In the hot August of 2010, before global cooling began turning our summers into fall, I spent several days in the fabulous Morgan Library & Museum in downtown New York reading the original handwritten transcript of “Travels With Charley.”

My comparison of the manuscript with the published book — something no Steinbeck scholar bothered to do in 50 years — proved illuminating. Here, in this free excerpt of “Dogging Steinbeck,” is how I describe my visit to Mr. Morgan’s treasure house of art and artifacts:

 

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‘Discovering’ ‘Charley’s’ First Draft

My pre-trip research ended with a bang three weeks later in New York City when I did something no one in the world had done in four years. I went to the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan and read the first draft of “Travels With Charley in Search of America.”

The handwritten manuscript – along with a typed and edited copy – had been stored at the Morgan like a holy relic for almost half a century. Few scholars, graduate students and critics had bothered to study it. If they had, the “‘Travels With Charley’ Myth” might have been debunked decades ago. To be fair, the manuscript is not something anybody can just pop into the Morgan Library and paw over. John Pierpont Morgan’s gift to posterity holds one of the world’s greatest collections of art, books and music. Security is Pentagon-tight, inside and out. You’ve got to first establish that you are a legitimate researcher or writer and make an appointment. Once you make it past the security checkpoint, you’re escorted to the reading room. You have to wash your hands, use pencils only and handle research material like it’s sacred nitroglycerin. You can’t take photos or make photocopies because of copyright restrictions.

For three days in late summer I sat in the Morgan’s reading room like a monk. The “Charley” manuscript, kept there since Steinbeck donated it in 1962, is broken up into five or six handwritten chunks. Written entirely in his barely decipherable scribble, with hardly a word crossed out or changed, each page is filled from top-to-bottom and edge-to-edge. It’s mostly in pencil on carefully numbered yellow or white legal pads. Taking notes in longhand, I compared the first draft of what Steinbeck had given the working title “In Quest of America” with the copy of “Travels With Charley” stored on my smart-phone’s Kindle app. According to Declan Kiely, the Morgan’s curator of literary and historical manuscripts, fewer than six people had looked at the manuscript since 2000.  I was the first since 2006.

I learned important clues that helped me fill in some blank spots about Steinbeck’s actual trip. I also saw how much the manuscript had been edited. There were dozens of minor and major edits. The most important ones entirely removed his wife Elaine’s presence from the West Coast and stripped out 99 percent of his partisan political commentary. Given what I was learning, the most ironic edit deleted Steinbeck’s thoughts about what is really real and the writer’s struggle/duty to straighten out the “chaos” of reality and make it understandable and “reasonably real” for a reader. The most justifiable edit removed a paragraph of filth and racial hatred that would have given “Travels With Charley” an X-rating, outraged the public and crippled its sales.

The manuscript was the big smoking gun – the smoking artillery piece. Reading it was shocking and exhilarating. I couldn’t believe what I had found – or that it had been just sitting there in Manhattan for 50 years waiting to be discovered. It confirmed and reinforced my suspicions about the dubious veracity of much of “Travels With Charley.”

The first draft also explained the book’s persistent vagueness about time and place. It was not due solely to Steinbeck’s aversion to writing a travelogue or his lack of note taking. It was a result of wily editing by Viking’s editors, which hid the frequently luxurious and leisurely nature of Steinbeck’s road trip and made it seem like he spent most of his time alone.

After my last day of deciphering Steinbeck’s handwriting, I left the cool quiet of the Morgan Library and popped back onto the baked streets of Manhattan. It was 4:05. I set out for Penn Station to catch a train back to Secaucus, where my car was parked and ready to take me home. New York had so much pure city packed into a small space it was hard for someone from Pittsburgh to believe. I’d never want to live in NYC. It was 40 years too late for that adventure. But it was amazing to see the crazy energy and throbbing humanity of a real city at work and play. It was nothing like the open street markets and anarchic traffic of Lima or Guatemala City, the only teeming Third World madhouses I’d ever seen. But the sidewalks were thick with commerce and hurrying streams of people of every lifestyle and color.

