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.
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.”
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.
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.