Currently viewing the category: "Dogging Steinbeck"

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.

Pulling a libertarian quote from John Steinbeck out of my book and tying it into the 4th of July, Alak Mehta of the Blaze.com gives me a priceless plug and alerts the folks in Glen Beck Land to the existence of “Dogging Steinbeck,” which he kindly — and accurately — calls “a hilarious, exuberant read that reveals much about John Steinbeck and the diversity of people, places, and attitudes that is America.”

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.

Twenty-nine seconds in, Geert Mak starts talking about “Bill Steigerwald” during an interview in Holland last spring.

Mak’s book, “Travels Without John in Search of America” is being translated into English. Mak kindly mentions me about a dozen times, favorably. Someday we plan to meet — over there.

If you read/understand Dutch, enjoy:

Geert Mak was in Leeuwarden. Hij vertelt over het boek Reizen zonder John. Maar zijn roadtrip was niet helemaal uniek vertelt hij de aanwezigen. Er waren meer mensen die in de voetsporen van John Steinbeck treden.

For English readers:

If you can read Dutch, you can order Geert Mak’s new book “Traveling Without John in Search of America.” Mak, a well-known and high-quality journalist and author in the Netherlands, did what I did and carefully repeated Steinbeck’s trip in the fall of 2010.

Mak did a lot of the same Steinbeck research I did and his nearly 600-page book about the current state of America includes much of what I discovered about Steinbeck’s real trip.

Here, translated by Google’s clever but imperfect computers, is how the book is described on Mak’s web site:

Travelling without John

Looking for America

On September 23, 1960 left the legendary writer John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley for an expedition across the American continent. He wanted his country and his countrymen again know. Exactly fifty years later, on the hour, was Geert Mak again for the old house of Steinbeck. It was the beginning of a renewed inspection tour in the footsteps of Charley and John, but now with the eyes of 2010. What is the past half century in American cities and towns changed? Where is Main Street USA go?

Which dreams chased the Americans over the centuries their ideals? What is it ended? What remains of that “city on the hill”, the Promised Land which was once the world looked? And above all, what we have together, America and Europe in the 21st century?

Geert Mak avoided, like John Steinbeck, the beaten path. He drove thousands of miles through the potato fields of Maine and the infinity of the Midwest, sat day after day at the table with farmers, laborers, fishermen and schoolmasters, met with shiny suburbs and boarded-up village shops, searched, again and again, to the stories of this country which nobody ever gets finished.

 

 

In my never-ending quest to get a legacy publisher to publish “Dogging Steinbeck” so it can get into libraries and bookstores where it deserves to be, I left a phone message and sent a token pitch to the University of Nevada Press.

The folks there were nice and responded, which itself was a rare treat.

Here’s the response I got:

Thank you for telling us about your book Dogging Steinbeck.  I regret that we cannot take on this project because it has already been published and is available on Amazon.  I do agree that there will be new attention to Steinbeck this year, given the anniversary celebration of The Grapes of Wrath. You might find that the best use of your time is to try again to promote the book you have already released.

 

It was a typical response. And so, in response to their response, I wrote this gripe, which applies to every publishing company big and small in America:

It’s a pretty annoying and strange publishing system we non-famous, non-tenured authors are up against.

I couldn’t get a book advance from a major New York publisher in 2010 — despite my fine proposal — because I was not famous, because road books don’t sell and/or because no one cared about Steinbeck anymore (these were the top reasons I was 0-35, despite my readable, crazy style, according to my Madison Avenue agent).

I went ahead anyway, did my trip and wrote my book. On my own time, on my own dime.

I got lucky, I met many memorable Americans along the Steinbeck Highway, I made real literary news by exposing the deceptions of a major American writer. And I forced a major publisher, Penguin Group, to confess that, after 50 years of masquerading as a work of nonfiction, “Travels With Charley” was really a bunch of fiction and dishonest BS.

You’d think that in the declining world of publishing, all this would be worthy of a book. But after I took my road trip I still had no interest from legacy publishers.

I did everything right and got really lucky, thanks to the Steinbeck scholars who were asleep at their desks for half a century.

I wrote a road  book that tells, in an entertaining and authoritative way, how I made major literary news, how I changed the way “Travels With Charley” will be read forevermore, and how I — by my self-promoting self — got media attention and editorial-page praise from the New York Times, got praise and plugs from the world’s most celebrated travel writer (Paul Theroux), got on NPR and CBC radio in Canada, got written up in the pages of the Washington Post and, best of all, got an hour of airtime with Brian Lamb on CSPAN.

I also got grief, not praise or thanks, from the Steinbeck scholars.

Then, after I self-publish my book and have some success, I hear from some small and medium publishers that they can’t publish my book because I did too good of a job promoting it and my “scoop.”

Then I hear from other publishers that it’s too late for them to publish my book in print (so it can get into its natural market of libraries and bookstores) because I already published it as an ebook on Amazon. (I’m sure you know I can take it off Amazon in 30 seconds.)

Then, when it turns out I was ahead of the curve on the 2014 Resurrection of John Steinbeck and my book is timely and topical, it still doesn’t matter.

What earthly difference does it make to librarians and independent bookstore owners, and their clientele, whether my book already exists as an ebook somewhere?

It doesn’t exist yet in print, in stores. How can a small publisher looking to sell 10,000 copies of a book with a long commercial tail that has already proved its value and credibility not want to take advantage of the work I’ve already done?

It has nothing to do with an advance or royalty terms. It’s just a “rule.” I bet if my book started selling 100 ebooks a day a publisher would break the rule — I know it’s happened with other books.

So far I’ve sold 1,000 copies without any help from a publisher or its marketing department.

I’ve heard a dozen newspaper book editors say they don’t review self-published books.

