“Travels With Charley in Search of America” will celebrate its 50th birthday on July 27th.
John Steinbeck’s classic/iconic/beloved travel book was an instant best-seller and the newspaper and magazine critics of the day generally were kind to it in the late summer of 1962.
Most of them raved blindly. They all accepted it as the true account of Steinbeck’s road trip around the USA and none of them seemed to notice the book’s lineup of cardboard characters.
Time magazine broke from the slobbering mainstream pack, however, ripping Steinbeck in a two-paragraph review:
Here’s what Time wrote 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.”
The reading public in 1962 didn’t buy Time’s review. Steinbeck’s last major work stayed on best-seller lists for over a year and has been popular ever since.
Time’s quick hatchet job seemed unnecessarily harsh when I first read it. But given what I/we know now about how Steinbeck actually traveled and how little time he spent alone or spent studying the state of the changing country, it looks sharper than ever.
For half a century, Steinbeck’s last major work masqueraded as a nonfiction book. But as I innocently/accidentally learned in the fall of 2010 by hanging around in university libraries and driving down thousands of miles of two-lane highways, “Travels With Charley” is more fiction and fibs than fact.
I didn’t set out to ruin anyone’s reading fun by fact-checking Steinbeck’s book, and apparently I haven’t. My discovery of Steinbeck’s literary fraudulence, for all the mainstream media attention it got in the spring of 2011, hasn’t put much of a dent in “Travels With Charley’s” reputation as a true account of Steinbeck’s trip.
If the Google alerts I get are representative of “TWC” readers, most people still think they are reading an honest, factual account of a great writer’s famous road trip.
Most new readers love the book as much as those unquestioning critics of 1962. And when they find out “TWC” is mostly made up, they react pretty much the same way the Steinbeck scholars did when they learned after 50 years that the book was more fiction than nonfiction. They say “So what?”