Posts by: "Bill Steigerwald"

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 helpful
By A Customer

(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.

Best regards…

 

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.

 

The Weekly Standard, the smart and sassy 15-year-old conservative answer to the liberal New Republic, has produced the world’s first official book review of “Dogging Steinbeck.”

Bearing the very clever headline, “Chicanery Row,” entertainingly and sagely written by Shawn Macomber, it can be found here.

The first known plug for “DS” was by Reason mag’s Nick Gillespie, who kindly named it his favorite book of 2012 — and my ebook was only out for three weeks of the year.

My marketing and promotion director, Bill Steigerwald, has been bombarding the book people at the New York Times, L.A. Times, Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post with emails, trying to get their attention, if not a book review. It’s not easy. But maybe the Standard has lit the spark.

Meanwhile, in the Big Apple, the blog site GalleyCat, aka “The First Word on the Publishing Industry,” blurbed a “DS” blurb on Friday, finally succumbing to a barrage of promo pitches from me.

And look for Paul Theroux’s mention of me and “Dogging Steinbeck” in his New York Times travel piece on Sunday Jan. 13.

Self-publishing is hard work, but maybe I’m getting somewhere.

 

Poor John Steinbeck.

Forty-four years after his death, America’s most widely read author is taking some lumps.

First I proved his 1962 “nonfiction” book  “Travels With Charley” was a literary fraud filled with fiction and lies. Now the Nobel prize people in Sweden have opened their archives and Steinbeck’s reputation has taken another hit.

It turns out Steinbeck, who had been nominated eight times before for the Noble Prize for literature, was a compromise choice for the award in 1962 and he only won because the competition was so weak.

Steinbeck didn’t get much respect from the critics in his later years. Everyone but him wanted him to write “The Grapes of Wrath” over and over.

Even when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature on Oct. 25, 1962, the literary mafia at the New York Times and Time magazine quickly dissed him, saying he didn’t really deserve it because he hadn’t written anything of value in decades.

Meanwhile, there’s a “Travels With Charley” connection to Steinbeck’s Nobel.

As part of its decision, the Nobel selection committee took into account the roaring success of “Charley” in the late summer and fall of 1962. When Steinbeck was given the prize in Stockholm, here is what the presentation speech said about “Travels With Charley,” the supposedly nonfiction account of his 1960 road trip that had hit No. 1 on the New York Times bestselling nonfiction list on Oct. 21, 1962.

“Steinbeck’s latest book is an account of his experiences during a three-month tour of forty American states Travels with Charley, (1962). He travelled in a small truck equipped with a cabin where he slept and kept his stores. He travelled incognito, his only companion being a black poodle. We see here what a very experienced observer and raisonneur he is. In a series of admirable explorations into local colour, he rediscovers his country and its people. In its informal way this book is also a forceful criticism of society. The traveller in Rosinante – the name which he gave his truck – shows a slight tendency to praise the old at the expense of the new, even though it is quite obvious that he is on guard against the temptation. ‘I wonder why progress so often looks like destruction,’ he says in one place when he sees the bulldozers flattening out the verdant forest of Seattle to make room for the feverishly expanding residential areas and the skyscrapers. It is, in any case, a most topical reflection, valid also outside America.”

Of course, nearly everything the committee assumed was true about Steinbeck’s road trip and his book was not true.

 

 

My ebook “Dogging Steinbeck” would never have happened without the support, interest and divine intercession of my ideological soulmates and friends at Reason magazine.

Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of reason.com, has been especially fond of “Dogging” and praises it generously in Reason’s year-end roundup of the best books of 2012:

Nick Gillespie:

No book gave me more of a kick this year than Bill Steigerwald’s investigative travelogue Dogging Steinbeck. After getting a buyout from The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2009, veteran journalist and Reason contributor Steigerwald decided to retrace the road trip that Nobel laureate John Steinbeck immortalized in his 1962 classic Travels with Charley. Steigerwald figured that at journey’s end, he’d have material for a book exploring how far we’ve come as a country since the Kennedy years.

Instead, Steigerwald uncovered a massive literary fraud that speaks directly to contemporary controversies over ostensibly nonfiction narratives such as Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine, and Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. The newsman found out that the Grapes of Wrath author either hugely exaggerated or just made up many of the encounters described in Charley. Steinbeck also misrepresented the actual conditions of the trip in ways that shouldn’t be tolerated in tomes whose authority derive from their facticity. Far from spending mostly solitary days with Charley the dog, Steinbeck was accompanied by his wife for almost half his time on the road. And far from roughing it, they spent a good chunk of time at high-end hotels or at places such as Adlai Stevenson’s Illinois mansion.

Steigerwald’s slowly growing exasperation with Steinbeck’s dissembling is a joy to read, as is his incredulous reaction to Steinbeck scholars who wave away the esteemed author’s flagrant bullshitting. But best of all is the contemporary America that Steigerwald discovers. Where Steinbeck inveighed against comic books and processed food and crabbed that the nation had grown spiritually “flabby” and “immoral,” Steigerwald is positively Whitmanesque in his celebration of the country. Self-published as an ebook, Dogging Steinbeck also embodies a do-it-yourself culture that was just gearing up in a big way in the early 1960s.

“There’s something…obvious about America that’s never pointed out by the media,” writes Steigerwald. “The states and counties and cities and villages and crossroads are filled with smart, good Americans who can take pretty good care of themselves. They prove it every day. People in Baraboo and Stonington and Amarillo know what’s best for them. They’ll adjust to whatever changes that come.”

Worth more than the sales of my ebook “Dogging Steinbeck” are the nice, smart comments I’ve gotten from my fellow journalists and perceptive readers at Amazon.com — without having to bribe a single one.

The great travel writer Paul Theroux, who doesn’t dig it when famous travel writers lie about their trips,  hasn’t read the book. But he encouraged me to write it and has credited me for my findings of Steinbeck’s literary fraud.

“I compared his published letters with his travels and saw great discrepancies,” the author of “The Tao of Travel” told me in an email. “These facts have been public for years, but no one cared to mention them. … Steinbeck falsified his trip. I am delighted that you went deep into this.”

Curt Gentry, the author of a dozen books including “Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders” (with Vincent Bugliosi), did read “Dogging Steinbeck.” He’s also a “character” in it — a mini-hero, actually.

Here’s what Curt wrote about my book in his Amazon blurb:

“I still believe John Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest writers and I still love ‘Travels With Charley,’ be it fact or fiction or, as Bill Steigerwald doggedly proved, both. While I disagree with a number of Steigerwald’s conclusions, I don’t dispute his facts. He greatly broadened my understanding of Steinbeck the man and the author, particularly during his last years. And, whether Steigerwald intended it or not, in tracking down the original draft of ‘Travels With Charley’ he made a significant contribution to Steinbeck’s legacy. “Dogging Steinbeck” is a good honest book.”

Not everyone will like my book, what I say about Steinbeck or his book, or what I say about America and what/who ails it.

But whether “Dogging Steinbeck” is a bust-seller or a best-seller, comments like Theroux’s and Gentry’s are priceless.