Posts by: "Bill Steigerwald"

On Sept. 29, 1960, John Steinbeck slept in camper under a bridge in the rain somewhere along Maine’s Route 11, which probably has more moose living along it than people.

We know Steinbeck actually did sleep in his truck that night, because he told his wife Elaine he did in a letter to her from the road the next night.

Steinbeck’s lonely night may have been the only time on his 75 day trip he slept in his camper in the middle of nowhere. Most of the time he was in a motel or shacked up with his wife in a fancy hotel, resort or family vacation home.

Three falls ago, exactly 50 years after John Steinbeck took his “Travels With Charley” trip, I chased Steinbeck’s ghost around the USA.

Here’s an excerpt from my book that recounts what I did when he drove down motel-less Route 11 — and where I had to sleep.

 

Destination Milo

The Aroostook County line finally appeared, but Route 11 refused to end. I watched a protracted sunset from a hilltop and small-talked to two overly serious photographers from Montreal who had set up their tripods in the tall grass to capture the glorious panorama.

The middle of Maine feels even emptier when the sun is gone. It was dark when I pulled into Millinocket, the lumber mill town where the Pelletier family of “American Loggers” fame lived. After a surprisingly good spinach salad and a beer at Pelletier’s crowded family restaurant/bar, I drove into the black night for the next major town, Milo. In the dark I covered a distance of 39 miles to Milo, but the road I traveled could have been a high-speed treadmill in a tunnel. As far I could tell, except for Brownville Junction, it was deep forest all the way. I took photos of the twisting road ahead as I chased its white lines at 60 mph, straddling the centerline through a narrow channel of trees.

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A few mailboxes flashed by, a house with no lights, maybe a river. My Sirius XM radio, cranked up extra-loud with jazz, cut in and out because of the terrain or overhanging trees, I didn’t know which. I met my third car after 17 miles. In 45 minutes I counted 12. Steinbeck, who slept overnight in his camper shell by a bridge somewhere along Route 11, traveled the same lonely desolate way, but probably in daylight, when the local moose population would have been awake. Maine has 30,000 moose but I didn’t run into one.

I passed through downtown Milo, a town of 2,400 in the dead center of Maine. Once a thriving railroad repair facility for all of New England, Milo earned its Wiki-immortality in 1923 when 75 members of the Ku Klux Klan sullied the town’s Labor Day parade by holding its first daylight march in the United States. South of town I stopped for gas at the C&J Variety store. A true variety store, it carried booze, paperback books, pizza, live bait and Milo hoodies. Out front it even had a public pay phone, something Steinbeck would have appreciated if C&J Variety hadn’t been a Studebaker dealership or whatever it was in 1960.

“Did you ever hear of John Steinbeck?” I asked the 20-something girl behind the counter when she came outside for a smoke.

“I don’t think he lives around here,” she said.

Too tired to laugh, I held my smart-ass tongue. I provided her with some context.

“He’s the author of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ and ‘Of Mice and Men.’ Did you ever have to read them in high school?”

Her face brightened. “Now that you say it, I’ve heard the name. I thought you were asking me if he lived around here.” She wasn’t the last person, young and old, who would not recognize John Steinbeck’s name until I also mentioned his two most famous books, which most high school kids in America still read – or at least are still assigned.

I’ll never know how close I was to a motel when I gave up. I drove another 70 or 80 miles south of Milo, trusting my GPS Person to figure out the best way to get from endless state Route 11 to U.S. Highway 2. My notebook from that night faded into scribbles and went blank. “Dover has a McDonald’s …. Guilford, no business district….” For an hour I looked for a decent turnout or rest stop. On a long grade on U.S. Route 2, somewhere east of Farmington, Maine, I flew past a poorly lighted used car dealership sitting by itself. I hit the brakes hard, backed onto the grassy lot and parked at the end of a row of vehicles. With the nose of my RAV4 pointed at the road, I locked myself in, cracked my sunroof, installed my blackout curtains and instantly fell asleep.

Impersonating a used car worked flawlessly. Even with its cargo carrier, my RAV4 blended in with the 30 or 40 other vehicles parked on the lot. Trucks and cars and the local law hurrying by in the night took no notice. Here is an extremely over-exposed photo I took of my car in the used car lot.

 

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Up at 4:50, by 5:15 I was in the Farmington McDonald’s sipping coffee, reading my email, writing a blog item and eavesdropping on four Republican geezers saying kind things about Sarah Palin that would offend and frighten most of my ex-colleagues in journalism.

