I read just about every American travelogue and “Travels with Charley” was my first and favorite. I was a believer through the first couple of readings, but after decades of long road trips I began to be suspicious. Dogging Steinbeck confirmed my doubts. I never learned much during days spent just rocketing over highways except that this is a vast country sparsely populated with mostly kind, helpful people. The best conversations, comparable to the ones Steinbeck apparently enjoyed daily, generally occur only in hostels or while soaking nude in remote hot springs.
I believe Steinbeck did not set out to perpetrate a fraud. He could not have known that he couldn’t learn much in his mode of travel over just 11 weeks. Finding knowledge, adventure, and joy in a road trip takes skill and a propensity to dawdle.
Just as Steinbeck’s fraudulent account was not premeditated, Bill Steigerwald’s book was not motivated by the desire to unmask Steinbeck. No experienced road-tripper could miss the fictional aspects, especially armed with Steinbeck documents detailing the actual trip as was Steigerwald. One critical reviewer who obviously has not read Dogging Steinbeck called it a hatchet job. It is most certainly not. The author’s respect for both the truth and Steinbeck is obvious.
I wish John Steinbeck had been healthy and free enough to apply his wonderful literary skill to the kind of trip he needed to take to write the book that he initially envisioned. But if the book we got was the only one he could write, I forgive him. Because of Travels with Charley my life has been richer, happier, and, while travelling, I have attended Sunday services from cathedrals to adobe missions to inner-city converted store fronts. Still, Charley is the only fictionalized travelogue I will forgive. A travel book is only one perspective of one journey, and Steigerwald is right to insist that readers are owed a true account.
I felt that Steigerwald’s account of his trip and his research was as honest as he could make it. His political opinions do not detract from the book: although he did not make his book about himself, he did tell us who he is and that can only help readers to understand his perspective. I recommend this book to all who enjoy American road trip literature.
Brian Lamb, founding father of CSPAN, American hero and fellow journalist, has interviewed me.
Not that I can remember anything he asked me about my book “Dogging Steinbeck” or what I answered when we met in CSPAN’s beautiful DC studios three weeks ago.
My interview with the man I like to call “St. Brian” will be displayed for the whole world to see on Lamb’s Sunday night “Q&A” program on CSPAN March 3 at 8 and 11 p.m. ET.
I dread watching my “performance” almost as much as I dreaded doing the one-on-one interview. I’m a radio Steigerwald Brother, not a TV Steigerwald Brother, as should be obvious Sunday night. But my pain and dread were worth the thrill.
Brian Lamb and CSPAN and I go way back together — or at least I do.
I first spoke to him in 1980 not long after the cable channel was born and began providing American TV watchers with their first taste of real ideological diversity.
I called CSPAN from my apartment in Hollywood USA to ask a question of the guest, Ed Clark, the 1980 Libertarian Party presidential candidate. Clark couldn’t even buy some decent network TV-news time in those bad old oligopolistic days when the lefty liberals at CBS, ABC, NBC called the shots and set the national political agenda.
A year or two later I met Lamb for about two seconds at a party in L.A. thrown the L.A. Times’ cable TV reporter.
In 2004 I turned the tables on Lamb and interviewed him for my weekly Q&A at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. A year later, on New Year’s Eve, if I recall, I called him on the air during CSPAN’s 25th anniversary show.
Lamb, who’s known for his laconic interviewing style and kindly, unflappable demeanor, was one of the nicest celebrity guys I ever interviewed, and I’ve interviewed hundreds of famous/important people over the years.
Here’s how I set up my Q&A with Lamb, which occurred in December of 2004 and shed light on his motives for starting CSPAN and his deliberate effort to open up America’s cablewaves to more diverse and strident political voices:
God Bless, Brian Lamb
Talk about your fair-and-balanced TV.
Thanks to saintly cable pioneer Brian Lamb, C-SPAN has been providing the country with a serious, unbiased and unfiltered look at the widest possible spectrum of political ideas and information for 25 years.
Operating on a puny $45 million annual budget provided by the cable industry, the multimedia empire that Lamb founded and has carefully fathered covers government, the political process, party conventions, debates, seminars and author appearances across the country and now includes three C-SPAN cable-satellite channels, a C-SPAN radio channel and the Web site c-span.org.
