“Travels With Charley in Search of America” turns 50 this summer.
That means for half a century the young and the gullible have been misled into thinking “TWC” is the true account of his 11-week trip from Sag Harbor to California and back in 1960.
“TWC” isn’t true or honest, as I discovered by accident in 2010.
Everyone should take at least one coast-to-coast road tour of America in their life, alone or with a dog or another human. But everyone should also know that the romantic journey Steinbeck depicted in “TWC” was nothing like his real trip. Or one they’re likely to have.
The publisher of “Travels With Charley,” Viking Press, did a clever/devious job of marketing Steinbeck’s last major work as a nonfiction book when it came out in July of 1962. It jumped to the nonfiction best-seller lists at the New York Times and Time magazine and stayed there for over a year.
The famous illustrations by Don Freeman on the dust jacket and inside covers created the impression that Steinbeck and Charley spent three months on the American road, roughing it and camping out almost like hobos as they carefully documented the soul of a changing nation and its people.
Though Steinbeck himself makes it clear in the book that he stayed at a posh hotel in Chicago (for four days) and at a fancy ranch in Texas over Thanksgiving, the book’s reviewers in 1962 bought into the romantic on-the-road story line.
In those innocent days, no one questioned the “authenticity” of the cast of wooden characters Steinbeck said he met or the book’s nonfiction designation.
But how often did Steinbeck actually camp out or sleep in Rocinante during his circumnavigation of America? Not very often.
The book itself is little help. We know Steinbeck made up several of the big campout scenes — on the farm in New Hampshire (when he reportedly stayed overnight at an exclusive inn) and two nights under the stars in North Dakota (which, unless the week of Oct. 9, 1960, had nine days, was an impossible feat).
I don’t pretend to have seen every shred & shard of Steinbeck’s massive archives.
But based on the “Charley” book, his road letters, Jackson Benson’s biography and several newspaper articles, I’d say Steinbeck probably slept in Rocinante a maximum of three or four nights between Oct. 5, when he met his wife Elaine in Chicago, and early December, when he returned to New York City.
In those last 60 or so days of his trip, Steinbeck slept at the Ambassador East in Chicago four nights, at Adlai Stevenson’s house near Chicago one night and at motels in North Dakota, Montana and Seattle (probably four nights).
He and Elaine stayed at motels and resorts for almost a week as they traveled down the Pacific Coast from Seattle to San Francisco, where they stayed at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco for four days.
They then drove south to the Monterey Peninsula where they visited one of Steinbeck’s sisters and stayed until the middle of November at Steinbeck’s modest family cottage in Pacific Grove.
After Elaine flew on to Texas, John drove in Rocinante from Monterey to Amarillo. For the first four days on the road, until Flagstaff, his old friend Toby Street traveled with him — so it’s unlikely Steinbeck cuddled up in the camper with Toby on any of those nights.
When Steinbeck reached Texas, he stayed in a downtown motel in Amarillo for three or four days, spent at least several days at a nearby cattle ranch for millionaires over the Thanksgiving holiday and then visited some of Elaine’s relatives in Austin.
After Elaine flew home to New York, Steinbeck drove to New Orleans for a quick peek at the daily circus of bigotry outside a recently integrated elementary school, then headed home as fast as he could.
The last reliable date and location I have found for Steinbeck on his trip was Dec. 3, when he mailed post-cards to his agent and his editor from Pelahatchie, Ms.
While he may have grabbed some sleep in Rocinante on his sprint home, Steinbeck — road bleary and dispirited and out of gas — certainly didn’t do any leisurely camping or last-minute research into the American soul.
Steinbeck was on the road for about 75 days in the fall of 1960 — from Sept. 23 to about Dec. 5 or 6.
As far as I can tell, on nearly 65 of those nights he slept in hotels, motels, resorts, a cottage, a ranch or with friends or relatives. Twice he slept in his camper on the grounds of Eleanor Brace’s house on Deer Isle, Maine; three of four times he slept in his camper at truck stops or “trailer courts.”
The number of times he slept in his camper in the middle of nowhere, as depicted in the book’s illustrations? Once or twice. He told his wife he parked by a bridge overnight in the interior of Maine. And, though there is no corroboration, he says he slept in a canyon in New Mexico by the Continental Divide and near a lake between Buffalo and Chicago.
It’s testimony to Steinbeck’s great writing skill — and the gullibility of the age — that he was able to create a classic “nonfiction” road book around such a pedestrian, comfortable journey. It’s testimony to the laziness and credulity of scholars that Steinbeck and Viking Press (now part of the Penguin Group) have gotten away with their literary deceit for 52 years.