It was there that I discovered two reliable things about McDonald’s that benefitted me for the next 10,000 miles: You can count on every McDonald’s to have strong, free Wi-Fi that you can use for as long as you want any time of day. And you can count on finding a local gang of 4 to 6 wise old guys in bad hats who will be thrilled to answer a stranger’s questions about what their world was like in 1960.

 

Seymour Hersh is an honest lefty, a nonpartisan journalist who’s just as willing to give Obama and the Democrats the trouble they deserve as the Bushes and Republicans.

The Guardian interview with Hersh, “Seymour Hersh on Obama, NSA and the ‘pathetic’ American media,” is tough on journalists at the NY Times and the Post for being ball-less, lazy and partisanly selective in their investigations.

Among the commentators was someone from another planet who said he worked at the Post pre-Watergate.

The commentator said:

 

Having worked at the Wash Post 40+ years ago, I can say the change in the basic nature of journalists has been dramatic. Today most journalists lack significant life experience, few have served in the military which they still mis report because they don’t know how to challenge it. Woodward and Bernstein led to journalists wanting to have star power, get invited to the best Georgetown dinner parties and be best buddies with the political heavyweights, people you don’t want to piss off. This post-Woodward and Bernstein class of journalists, conservative, flag waving, people who stick to the government line that is fed like pablum have become the editors Hersch decries. The post 9/11 rally-round the flag mentality has invaded newsrooms across America. Serious readers must rely on papers like the Guardian to bring us the unvarnished truth.

 

I said:
Sorry. After my 35 years of journalism, hearing that post-Watergate journalists are “conservative and flag-waving” is laughable; they stick to the government line, it’s true, because most of the editors and reporters I worked with or for at three big-city papers were liberal, big-government poorly closeted partisan Democrats. They loved government, hated business, didn’t understand economics, loved regulation, high taxes, government coercion, public transit, public schools, public anything … They didn’t/don’t understand that government regulation invariably benefits established businesses and hurts upstarts …. I could go on and on…. The only time journalists challenged the government — state, federal or local — was when it was a Republican administration or idea or program. Bush War Bad. Obama War Good. Both are bad; both parties are interchangeable threats to what’s left of the freedom of Americans they’ve both been destroying for 100 years. If more reporters were like Hersh and did their jobs honestly and without a partisan or ideological bias, we wouldn’t have the welfare/security/warfare state we have now.

Just when I start to think everyone who reads and writes has finally gotten the word that “Travels With Charley” is not nonfiction but fiction, I stumble upon something like “Books Professors Made Me Read: Travels with Charley” on TheBigSlice.org web site.

Tragically, its author, Angelo Pizzullo, wrote an essay about how John Steinbeck’s great travel book captured the reality of 1960 America and its denizens — most of whom, of course, Steinbeck actually made up.

Here’s the last paragraph of Pizzullo’s piece:

From a historical perspective, Travels with Charley is an artistic recital of a first-hand perspective into America at the dawn of a decade rife with radical social change.  Social historians, who look at life of everyday people from a particular era, can find a valuable source in the conversations and create a well-defined understanding of what makes Americans, well, American.  Casual readers will enjoy the masterful wordsmith that was John Steinbeck.  His style was a simplistic complexity; a down-to-Earth approach that reflected sophisticated intelligence mixed with the social conscience of a writer who was quite comfortable in jeans, flannel, and an old British sailor’s cap.

 

Ever helpful, ever vigilant, I wrote this comment:

A nice piece. But please. Nearly everything you think you know about Steinbeck’s book, what you think he saw on his trip, who you think he met and what you think he thought or taught us about 1960 America is wrong. You tragically assume that “Charley” is a work of nonfiction and that it is an accurate and honest account of Steinbeck’s trip, where he went, who he met, etc. It isn’t. It’s mostly fiction. He never met 90 percent of those Americans he talked to in his book — certainly not on his road trip. Please read — or at least check out — the synopsis and opening chapters of my book “Dogging Steinbeck” on Amazon.com to find out the cruel truth about the depths of Steinbeck’s fabrication. You might not like my tone or my libertarian politics. But I bet you’ll want to edit your essay.

Since 2000 Pittsburgh’s downtown population reportedly has quadrupled to about 10,000. How all those people could be living in subsidized (tax-reduced) penthouses, lofts and studio apartments at places like the old Otto Milk plant in the Strip or the former Lazarus store downtown is a mystery.  I did not advocate government subsidies as a way to pump up Pittsburgh’s plummeting population, which as of this morning is about 306,000. But apparently lots of old farts — empty-nesters, mainly — read my cutting-edge satire in the Pittsburgh Trib in January of 2003 and called the moving man.