After 15 years and reading 801 books, Lamb recently disappointed many faithful C-SPAN viewers by recently ending “Booknotes,” his popular hour-long Sunday program which featured his gentle, quirky interviews with top nonfiction writers. I talked to him from his offices in Washington, D.C.
Q: Any regrets yet about deciding to end “Booknotes”?
A: Sure. The regrets that you have are tied to the fact that so many people seemed to value the information. You hate to give something like that up, because it meant so much to enough people that it kept me going over the years. But, I’m 63, and I want to have some more free time to do exactly what I want to do. I was really tied to reading a book all the time, so from that perspective, no, I’m ready to change my habits.
Q: Why did you start C-SPAN?
A: It’s not what most people think it was. My interest in starting C-SPAN (in 1979) was that I thought that three commercial television networks controlling what we saw was unfortunate. I was angry about it, as a matter of fact. I kept saying to myself, “Why are we watching only three television networks? And the same newscast every night? And the same lead story and the same breaks for commercials?” When I first got in it, I said, “We need more information.” It was that simple. I didn’t feel strongly about covering the House of Representatives. That just turned out to be the vehicle with which we were able to start this place.
Q: What’s C-SPAN’s greatest value to the country?
A: There are several levels there. First, its greatest value, I think, is that you can see your elected officials spending your money. Secondly, officials can talk back to their constituents, which they never were able to do before. They had to talk back through the filter. And third, it’s a national conversation, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, about the big issues that confront the country. And it’s not controlled by entertainment values. It’s not controlled by the ratings you can get by talking about Scott Peterson ad infinitum. I find that story to be of no journalistic value, and we don’t have to worry about that. It’s an unusual place, and there’s no place like it. It was luck that got us there, because if you tried to start something like this today, you couldn’t.
Q: Do you consider yourself a journalist?
A: Absolutely. I’m a journalist first and foremost, and I believe strongly in the profession.
Q: How do you define your politics?
A: I don’t. I’ve never been a member of a party. I’ve worked for both Republicans and Democrats in the first nine years of my adult life as I was in the service and worked around this town for both Nixon and Johnson. The thing on my political side that I worry about the most and think about the most that needs the most correction is the way we spend our money. It’s not very accountable right now. We don’t know how our money is being spent.
In the job we do here at C-SPAN, I really don’t care who wins. We’ve set it up so we stay out of the contest. We don’t support anybody internally. We talk all the time about politics, but we don’t give anybody any impression as to how we are voting. It works very well for us. The attitude that we have inside here — that I find often is not present in some of the other organizations that I have been around over the years — is that we never have any interest in excluding a point of view. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, we don’t want to hear that point of view, that doesn’t need to be heard.” That’s what our whole mission is about here at C-SPAN. We put on everybody. We go from the socialists to the libertarians. From the Ralph Naders to the Green Party to the Christian right and communist left. It’s all over the lot. It doesn’t matter what it is. We just don’t ever say, “Oh, we don’t think our audience ought to hear that.”
Q: At your National Press Club talk the other night you said you thought the American people really sought more “choice and freedom” in their lives. Is there a secret Brian Lamb who is really politically opinionated?
A: Yes. I have strong opinions about openness. I’m a small “d” democrat. I basically said it at that press club speech that I feel very strongly in the First Amendment and that it’s absolute and it’s the only thing that really keeps us free, because I’ve watched politicians hoard information and control information, and control our access to information. It’s the only chance we have of being different than other places. There are democracies all over the world. Lots of countries have democracies. There are very few that have the strong First Amendment that we have. I guess I feel so strongly that people who don’t understand the First Amendment or the value of it would miss it if their side or their ox is being gored.
Q: Is C-SPAN an organization that can live on without you?
A: I can walk out of the door today, and you’ll never notice the difference. People who follow the details of networks like ours think that I matter. But most of the people in this country don’t know who I am, don’t care who I am, and do not watch C-SPAN for me. They watch it for the events.
Q: What have you learned about the American people by creating and working on C-SPAN all these years?
A: Well, I guess, first of all, I’ve learned that some of the people in the body politic — it’s probably 10 percent of the country — are very aware of what is going on and are very smart about politics and can ask as good a question as anybody in our profession.
