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.
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.
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 Sept. 3 Daily Caller’s opinion piece Just The Facts: Bill Steigerwald Exposes A Great Writer’s ‘Literary Fraud’ In Dogging Steinbeck, author, musician and creative fiction practitioner Robert Dean Lurie of Arizona serves up a fair, fine and thoughtful review of my literary expose/travel book.
Lurie, who also discusses the eternal fight between facts and fiction in Thoreau’s “Walden” and elsewhere, is a writer who leans toward the creative/ fiction side of creative nonfiction. He isn’t a just-gimme-the-facts kind of guy, like most career journalists.
Nevertheless, Lurie says that my exhaustive — and sometimes clunky — journalism won him over.
One might think, given my stated positions above, that I would be fundamentally opposed to Steigerwald’s assertion that Travels With Charley is a “literary fraud.” And, indeed, I fought that premise tooth and nail throughout much of the book, even while falling in love with Steigerwald’s jocular style, his unvarnished political opinions, and, yes, his honesty. But the wily devil wore me down in the end. The mountain of damning evidence is just too massive to ignore.
When I get my first million in royalties, I’ll be sure to send Mr. Lurie and the great guys at the Daily Caller their checks. Until then, here’s a plug for his book, “No Certainty Attached.”
As Publishers Weekly said …
Lurie remains stridently impartial in this skillfully balanced assessment of his musical idol, Steve Kilbey, the esoterically minded front man for the Australian rock band the Church. Into his noisy myriad of interviews with Kilbey and his circle, Lurie mixes his own personal journey as a fan, musician and first-time author, offering something to both Church devotees and the uninitiated. The result is a quietly and thoughtfully structured narrative that entertains as well as informs.
“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
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?
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.
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.
The Kindle edition contains no such intro. Quick, another scandal demanding your attention.
bill steigerwald says:
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.
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.
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.
John Steinbeck set out to do his “Travels With Charley” trip the right way — alone and like a serious journalist. But it quickly unraveled and he had to resort to fiction and fibs to tell his tale. A free excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck,” an Amazon ebook that’s the antidote of truth to “Charley.”
A Good Trip Gone Bad
A stranger passing like a bullet through his own heartland, Steinbeck spent twice as much time relaxing on his 11-week journey than driving. He discovered no new facts or insights about the USA or its citizens, mainly because he did no real journalism and spent relatively little time with ordinary people. Yet he deserved a lot of credit just for taking the road trip.
Despite his shaky health and age, not to mention his princely lifestyle and celebrity social circle, he had the balls to roll up his sleeves and take on what was essentially a major journalism project. What other great American writer would have even considered traveling the rough way he did?
Initially, he fully intended to do his trip the right way and the only way it would work – solo and at the grassroots level. His ambitious plan – going alone, taking photos, writing dispatches to newspapers or magazines from the road, going to a different church every Sunday, spending quality time in the Jim Crow South – was basic, sound journalism and a perfect vehicle for his talents.
A nonfiction book based on his original plan wouldn’t have been as popular with readers or kept its romantic appeal for 50 years, but it would have made a better, more substantive book. It would have slowed him down, forced him to meet hundreds of other real people and given him a chance to discover more of the America he went searching for.
But Steinbeck’s great exploration never materialized. He never learned to use a camera, didn’t take notes or keep a journal and never wrote a word for publication during his 75 days away from New York. His grand plan was unraveled by the reality of his lifestyle, health and the punishment of the open road. He quickly got lonely and tired and no doubt bored.
Ironically, in one sense he may have been lucky he lost heart so early. The daily pressure and logistical nightmares of trying to do real journalism on the back roads of America in 1960 could have killed him. What’s more, in the Analog Age it was an unrealistic mission even for a man in good health to circumnavigate America alone. Transcontinental car travel was still an adventure, not the smooth ride it is today. As Steinbeck learned, just finding a public pay phone so he could call his wife every three days was a major accomplishment.
Before he left Maine he had already realized the obvious – the country was too damn big and diverse to pin down or sum up. No one person, not even a Steinbeck, could discover the real America in 11 weeks or 11 months. Anyway, as he wisely said, there was no single “real” America. As he knew and advised his readers, every traveler must take his own trip and find his own version of America. Trouble was, his was largely a 50 mph blur interrupted by luxurious vacations with his wife. And when his journey ended, he had to sit down and make up a nonfiction book about a real country he never found, never really looked for and didn’t really like much.
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:
In the spring, as part of my never-ending saturation PR bombardment to get the MSM — and even NPR — to pay a little respect/attention to my Pulitzer Prize not-winning literary expose “Dogging Steinbeck,” I sent a pathetic plea to the producers of the always clever but mostly lefty-liberal radio hour, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”
I’ve since sent moderator Peter Sagal, who looks like he could be my younger balder brother, several equally pathetic emails trying to get me and my road-tripping pal and fellow author Ethan Casey on the show. Peter Sagal seems like a nice guy on my kitchen radio, but apparently he is incapable of responding to emails that come his way, no matter how pathetic.
Here’s the original email I sent to WWDTM to alert them that I was going to be appearing on C-SPAN with everyone’s hero, including mine, Brian Lamb.
Hello WWDTM producers —
Sainted CSPAN Founder Brian Lamb liked “Dogging Steinbeck” so much he booked me for his Sunday, March 3, 8 p.m. “Q&A” program.
My fellow libertarian Nick Gillespie of Reason mag loved it and called my 11,276-mile, coast-to-coast celebration of America “Whitmanesque,” which I think was a compliment.
Supreme Travel Master Paul Theroux liked it almost as much as my 95-year-old mom.