 

Wrinkle City North

 

Sunday, January 5, 2003

Before I reveal my modest proposal for reversing Pittsburgh’s long economic decline, I have an important news flash for our region’s professional boosters and movers and shakers:

YOUNG PEOPLE ARE NOT

COMING TO PITTSBURGH. EVER.

And short of erecting a Pittsburgh Wall around the city where a six-lane beltway should be, there’s nothing you or anyone else can do to keep the youth of the city’s neighborhoods or suburbs from seeking their fortunes in more dynamic area codes.

It doesn’t matter how many quarter-billion-dollar sports playpens or Downtown entertainment complexes you guys build. Or how many new bike trails or boat docks or outdoor skating rinks you create on the riverbanks and at lonely Point State Park.

And you PUMP punks can stop asking for any more of those pathetic $1 million marketing campaigns to sell Pittsburgh to young people. No matter how many more laughably clueless PR execs and ad firms the region’s economic development agencies hire to find the city’s “brand essence,” the young and unwrinkled of America will never believe Pittsburgh is the hippest/trendiest region this side of Austin.

By the way, why is Pittsburgh’s 50-year exodus of youth automatically a civic tragedy? What’s so great about young people anyway? Most are poor as dirt and live with their parents or rent apartments in packs. All they do is blow their paltry service-sector wages on CDs and pizza. They drive too fast. They drink too much. They commit most of the violent and nonviolent crimes. They spit. And they don’t read newspapers.

So give up that tired Chamber of Commerce ghost. Let’s let our young people go. What Pittsburgh really needs if it is to grow and prosper in the 21st century is lots more of what we supposedly have too much of already – old people.

 CALLING ALL OLDSTERS

Seniors. Fogies. Geezers. Old-timers. Coots. Seasoned citizens. Retirees. The aged. AARP-heads. Call them what you want, Old people are Pittsburgh’s best hope for a better, prosperous, rust-proof future. We just need to figure out how to get half a million more of them to immigrant here.

That will take a sharp, honest national marketing campaign, a real challenge for Pittsburgh’s ruling booster class. But we could realistically promote Pittsburgh as the perfect retirement place for “The Greatest Demographic” — the oncoming waves of aging baby boomers who already are scouting for places other than Florida to move to and die in peace and quiet.

We can’t do anything about our winter weather, except pray for cheap natural gas prices and more global warming. But thanks to a cruel combination of unstoppable global and national economic forces and a century of high local taxes, public mismanagement and broken big-city politics, Pittsburgh today is made to order for old people.

Since 1950, the city’s fiscally challenged policy czars have brilliantly, albeit unwittingly, done their best to make room for 500,000 new old people to live within its borders.

The city’s population – once a thick, industrious stew approaching 700,000 – is now a thin gruel of 340,000 and still evaporating. Downtown sidewalks are empty of bustling shoppers and dangerous/scary street vendors. The city’s park benches are virtually unused. And there are so many pigeons to feed.

Our leaders’ failings have made the erstwhile Smoky City a kinder, gentler place for old people. Along with driving off most of that annoying 18-to-35 mob — which, by the way, no longer is the darling demographic of national advertisers — our leaders have cleansed the region of the noise and dirt of industry that would rattle and offend fragile seniors.

It’s true, local wage and school taxes are hyper-high. But that’s no problem if you want to attract old people. Old people don’t work, so they don’t earn or spend wage income. They spend stock dividends, 401(k) dollars and Social Security money. Old people don’t particularly care if the city schools are failing, either, because their kids are grown and gone.

Pittsburgh’s private sector also has been unconsciously preparing the region for a tsunami of elderly immigrants. A solid old-people infrastructure already is in place; it’s no coincidence the National Senior Games Association chose Pittsburgh from among 19 contenders to be host city of the 2005 Senior Olympics.

We have all the senior centers, reasonably priced family restaurants, enclosed malls, bingo parlors and golf courses we need. Oldies have been Pittsburgh’s most popular soundtrack for decades and WQED is the flagship of PBS’ Doo-Wop renaissance. We have all the health-care facilities, nursing homes, hospices and cemeteries ready. We have gorgeous empty churches and multiethnic funeral homes in every neighborhood. All we need are a few score miles of wheelchair trails.