Secondly, I’ve learned — and I suppose I should have known this — that the politician loves to control what we hear and see, loves to control his own image, which is human nature. But I didn’t realize to what degree they would go to do that.
Third, people in this country, more than anything else, want choice. They want choice in soaps and they want choice in television, and they’re going to get what they want eventually. That’s really what’s been going on for the last 30 years — in television the public has demanded more and more. And finally, after being protected for many, many years by the government, the television industry has had to offer choice. And that’s the best thing that’s happened.
I don’t get too many emails about my expose of Steinbeck and my debunking of “Travels With Charley,” but most of them are pretty smart and supportive.
Then I get really silly/dumb emails like this one:
“You sad, sad man. Why couldn’t you leave it alone AND us with our reading pleasure ? What’s next, the REAL invasion of Poland or the TRUE story of the Omaha Beach landing? It’s history and doesn’t need the bones laid bare.”
I hope this is from a 12-year-old, but if not, here’s my annoyed response.
“Perhaps you don’t mind if famous writers make up books and pass them off as true accounts; perhaps you don’t think there’s anything wrong about a major publisher, Viking Press, making tens of millions of dollars selling a book under false pretenses; perhaps you would rather remain ignorant of the truth about “Charley” so that you can continue to believe your romantic notions about a book that is not only full of fictions and lies but is not a very good book; I’m a journalist who set out on a mission to faithfully retrace Steinbeck’s route but quickly learned that his book was mostly fiction and a lot of carefully crafted lies. There’s nothing sad about what I did or who I am. In the real world, this is what honest journalists do — follow the facts as they find them/see them and report the results honestly. If you can’t take the truth on this silly book like a man/woman, what do you do when you find out the truth about things that matter. Unless you’re about 12, I’d say it’s time to grow up.”
I have an obvious interest in reading what Amazon’s readers have thought of “Blue Highways” and “Travels With Charley.”
Most people liked “Blue Highways.” I thought it was pretty good — much better than “Charley” — though the first time I picked it up 20 years ago I couldn’t get through more than 30 pages.
After I forced myself to read “BH” in 2010 as prep for my road trip, however, I changed my tune.
William Least Heat-Moon, who is really English prof William Trogdon and is only about 1/16th more Indian than I am, is a fine writer and good journalist with superior descriptive abilities and the ability to meet regular people and capture their charms.
Trogdon, naturally, given his profession, carried the usual East Coast left-liberal baggage with him on his late 1970s road trip — America was too commercialized, homogenized, franchised, etc., etc. If his book wasn’t excerpted in the New Yorker, it should have been.
Overall, I’d give “Blue Highways” four stars on Amazon’s rating scale. But my favorite review is this great hatchet job from 2000 by “A Customer”:
12 of 74 people found the following review helpfulBy A CustomerThis review is from: Blue Highways: A Journey into America (Paperback)
(Make that star rating up there NEGATIVE 5 stars) I can’t believe I’m actually taking the time to write this for such an awful book, but I read all of the other reviews here and I can’t understand why everyone thinks this book is so incredible. I thought it was the most uninteresting, torturous book I have ever read. If this book is any indication of what Heat-Moon’s personality and his English classes were like, I understand why he was laid off (and why his wife cheated on him!). 400-something pages of grueling, thick, unconnected text ruined my entire summer and destroyed any previous desire that I might have had to travel cross-country. I would not recommend this book to anyone; I think it should be destroyed.
I hope “A Customer” has died by now so he doesn’t get a chance to take his axe to “Dogging Steinbeck.”
Getting emails from smart, satisfied but critical readers of “Dogging Steinbeck” — whether it’s travel master Paul Theroux or an Everyreader — is gratifying.
This one, from a Missouri man who’s teaching English somewhere in the vastness of China, is one of the best-written pieces of correspondence I’ve received in my journalism career — and I’ve gotten probably a thousand of them. I’ve deleted his last name at his request.
Dear Mr. Steigerwald,
My name is Randy and I am writing concerning your book, Dogging Steinbeck. I will begin by telling you that I enjoyed it very much and admire you for your effort and your reporting. Your book came to my attention as I was browsing and downloading books for my Kindle.
Although I had not read “Travels With Charley” for many years, I remembered enjoying it as a kid — I am now 63 years old — and was intrigued by your concept. I hope you don’t mind if I raise three points which came to mind after reading your book.
