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John Steinbeck set out to do his “Travels With Charley” trip the right way — alone and like a serious journalist. But it quickly unraveled and he had to resort to fiction and fibs to tell his tale. A free excerpt from “Dogging Steinbeck,” an Amazon ebook that’s the antidote of truth to “Charley.”

A Good Trip Gone Bad

A stranger passing like a bullet through his own heartland, Steinbeck spent twice as much time relaxing on his 11-week journey than driving. He discovered no new facts or insights about the USA or its citizens, mainly because he did no real journalism and spent relatively little time with ordinary people. Yet he deserved a lot of credit just for taking the road trip.

Despite his shaky health and age, not to mention his princely lifestyle and celebrity social circle, he had the balls to roll up his sleeves and take on what was essentially a major journalism project. What other great American writer would have even considered traveling the rough way he did?

Initially, he fully intended to do his trip the right way and the only way it would work – solo and at the grassroots level. His ambitious plan – going alone, taking photos, writing dispatches to newspapers or magazines from the road, going to a different church every Sunday, spending quality time in the Jim Crow South – was basic, sound journalism and a perfect vehicle for his talents.

A nonfiction book based on his original plan wouldn’t have been as popular with readers or kept its romantic appeal for 50 years, but it would have made a better, more substantive book. It would have slowed him down, forced him to meet hundreds of other real people and given him a chance to discover more of the America he went searching for.

But Steinbeck’s great exploration never materialized. He never learned to use a camera, didn’t take notes or keep a journal and never wrote a word for publication during his 75 days away from New York. His grand plan was unraveled by the reality of his lifestyle, health and the punishment of the open road. He quickly got lonely and tired and no doubt bored.

Ironically, in one sense he may have been lucky he lost heart so early. The daily pressure and logistical nightmares of trying to do real journalism on the back roads of America in 1960 could have killed him. What’s more, in the Analog Age it was an unrealistic mission even for a man in good health to circumnavigate America alone. Transcontinental car travel was still an adventure, not the smooth ride it is today. As Steinbeck learned, just finding a public pay phone so he could call his wife every three days was a major accomplishment.

Before he left Maine he had already realized the obvious – the country was too damn big and diverse to pin down or sum up. No one person, not even a Steinbeck, could discover the real America in 11 weeks or 11 months. Anyway, as he wisely said, there was no single “real” America. As he knew and advised his readers, every traveler must take his own trip and find his own version of America.  Trouble was, his was largely a 50 mph blur interrupted by luxurious vacations with his wife. And when his journey ended, he had to sit down and make up a nonfiction book about a real country he never found, never really looked for and didn’t really like much.

My pal Michael Challik, the great veteran “shooter” at KDKA TV and a born Dutchman, did me a great favor the other day by translating part of a video interview with Steinbeck-chaser Geert Mak.

Mak, a famous and renowned Dutch journalist/historian/author,  also retraced Steinbeck’s “Charley” route in the fall of 2010 and wrote a big fat, footnoted book that became a best-seller in Holland. Mak’s book, “Travels Without John in Search of America,” is being translated into English. Mak kindly mentions me about a dozen times, favorably.

Unfortunately, the book, like the video interview, is in Dutch.

Here’s a link to the video — Geert Mak talks about the journalism & politics of “Bill Steigerwald.”

And here’s the translation of the 5-minute video, courtesy of the kind Michael Challik:

 Geert Mak is lying awake thinking of the competition.

You think you have designed a great plan, but one afternoon in a little town, Lancaster, we were looking for a place John Steinbeck had stayed.  The night, a motel, pouring down rain, got out at a gas station, asked where is the motel from the 1960’s.  I can still see him, a hat on turned backwards, “Oh Steinbeck! Right?”

(The service station attendant continues.) “Yesterday, there was also somebody here.” So you think you’re the only one.  Real quickly Googled, wondering who that could be, and got the answer in about three minutes.  Bill Steigerwald, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, retired journalist.  Did exactly the same, except took off half-an-hour sooner.  We left at at 8:30…he left at 8, so we just missed him on the ferry to the mainland.

Bill wrote in his blog on the ferry at 8:45 where he met a third journalist, a guy called  John Woesdijk (sp?), who was walking the route with a dog for a dog magazine.  Later we found out that there was a fourth.  She was with the Washington Post with her Mum.  The last two I didn’t hear anything from again.  All four wanted to follow Steinbeck’s route, but Bill S., I must be honest, tried to follow Steinbeck’s whole route.  I must say I couldn’t agree with his political views, to say the least, but he did describe the route very precisely, like where Steinbeck bought his gun, with all kinds of movies, including if you would like to follow the route through his eyes.  I really recommend his website.

QUESTION: You didn’t have any contact with him?

ANSWER: Oh yeah, later on we talked a lot about it.  I really did want to talk to him because I really did find – even though he had opinions on     Obama, etc. – he was very dedicated, and he did it by himself, and he was the only one who     was roughing it, because Steinbeck stayed in hotels mostly.  Bill really roughed it out.  I got a lot of respect for him, but I thought the only thing I can do is to use him in my book…and so it goes.

But as soon as my book was finished, I wrote him – and he had also heard of me. He heard about a book in Holland, and we talked openly and frequently, and we are planning in our lives absolutely to come together, and with a great glass of beer and talk about world problems and solve them by the end of the afternoon.

QUESTION: He is an arch-conservative, right-winger Republican?

ANSWER: No, no!  He would get real mad if you tell him that, because he really didn’t like George W. Bush.  He is a Libertarian thinker.  No, No I am a half-Socialistic, latte drinking, French loving, Volvo driving, European.

So I was really different, but Steigerwald found out that Steinbeck said things in his book that were absolutely not true, and I also discovered that too.  Because if you follow Steinbeck’s journey you find, for instance, he went fishing a whole afternoon with a companion, and talks about his marriage etc., but supposedly on the same day when you follow his iterinerary he drove 400-450 miles.  You can’t be fishing in the beginning of the afternoon – and then drive 450-miles. So you find a lot of discrepancies.

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.

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.”

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.”