Plus, the institutions that only old people really support anymore – the shrinking and fiscally bleeding symphonies, museums, operas, ballets, art galleries, libraries, lecture series, VFW halls, ethnic clubs, etc. – are desperate to reverse their subscribers’ high mortality rates. Imagine how a mass migration of hundreds of thousands of retirees will resurrect and sustain them.

 BEFORE THE SALE

But before we put out the official invite to the world, there are a few minor things our civic leaders need to do to really sell America’s old people on the joys of dying in Pittsburgh:

· Our political leaders should seize control of the city schools and begin cutting budgets by 50 percent each year while simultaneously raising real estate taxes on single family homes. In no time, no family with a kid will be left within city borders and the suburbs will be alive with children again.

·  The city should use eminent domain power to begin the process of making Pittsburgh America’s most elderly-accessible city. Abandoned Downtown corporate headquarters towers – especially the Gulf, Koppers and Alcoa buildings – should be stripped of their commercial tenants (mostly lawyers and government bureaucrats) and converted into affordable condos and apartments.

·  The city, in cahoots with Gov.-elect Ed Rendell, should speed up their plans to legalize gambling and finalize all the option deals with Harrah’s and every other gaming industry interest-in-waiting. This will keep the city’s existing old people population from busing to Atlantic City and Niagara Falls on weekends.

·  The city should scotch its not-so-secret plans to gentrify Oakland. Instead, assuming the U.S. Supreme Court will not rule “age apartheid” unconstitutional, Pittsburgh officials should use target zoning to maintain Oakland as a urban youth preserve for college students and the minimum-wage work force old people need for reliable pizza and pill delivery.

·  Lastly, before the current regime resigns and turns the city over to Sophie Masloff, it can ensure its legacy by officially renaming it — i.e., branding it — “Wrinkle City North.” Don’t forget the trademark.

OH, THE POSSIBILITIES

Economically, there’s no reason Pittsburgh could not thrive by serving the future specialized needs of America’s old people. With the right guidance and planning from our crack regional economic redevelopment experts, our industrial remnant could be retooled to make elevators, wheelchairs, iron railings and artificial hips. Our bio-medical labs could mass-manufacture body parts. We could become the gateway to the fall leaf tour industry, a sector sure to grow as the national population continues to age.

We lost our best chance for resurrecting Pittsburgh through orthodox means in the early 1990s, when we didn’t invite the entire colony of Hong Kong to move here (with their fat savings accounts) when the Chi-coms took them over.

But that’s so much spilt milk. Pittsburghers have a new chance to guarantee their own future growth and prosperity – from the bottoms up — if we dare.

If we all pitch in, we can make it happen. Encourage your kids to declare their independence and leave town at 18. Let them sow their wild oats, get their MBAs, pay off their $1.5 million townhouses, raise their kids, fatten their 401(k)s and strain the over-taxed infrastructure in some boomtown in the Sun Belt.

Then, when they are older and richer and childless again, do everything you can to get your late-50-somethings to move back to Wrinkle City North, where old people come when they’re ready to die in peace and quiet.

 

 

After 100 years we know Hollywood can’t be trusted with reality. Whatever real or true story screenwriters like Oliver Stone (the imaginative “JFK”) or Danny Strong (the hilariously phony and  awkwardly titled “Lee Michaels’ the Butler”) tell, it’s invariably awful. From “Tortilla Flat” to multiple versions of “Of Mice and Men,” John Steinbeck’s fictional works have supplied the empty idea shops of Hollywood with dramatic fodder for …  78 years!!!!! Steven Spielberg apparently is going through with his threat to remake/ruin “The Grapes of Wrath” in time for the book’s 75th birthday next year. But so far no one in Tinseltown has turned “Travels With Charley” into a road movie. In this excerpt from my boffo literary expose “Dogging Steinbeck,”  I show that Hollywood’s disinterest in dramatizing Steinbeck’s book is a good thing.

‘Charley’ Doesn’t Go Hollywood, Thank God

Despite its flaws, “Travels With Charley’s” romantic version of searching for America by car has never fallen from the culture’s consciousness. Along with Kerouac’s “On the Road” – its hipper, edgier, happier and openly fictional older brother – it has become a classic American road book. It gave Charles Kuralt his idea for his popular “On the Road” segments for “The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.” But so far, despite a lot of interest, it’s never been turned into a dumb sitcom or bad movie.

Not that Hollywood hasn’t tried. In 1963 no less than Sam Peckinpah wrote an unintentionally hilarious TV script for Warner Brothers’ television division dramatizing “Travels With Charley.” Not surprisingly, it included Steinbeck having two knockdown fistfights. Too horrible even for network TV’s standards, it was never made.