Perhaps it would be relevant to tell you at this point that, since 2004, I have been living in China, working as an English teacher in a strange combination of semi-retirement and self-exile. However, most of my life was spent in a much more conventional setting of a small town in central Missouri.
Now, except for brief trips each summer back to visit my parents in Missouri, all of my knowledge of current events and trends in America comes via the Internet — principally from Yahoo news when I go online to check email. That leads to my first point…
One of the great pleasures in reading your book is that you found so many friendly and interesting people in your travels. Certainly the mass media does not spend much time talking about nice people; the weirdos, extremists, instant celebrities, and truly dangerous are far more likely to be in the news that I see. It was nice to be told that the vast majority of average Americans were still pleasant and helpful to a traveling stranger.
I was also very pleased to be repeatedly reminded by you of the many ways that our daily lives have vastly improved over the past five decades. It happens that my small town in Missouri is on old Route 66 so I have personal knowledge of just how dangerous those highways were 50 years ago. Likewise, our medical technology, self-educational opportunities, and personal comfort today are incomparably superior to that of our youth.
Do you recall that old saying, “Don’t go looking for trouble… for you will surely find it.”? It seems to me that 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. (If, on the other hand, you act like a jerk, you will quickly encounter obstacles and reciprocation.)
Perhaps your 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 you encountered many nice people, maybe it is because you expected them to be nice and that you impressed them as being a nice guy yourself.
Still, compared to the shallow, ungrammatical characters that Steinbeck wrote about in his book, you probably met more interesting people and had more fun — not counting his lavish expenditures at high-end hotels and with his wife’s rich Texas friends.
The second point I would like to mention is about the controversy that your book has apparently created. I have to say “apparently” because I was not aware of this literary turmoil until I read your book.
Frankly, I am not a huge Steinbeck aficionado. In my younger years, I read several of his books and enjoyed them but I have not thought of them (or him) for many years. Therefore, before I read your book, I also downloaded the original “Charley” at the same time and read it again — for probably the first time in 40 years.
Immediately after I finished it, I began your book. It was interesting to me to read about how the Steinbeck establishment went into damage control mode and, indeed, even attacked your credibility, truthfulness, and motives. What now seems incontrovertible was that 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 your revelation that, rather than being a lonely, thoughtful old man taking a meandering, low-budget trip, Steinbeck was not roughing it at all. Your 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.
My third point is that I wish to take exception with your conclusion that “Charley” was not a good book. I am willing to grant you that this is more a work of fiction than a travel book but I still maintain that it is wonderful reading. I had forgotten just how good it is until I read it again last week.
Okay, finding an itinerant Shakespearean actor/vagabond drifting across North Dakota strains credibility now that you have brought it to my attention. But, honestly, I don’t care; 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 understandable. In browsing through many of the books available to download on my Kindle, a great many authors are far, far less adroit with such literary devices than Steinbeck.
In conclusion, if you somehow managed to tarnish the reputation of this American icon, to show his literary feet of clay and expose his wealthy lifestyle and attitudes, so be it.
I have a great many concerns about our society, many of which you addressed in your book. However, one of the brightest aspects of our current and near-future condition as a nation is the transparency made possible by our new technology in all of its forms — Internet searches, viral news (even if mostly fluff), and self-publishing, among others.
If our business and political leaders begin to realize that their “good ol’ boy” network is being carefully scrutinized — even, as in this case, 50 years later — they may curtail some of the more outrageous behaviors and deceptions.
In closing, I send you best wishes from China for your continued literary success. I hope it is a commercially successful future also.
Seems John Steinbeck wasn’t alone when it came to inventing facts for a “nonfiction” book.
Truman Capote, the father of the nonfiction novel, apparently did a lot more fact-fudging and truth-twisting “In Cold Blood” (1966) than he ever admitted and most people thought.
The Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Helliker has the sordid details in “Capote Classic ‘In Cold Blood’ Tainted by Long-Lost Files.”
Capote’s fictional tricks and lies in “In Cold Blood” were not as thoroughly misleading as Steinbeck’s literary fraudulence in “Travels With Charley,” which I detail in “Dogging Steinbeck.”
But Capote gives me further ammo in my crusade for a new genre — True Nonfiction.
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
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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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