Dogging Steinbeck, following John Steinbeck’s route fifty years later., February 25, 2013Verified Purchase(What’s this?)This review is from: Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth about ‘Travels With Charley’ (Kindle Edition)
I remember enjoying Travels with Charley many years ago so I was intrigued when I learned of Dogging Steinbeck in which the author, Bill Steigerwald, follows Steinbeck’s famous cross-country route fifty years later. Before reading Dogging Steinbeck, I took the time to read Travels with Charley again immediately before starting Steigerwald’s book.I enjoyed Dogging Steinbeck very much and admire Steigerwald for his efforts in making and recording his own journey. The day by day observations of the seasonal weather, the local characters and conditions he encountered, and the frequent comparisons to Steinbeck’s own journey to rediscover America made interesting reading. It’s soon became apparent, however, that his experiences and extensive Steinbeck research created considerable doubt about the accuracy of Charley. Indeed, Steigerwald offers convincing evidence that Steinbeck’s beloved classic was more a work of fiction than a trip journal.One of the great pleasures in reading Steigerwald’s book was that he found so many friendly and interesting people in his travels. Certainly the mass media does not spend much time reporting about nice people; the weirdos, extremists, uberwealthy, instant celebrities, and truly dangerous are far more likely to be in the news. It was nice to read that the vast majority of average Americans were still pleasant and helpful to a traveling stranger. I was also pleased to be repeatedly reminded of the many ways that our daily lives have immeasurably improved over the past five decades. It happens that I grew up in a small town on old Route 66 (which figures in both books) so I have personal knowledge of just how dangerous those highways were 50 years ago. Likewise, our medical technology, communications and self-educational opportunities, and personal comfort today are incomparably superior to that of the past.In comparing his experience with Steinbeck’s, perhaps we should recall that old saying, “Don’t go looking for trouble… for you will surely find it.” Most people, most days go through life in a responsive mode. If we approach them in a friendly and respectful manner, they will respond in kind. Perhaps Steigerwald’s book is like another more famous volume, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, in that the book also tells us a great deal about the writer. If he encountered many nice people, maybe it is because he expected them to be nice, and that he impressed them as being a nice guy himself. They were in sharp contrast with the many shallow, ungrammatical characters that Steinbeck wrote about in his book. Of the two journeys, Steigerwald probably met more interesting people and had more fun – even if he did not have the resources to indulge in high-end hotels and stay with rich friends along the route as Steinbeck did.I must mention the controversy that the book has apparently created. A significant part of Steigerwald’s book involves the responses from the Steinbeck establishment to his claims of “literary fraud”. What now seems incontrovertible was that John Steinbeck did wholly manufacture entire episodes and characters. I am willing to accept an explanation of “artistic license”; indeed, I have no problem with that. What I found more disturbing was the revelation that, rather than being a lonely, thoughtful old man taking a meandering, low-budget trip, Steinbeck was not roughing it at all. Steigerwald’s conclusion that he spent only about five nights in his entire journey actually sleeping in his camper greatly diminishes the aura of Steinbeck, the common man.
Yet, for all that, I take exception with Steigerwald’s implication that Charley was not a good book. I am now willing to accept that this is more a work of fiction than a travel book but it is still wonderful reading. I had forgotten just how good it is until I read it again. Okay, finding an itinerant Shakespearean actor/vagabond drifting across North Dakota strains credibility now that Steigerwald has brought it to my attention. But, honestly, I don’t care; in Steinbeck’s book, he was an articulate, warm character. If Steinbeck used these literary creations to make his point… well, that is what novelists do – and he did it rather skillfully, I thought. A big part of the writing challenge is in creating a picture that the reader finds believable. A great many contemporary authors are far, far less adroit with such literary devices than Steinbeck.
Reading Dogging Steinbeck was a pleasure, a modern journalist’s trip down Memory Lane… even if he did spend many nights sleeping in Wal-mart parking lots. I recommend that readers of this book do as I did, read Charley first for the pleasure of Steinbeck’s superlative narrative. Remembering the details of Steinbeck’s book will then prepare you for the comparable experiences and revelations in Bill Steigerwald’s book.