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In the early 1990s, Kevin Costner’s production company had an option on “Travels With Charley” with plans to shoot an eight-part miniseries. It died a deserved death. Knowing Hollywood, it wasn’t because Costner’s project was an incredibly stupid idea. It was probably because they couldn’t get Sam Peckinpah to direct.

Finally, somewhere in a file cabinet at HBO sits a less-tortured screenplay of “Travels With Charley.” Written in the early 2000s by Steinbeck’s son Thom, it’s not likely to include any fistfights but it apparently was written as if the book was true.

Unfortunately, in 1968, shortly before John Steinbeck died, “Travels With Charley” did travel to TV Land. Producer Lee Mendelson of “Peanuts” fame turned it into an hour-long “documentary” for NBC. Narrated by Steinbeck’s buddy Hank Fonda, who played an unseen but amply quoted Steinbeck, it was watched by tens of millions of Americans who didn’t want to watch what was on CBS or ABC that night.

An early example of the “docudrama” genre at its worst, it was presented by Mendelson as the true story of Steinbeck’s lonely journey. Skipping the southern leg of Steinbeck’s trip, Mendelson sent out a Rocinante-lookalike to retrace the “Charley” route from Sag Harbor to the top of Fremont Peak.

The dumbest mistake Mendelson made was hiring 15 actors to look into the camera and pretend to be the characters Steinbeck pretended he had met on his trip. Many of the performances are painful, but arguably the worst fictional character was our friend the mythical itinerant Shakespearean actor of Alice, North Dakota.

To heap hokum on top of hokum, Mendelson threw in a few silly cartoon segments and a hideous Rod McCuen song, “Me & Charley,” which was sung over and over by Glen Yarbrough whenever Charley streaked across the grassy fields of America. Mendelson paid $1,000 to rent a stand-in for the dead poodle, who, in a rare and merciful concession to reality, wasn’t made to talk.

The show’s last stop was high atop Fremont Peak, where Fonda delivered Steinbeck’s great lines from the book as the camera swept up the spectacular view. The program ended with Fonda standing next to Rocinante, as Charley sat in the cab. Fonda explains that Steinbeck’s trip didn’t end on Fremont Peak, but continued on through the South where he saw the agony of school integration in New Orleans and talked with Negroes and whites about the violent changes that were occurring.

After Fonda mistakenly says the 11-week trip was “over four months long,” he asks what it was that Steinbeck had learned about America. In a tight close-up, the man who played Tom Joad in the movie of “The Grapes of Wrath” reads two spliced-together passages from “Travels With Charley”:

It would be pleasant to be able to say of my travels with Charley, “I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.” And then it would be such a simple matter to set down my findings and lean back comfortably with a fine sense of having discovered truths and taught them to my readers. I wish it were that easy …. What I have set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style.

Fonda then looks into the camera and says, “John Steinbeck saw it one way. Charley saw it another way. And now it’s your turn if you so choose to pass that way and rearrange the world as you see it. Goodnight.” Millions of viewers had no reason to doubt that they had just watched the true story of Steinbeck’s journey, which, if Mendelson and NBC were to be believed, was a lonely “four-month” ride around America with a dog in a truck.

Shortly before Steinbeck’s death in late 1968, Mendelson screened his awful rendition of “Travels With Charley” for Steinbeck and Elaine in New York City. “Steinbeck was crying when the lights came on,” Mendelson remembered in a 2003 interview. “I didn’t know if he was crying because he hated it, but he turned to me and said, ‘That’s just the way the trip was.’” Poor Steinbeck. He was probably crying from guilt.

 

 

In the spring, as part of my never-ending saturation PR bombardment to get the MSM — and even NPR — to pay a little respect/attention to my Pulitzer Prize not-winning literary expose “Dogging Steinbeck,” I sent a pathetic plea to the producers of the always clever but mostly lefty-liberal radio hour, “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”

I’ve since sent moderator Peter Sagal, who looks like he could be my younger balder brother, several equally pathetic emails trying to get me and my road-tripping pal and fellow author Ethan Casey on the show. Peter Sagal seems like a nice guy on my kitchen radio, but apparently he is incapable of responding to emails that come his way, no matter how pathetic.

Here’s the original email I sent to WWDTM to alert them that I was going to be appearing on C-SPAN with everyone’s hero, including mine, Brian Lamb.