Near the corner of Madison Avenue and East 33rd Street, two miles from the apartment Steinbeck died in, a prim matron with a plastic bag in one hand and a leash in the other waited for her toy poodle to take a dump at the base of a baby tree. On 34th Street a homeless man with a wild beard and dirty white shirt suddenly lunged out of the passing throng and rammed his bony shoulder hard into mine. It was no accident, it hurt, and it taught me a lesson to keep my eye out for trouble in the oncoming flow of humanity.

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Closing in on Madison Square Garden and its basement of train tracks, I began tail-gaiting a hotshot in a blue blazer with a cell phone to his ear as he weaved through the crowd. He was young but had gray hair and carried a man bag swelling with paperwork. I didn’t know it, but like me he was hustling to Penn Station’s Track 11 to catch the 4:32 to Secaucus. On the un-crowded train I deliberately sat across the aisle from the hotshot so I could eavesdrop on his end of the conversation, which he made no effort to suppress. “At two billion dollars,” he said, as if he were talking about the price of eggs, “we’re going to make 800 k. I’m OK with one basis point…. We’d still be above two billion. Do me a favor. Check my math and fire me an email.”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but it wasn’t how tough it was to make a living on Wall Street in the Great Recession. During my brief ride to Secaucus I scrawled what I had learned from reading the Steinbeck manuscript in my Professional Reporter’s Notebook: “Charley’s a fraud. Steinbeck himself provided the details of his trip – the real ones – and betrays ‘C’ for the fraud it is.” It was the first time I had used the f-word to describe his beloved travel book. It wouldn’t be the last.

After I wrote my book “Dogging Steinbeck,” and after I became an email pal of travel master Paul Theroux (after he cheered and plugged my findings of fiction in “Travels With Charley”), I read this 2009 piece Theroux wrote for the Smithsonian magazine about his one-way dash across the USA from LA to Cape Cod.

He touched only a few of the places I did along the Steinbeck Highway a year later — Route 66, Amarillo cattle country — but he drove alone and fast and describes a country I recognized from my travels.

Here are the final paragraphs summing up his car trip, which, while far better written than anything I could come up with, are frighteningly similar to what I concluded — that the USA was big, empty, beautiful, safe and friendly.

Theroux, from his article “Taking the Great American Roadtrip”:

In my life, I had sought out other parts of the world—Patagonia, Assam, the Yangtze; I had not realized that the dramatic desert I had imagined Patagonia to be was visible on my way from Sedona to Santa Fe, that the rolling hills of West Virginia were reminiscent of Assam and that my sight of the Mississippi recalled other great rivers. I’m glad I saw the rest of the world before I drove across America. I have traveled so often in other countries and am so accustomed to other landscapes, I sometimes felt on my trip that I was seeing America, coast to coast, with the eyes of a foreigner, feeling overwhelmed, humbled and grateful.

A trip abroad, any trip, ends like a movie—the curtain drops and then you’re home, shut off. But this was different from any trip I’d ever taken. In the 3,380 miles I’d driven, in all that wonder, there wasn’t a moment when I felt I didn’t belong; not a day when I didn’t rejoice in the knowledge that I was part of this beauty; not a moment of alienation or danger, no roadblocks, no sign of officialdom, never a second of feeling I was somewhere distant—but always the reassurance that I was home, where I belonged, in the most beautiful country I’d ever seen.

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/The-Long-Way-Home-USA.html#ixzz2bU1thRB0
Follow us: @SmithsonianMag on Twitter

I’ve just finished reading Phil Caputo’s travel book “The Longest Road” for a future review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and TwoAmericanRoadTrips.com, our web site that will debut soon.

Caputo, typically, had to make his token complaints against “sprawl.” He noted Miami’s “ghastly sprawl” and worried later — despite seeing the vast open spaces of middle America — that his grandchildren were going to inherit a country of sprawling metropolises with nothing in between.

Sprawl — urban or suburban — is one of America’s great evils, at least according to our elite writers and thinkers and worriers. Steinbeck whined about it way back in 1960, when he saw Seattle’s post-WWII growth spurt mowing down trees to build houses for suburban pioneers.

Sprawl is a mythical evil, a bogey man of American life probably invented by the New Yorker magazine that you’re not supposed to think about, just hate.

