packed from beginning to end with terrific and terrifically idiosyncratic writing at the sentence level. Pick it up and start reading randomly and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll run into passages like this one about the giant redwoods in Northern California—“In the redwoods nearly the whole of daylight is a quiet time. Birds move in the dim light or flash like sparks through the stripes of sun, but they make little sound.” (p. 171)

So, to return to the books under review, I used the yardstick of Steinbeck’s spectacular prose to review Barich and Zigler’s books. By that measure, one of them holds up pretty well and the other doesn’t. I’ll start with the latter. Zeigler’s little yappy-looking dog Max appears on both the front and back covers of his book and is also featured in many of the photos interspersed throughout the text. I did not take the dog or the illustrations as a good sign. Flipping through the text before I started reading, I felt as if I were about to be subjected to somebody’s boring vacation slideshow. My suspicions were confirmed when I started reading—the prose, like the dog, was too cute, the Steinbeck trope was too labored, and any intellectual or emotional stimulation was pretty much absent. Zeigler covered 15,000 miles in nine weeks, and it felt like it took that long to get through his book. He wove references to Steinbeck’s trip, his poodle, his biography, and even his family’s feud over copyright issues into his narrative, and all the while maintained a running commentary on such interesting roadside attractions as the Lion’s Den Adult Bookstore, geezer geyser gazers, a veterinary insemination operation that bragged “we do cows,” and the general beauty and/or scuzziness of the American landscape. But, for me, it never coalesced into a meaningful trip or travel narrative. The cover blurb says “Travels with Max offers a retrospective on Steinbeck and his work, as well as an insightful, humorous and upbeat perspective on modern America.” But I didn’t get the insights, the humor, or the retrospectives. For instance, here’s Zeigler’s description of a saguaro cactus that was located in too close proximity to a golf course: “Wild hitters like me had slammed drives into their green flesh. Some were studded with several balls, like buttons on a stout man’s vest.” I couldn’t help comparing that negatively with Steinbeck’s description of the giant redwoods.

Barich’s book, on the other hand, is well conceived, well written, and, fortunately, un-illustrated. Even before starting, I was impressed by the effusive cover blurbs about Barich’s writing. Jim Harrison, a Michigan-based poet and novelist for whom I have huge respect said simply “Barich is a splendid prose stylist.” And Larry McMurtry, a master storyteller by anybody’s standards, agreed. They are right. He writes with measured dignity and has a good ear for dialog and a sharp eye for telling detail.

As to content, Barich follows Steinbeck’s lead in avoiding major cities and typical tourist attractions. Although he visits Washington, D.C. and passes through St. Louis on Interstate 70 (where the drivers’ aggression terrified him), he focuses mostly on small towns like Culpeper, Virginia, Chillicothe, Ohio and Florence, Kansas. There’s humor in Barich’s book, but it is not of the corny variety Zeigler indulged and it is more connected to ideas and thoughtful observations. In Shenandoah National Park, for example, he notices that “Americans used to travel to beautiful spots to get away from it all, but now they bring it all with them.” Unlike Steinbeck’s, Barich’s road trip is one-way–east to west. He arrives in California via Needles and makes his way to Monterey on the coast, where he muses at length on “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” both of which he loves and respects. Finally, he pulls in to San Francisco – a city he lived in for many years – just in time for Election Day, 2008.

That election looms large over Long Way Home. The book ends in a mood buoyed by the fact that America, for all its historical racism and injustice, has just elected the young, smart and eloquent Barack Hussein Obama. All through the book, but especially at the end, he rejects the world-weariness and gloom that hung over Steinbeck’s trip with Charley. Where Steinbeck found moral and spiritual malaise, Barich found America renewing itself after eight years of George W. Bush. It is a thrill to feel, but that buoyancy seems pretty raveled and frayed now. Bigotry, ignorance and fear-mongering didn’t fade away; in fact, they seem to have gotten stronger in response to Obama’s cerebral calmness. The wrenching ending of Steinbeck’s book stands in contrast to Barich’s optimistic finale, but the venom of those “cheerleaders” who screamed profanities at little African American girls as they walked to school in Civil Rights Era Mississippi is on daily display now on Fox News, on talk radio, and in much of the Republican Party. On finishing Barich’s book, I felt a strong surge of missing John Steinbeck. I think he would be more effective than most of our current progressive voices in confronting and refuting today’s Rush Limbaughs, Pat Robertsons and Glenn Becks head-on.