 

 

Hello WWDTM producers —

Sainted CSPAN Founder Brian Lamb liked “Dogging Steinbeck” so much he booked me for his Sunday, March 3, 8 p.m. “Q&A” program.

My fellow libertarian Nick Gillespie of Reason mag loved it and called my 11,276-mile, coast-to-coast celebration of America “Whitmanesque,” which I think was a compliment.

Supreme Travel Master Paul Theroux liked it almost as much as my 95-year-old mom.

PJ O’Rourke has a paperback copy of it at his N.H. redoubt and he knows who I am.

The Weekly Standard glowingly reviewed it.

The New York Times editorial page and NPR’s “On the Media” endorsed my findings that Steinbeck had pretty much lied his butt off in “Travels With Charley,” which for 50 years was sold, marketed, reviewed and taught to be the nonfiction, true, accurate and honest account of what he did on his iconic road trip in 1960, who he met and what he really thought about America and its people.

It wasn’t nonfiction. Not even close.

To put it in academic terms, Steinbeck’s last major work was a big crock of fiction and lies — and Penguin Group admitted the fiction part last fall by having Jay Parini insert a disclaimer into the introduction to the latest edition of “Charley” that says the book is so fictionalized and dramatized that it should not be taken literally.

I’m a little sorry I came along and spoiled everyone’s fun. But Steinbeck’s beloved book — 1.5 million sales, nonfiction best-sellerdom in 1962 — is, as I bluntly say, “a literary fraud.” Don’t tell Oprah, but it’s in the same fact-fudging league as “Three Cups of Tea,” “A Million Little Pieces” and Mr. Capote’s increasingly besmirched “In Cold Blood.”

“Dogging Steinbeck” is an Amazon ebook and the listing there contains everything you need to see that I’m a real journalist who retraced Steinbeck’s original route around the USA, slept in my car 20 nights (10 Walmart lots, a pier, a beach, a riverbank, a used car lot ), lucked into a 50-year-old scoop and ticked off the Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex — a synopsis, blurbs and sample chapters. I’m beginning to think I should be a movie.

Below is the adult press release I’ve written (this is a DYI book of quality drive-by journalism — from idea to reporting and writing and editing and photographing to email pitches and distributing paperback copies of my book to local bookstores in Pittsburgh, where my aging TV sportscaster brothers and I operated a powerful family multimedia dynasty.

Thank you for your time. I’m better on radio than TV, though I guess I wasn’t as bad as I thought with Brian Lamb because they still have the show set for March 3 at 8 on CSPAN’s “Q&A.”

The release:

Dogging Steinbeck

Discovering America and Exposing
The Truth About ‘Travels With Charley’

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.

“Steinbeck falsified his trip. I am delighted that you went deep into this.” — Paul Theroux, Author of “The Tao of Travel:”

“No book gave me more of a kick this year than Bill Steigerwald’s investigative travelogue…” — Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com

Bill Steigerwald discovered two important truths when he retraced the route John Steinbeck took around the country in 1960 and turned into “Travels With Charley in Search of America.” He found out the great author’s “nonfiction” road book was a deceptive, dishonest and highly fictionalized account of his actual 10,000-mile road trip. And he found out that despite the Great Recession and national headlines dripping with gloom and doom, America was still a big, beautiful, empty, healthy, rich, safe, clean, prosperous and friendly country.

“Dogging Steinbeck” is the lively, entertaining, opinionated story of how Steigerwald stumbled onto a literary scoop, won praise from the New York Times editorial page and forced a major book publisher to finally confess the truth about “Travels With Charley” after 50 years.

But it’s also a celebration of the America he found and the dozens of ordinary Americans he met on his 11,276-mile high-speed drive from Maine to Monterey. Despite the Great Recession and national headlines dripping with gloom and doom, Steigerwald’s expedition into the American Heartland in the fall of 2010 reaffirmed his faith in the innate goodness of the American people and their ability to withstand the long train of abuse from Washington and Wall Street.

Part literary detective story, part travel book, part book review, part primer in drive-by journalism, part commentary on what a libertarian newspaperman thinks is right and wrong about America, “Dogging Steinbeck” is entirely nonfiction. True Nonfiction.

‘Dogging Steinbeck’ is available at select bookstores and at Amazon.com as an ebook.

Bill Steigerwald is a well-traveled Pittsburgh journalist and a veteran libertarian columnist. He worked as an editor and writer/reporter/columnist for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, the Post-Gazette in the 1990s and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in the 2000s. He retired from the daily newspaper business in March 2009. He and his wife Trudi live south of Pittsburgh in the woods.

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
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