Here’s my sardonic definition of what sprawl really is, urban or suburban. It’ll be the first entry of my new Politically Incorrect Devil’s Dictionary:

“Sprawl: The unnecessary, cancerous growth of your city’s boundaries created by greedy people you don’t like who had the nerve to build their ugly new neighborhoods, roads and shopping districts on empty farmland after you did.”

The great Phil Caputo, author of “A Rumor of War” and other fine books, took a sweet 16,000-mile road trip in the fall of 2011 with his trophy wife, trophy dogs and trophy pickup truck with Airstream travel van.

The 80 Americans he met from Key West to Nome are the main attraction in “The Longest Road,” which is being reviewed and promoted everywhere and will be available July 16.

As I found out while trying to get a publisher for what became “Dogging Steinbeck,” road books are tough sells — unless you’re famous.

Maybe Caputo would like to join Ethan Casey and me this fall on our West Coast book-promoting tour, which we are calling Two American Road Trips and is further explained at our Facebook Page.

“The Longest Road,” as described on Amazon:

One of America’s most respected writers takes an epic journey across America, Airstream in tow, and asks everyday Americans what unites and divides a country as endlessly diverse as it is large.

Standing on a wind-scoured island off the Alaskan coast, Philip Caputo marveled that its Inupiat Eskimo schoolchildren pledge allegiance to the same flag as the children of Cuban immigrants in Key West, six thousand miles away. And a question began to take shape: How does the United States, peopled by every race on earth, remain united? Caputo resolved that one day he’d drive from the nation’s southernmost point to the northernmost point reachable by road, talking to everyday Americans about their lives and asking how they would answer his question.

So it was that in 2011, in an America more divided than in living memory, Caputo, his wife, and their two English setters made their way in a truck and classic trailer (hereafter known as “Fred” and “Ethel”) from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska, covering 16,000 miles. He spoke to everyone from a West Virginia couple saving souls to a Native American shaman and taco entrepreneur. What he found is a story that will entertain and inspire readers as much as it informs them about the state of today’s United States, the glue that holds us all together, and the conflicts that could cause us to pull apart.

Call it TART, for short, but don’t confuse Two American Road Trips with any stinking Big Government rescue scheme.

TART is the unofficial acronym of “Two authors, two road trips, two Americas,” a co-venture in travel book promoting and selling that’s being put together by me and my new pal Ethan Casey of Seattle.

Ethan — billed as a liberal and author of “Home Free” — and I — billed as a true-blue libertarian — are going to hit the highway this fall and appear together at libraries and indy bookstores from coast-to-coast.

We’ll each spew our versions of the America we saw from the front seats of our cars. Ethan out-drove me, wracking up 18,000 miles in the fall of 2012 to my puny 11,276.

So far we’re only officially booked into venues in Seattle and Mt. Lebanon, a Pittsburgh suburb.

But more dates are going to come, especially in the Bay Area and Monterey County, aka Steinbeck Country, during late October and early November.

Anyone finding this page knows the pain I’ve caused Steinbeck fans. But here’s a little blurb from the PR department about young Mr. Casey:

In the fall of 2012 Ethan Casey drove clockwise around America during the election season.

The result is “Home Free,” an entertaining and edifying work of personal reporting in the spirit of his previous travel narratives, “Alive and Well in Pakistan” (“Intelligent and compelling” – Mohsin Hamid) and “Bearing the Bruise: A Life Graced by Haiti” (“Heartfelt” – Paul Farmer).

“I’m now turning my attention to another society struggling through a time of confusion, economic and political distress and transition,” says Casey, who’s working hard to finish “Home Free” by fall. “America is susceptible to the same forces and trends as any other country.”

 

My debut solo speaking performance on behalf of my book “Dogging Steinbeck” occurred without a hitch or a lawsuit Wednesday night in the lovely Toledo suburb of Perrysburg.

Thanks to the promotional efforts of Richard Baranowski of the Way Library, I was written up nicely beforehand by Arielle Stambler and in a local paper by Baranowski. About 60 multi-diverse humans attended, all lovely, all eager to learn about how I discovered that “Travels With Charley” was a literary fraud.

No one threw anything or even booed. And 12 people forked over real money for my book.

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.