PJ O’Rourke has a paperback copy of it at his N.H. redoubt and he knows who I am.
The Weekly Standard glowingly reviewed it.
The New York Times editorial page and NPR’s “On the Media” endorsed my findings that Steinbeck had pretty much lied his butt off in “Travels With Charley,” which for 50 years was sold, marketed, reviewed and taught to be the nonfiction, true, accurate and honest account of what he did on his iconic road trip in 1960, who he met and what he really thought about America and its people.
It wasn’t nonfiction. Not even close.
To put it in academic terms, Steinbeck’s last major work was a big crock of fiction and lies — and Penguin Group admitted the fiction part last fall by having Jay Parini insert a disclaimer into the introduction to the latest edition of “Charley” that says the book is so fictionalized and dramatized that it should not be taken literally.
I’m a little sorry I came along and spoiled everyone’s fun. But Steinbeck’s beloved book — 1.5 million sales, nonfiction best-sellerdom in 1962 — is, as I bluntly say, “a literary fraud.” Don’t tell Oprah, but it’s in the same fact-fudging league as “Three Cups of Tea,” “A Million Little Pieces” and Mr. Capote’s increasingly besmirched “In Cold Blood.”
“Dogging Steinbeck” is an Amazon ebook and the listing there contains everything you need to see that I’m a real journalist who retraced Steinbeck’s original route around the USA, slept in my car 20 nights (10 Walmart lots, a pier, a beach, a riverbank, a used car lot ), lucked into a 50-year-old scoop and ticked off the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex — a synopsis, blurbs and sample chapters. I’m beginning to think I should be a movie.
Below is the adult press release I’ve written (this is a DYI book of quality drive-by journalism — from idea to reporting and writing and editing and photographing to email pitches and distributing paperback copies of my book to local bookstores in Pittsburgh, where my aging TV sportscaster brothers and I operated a powerful family multimedia dynasty.
Thank you for your time. I’m better on radio than TV, though I guess I wasn’t as bad as I thought with Brian Lamb because they still have the show set for March 3 at 8 on CSPAN’s “Q&A.”
Discovering America and Exposing
The Truth About ‘Travels With Charley’
First Bill Steigerwald took John Steinbeck’s classic “Travels With Charley” and used it as a map for his own cross-country road trip in search of America. Then he proved Steinbeck’s iconic nonfiction book was a 50-year-old literary fraud. A true story about the triumph of truth.
“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…” — Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com
Bill Steigerwald discovered two important truths when he retraced the route John Steinbeck took around the country in 1960 and turned into “Travels With Charley in Search of America.” He found out the great author’s “nonfiction” road book was a deceptive, dishonest and highly fictionalized account of his actual 10,000-mile road trip. And he found out that despite the Great Recession and national headlines dripping with gloom and doom, America was still a big, beautiful, empty, healthy, rich, safe, clean, prosperous and friendly country.
“Dogging Steinbeck” is the lively, entertaining, opinionated story of how Steigerwald stumbled onto a literary scoop, won praise from the New York Times editorial page and forced a major book publisher to finally confess the truth about “Travels With Charley” after 50 years.
But it’s also a celebration of the America he found and the dozens of ordinary Americans he met on his 11,276-mile high-speed drive from Maine to Monterey. Despite the Great Recession and national headlines dripping with gloom and doom, Steigerwald’s expedition into the American Heartland in the fall of 2010 reaffirmed his faith in the innate goodness of the American people and their ability to withstand the long train of abuse from Washington and Wall Street.
Part literary detective story, part travel book, part book review, part primer in drive-by journalism, part commentary on what a libertarian newspaperman thinks is right and wrong about America, “Dogging Steinbeck” is entirely nonfiction. True Nonfiction.
‘Dogging Steinbeck’ is available at select bookstores and at Amazon.com as an ebook.
Bill Steigerwald is a well-traveled Pittsburgh journalist and a veteran libertarian columnist. He worked as an editor and writer/reporter/columnist for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, the Post-Gazette in the 1990s and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in the 2000s. He retired from the daily newspaper business in March 2009. He and his wife Trudi live south of Pittsburgh in the woods.
Buy “Dogging Steinbeck”First Bill Steigerwald took John Steinbeck's classic "Travels With Charley" and used it as a map for his own cross-country road trip in search of America. Then he proved Steinbeck's iconic nonfiction book was a 50-year-old literary fraud. A true story about the triumph of truth.
True DiscoveriesI discovered two important truths when I set out to follow John Steinbeck’s "Travels With Charley" route in the fall of 2010. I found out Steinbeck’s iconic nonfiction book was a 50-year-old literary fraud. And I found out that despite the Great Recession and national headlines dripping with gloom and doom, America is still a big, empty, rich, safe, clean, prosperous and friendly country. This site explains how I stumbled onto Steinbeck’s deceit and includes the daily account of my 11,276-mile drive from Long Island to Maine to California and back. Meanwhile, I’ve turned my adventures with John Steinbeck and his famous work into an Amazon.com book of my own, "Dogging Steinbeck." A nonfiction one.
E-mail Bill Steigerwald
Support the Truth About Charley!
Related Steinbeck LinksThe National Steinbeck Center is the most accessible place to enter the fictional and nonfictional world of John Steinbeck, who was 58 when he set off in search of America. Located in Salinas, Calif., Steinbeck's birthplace, the center offers multimedia exhibits and the star Steinbeck relic, Rocinante, the restored truck-camper used for "Travels With Charley," the top-selling book in the museum store. The center's archivist will take your questions at the center's Facebook page.
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