I’ve heard two dozen very short-sighted bookstore owners tell me they won’t carry my self-published book because they can’t return it.

Other, even more clueless, bookstore owners have told me I can’t even appear in their stores to talk about my book and sell POD copies of it because I was hooked up with the Devil — Amazon.

I know Amazon is the bad guy who’s mean to bookstores (most of whom are stuck in 1850 and can’t handle the competition).

So I guess it makes the soon-to-be-gone bookstore owners feel good to do unto nobody authors like me what Amazon does unto them. Can you understand why I might not shed a single tear when I hear a bookstore had died?

Thank God for Amazon.

I wouldn’t have a book without it. I would never have gotten emails of praise from Holland, where the book “Travels Without John in Search of America” by super-star Geert Mak is a best-seller, has been translated into several languages and is headed to America soon. (Mak retraced Steinbeck’s 1960 trip the same time I did in the fall of 2010 and he credits me and my dogged journalism a dozen times in his book — in Dutch.)

Amazon made it possible for me to get around the braindead publishing industry and get a book distributed around the world without costing me a quarter. Now Amazon is keeping me from getting a “real” publisher?

I’ve proven in the marketplace and in the conflicting worlds of journalism and academia that my book “Dogging Steinbeck” is a valuable piece of literary and travel journalism.

I caught Steinbeck and his publisher with their literary ethics down. I got praise from some of the smartest travel writers and journalists on the planet.

And all I get — still — from publishers is the same Catch 22s.

It’s no wonder the publishing industry is collapsing. It deserves to.

Bill Emerson of Kansas City read my book and liked it enough to give it four stars, for which I am grateful.
But he couldn’t understand why I had put so much of my  libertarian politics in the book.
Here’s his comment from Amazon.com, followed by my explanation/response.

I had read several Steinbeck books, but not Charley.

I really did like the “investigative” parts to this. Bill
Steigerwald does a great job of tying the time of Steinbeck
in with today.

One thing I did not understand and would like to ask the author:

What in the hell does Libertarian have to do with it?

Don’t you know that there are only 17 Libertarians
anywhere in the world at any one time? Except when a Democrat is
president, then it mushrooms to most of the Republican party…..

 

My response:

Thanks for the nice comments. As I write somewhere in the book, when you drive the miles and write a road book about America you — the author — get to air/spew your political opinions about what you see and think. Steinbeck did, though most of his (liberal Democrat) comments were taken out of his original manuscript. Bill Barich did in “Long Way Home.” Philip Caputo just did in “The Longest Road.” Heat-Moon did.Everyone does.

Sprawl, commercial development, cars, the environment, energy policy, city planning, race relations, the ups and downs of the economy — they’re all driven by politics (unfortunately) and open to debate. Most travel books are written by liberal Democrats who, as I point out in the book, all sound like they’re reading from the editorial page of the NY Times. They hate sprawl, they hate malls, they make fun of free markets, they unthinkingly embrace government regulation, they hate the culture and the conservative politics of Flyover Country — and they say so in their books. Most reviewers don’t even notice or mention the authors’ left-liberal-East Coast politics, mainly because the reviewers invariably are liberals too. I’ve been an open libertarian journalist/columnist/media critic for 30-plus years. For me to pretend not to disagree with Steinbeck’s political point of view or the liberal Democrat point of view of Barich et al., or to let their political commentaries or biased asides about America or its people pass without comment, would have been dishonest and phony, not to mention foolish.

Road books are about the road, the country, the people you meet, etc., but they’re all filtered through the author — his life, his thoughts, his politics. Not everyone is a Republican or a Democrat, thank god. The two major parties have brought us a national government that is a Big Nanny/Big Snoop at home and World Cop overseas.

It’s pretty sad that my libertarian politics — that peaceful people should be as personally, economically and socially free as possible; that government should be as decentralized and weak and unnoticed in our daily lives as possible; and that America should mind its business overseas — would seem exotic or out of place to a fellow America today. Those basic libertarian principles have been forgotten and abused. But they would be very familiar — and very dear — to Jefferson or Washington or Grover Cleveland or Twain or Mencken or Milton Friedman or hundreds of other dead great Americans whose politics were essentially libertarian.

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.

 

 

The great Phil Caputo, author of “A Rumor of War” and other fine books, took a sweet 16,000-mile road trip in the fall of 2011 with his trophy wife, trophy dogs and trophy pickup truck with Airstream travel van.

The 80 Americans he met from Key West to Nome are the main attraction in “The Longest Road,” which is being reviewed and promoted everywhere and will be available July 16.

As I found out while trying to get a publisher for what became “Dogging Steinbeck,” road books are tough sells — unless you’re famous.

Maybe Caputo would like to join Ethan Casey and me this fall on our West Coast book-promoting tour, which we are calling Two American Road Trips and is further explained at our Facebook Page.

“The Longest Road,” as described on Amazon:

One of America’s most respected writers takes an epic journey across America, Airstream in tow, and asks everyday Americans what unites and divides a country as endlessly diverse as it is large.

Standing on a wind-scoured island off the Alaskan coast, Philip Caputo marveled that its Inupiat Eskimo schoolchildren pledge allegiance to the same flag as the children of Cuban immigrants in Key West, six thousand miles away. And a question began to take shape: How does the United States, peopled by every race on earth, remain united? Caputo resolved that one day he’d drive from the nation’s southernmost point to the northernmost point reachable by road, talking to everyday Americans about their lives and asking how they would answer his question.

So it was that in 2011, in an America more divided than in living memory, Caputo, his wife, and their two English setters made their way in a truck and classic trailer (hereafter known as “Fred” and “Ethel”) from Key West, Florida, to Deadhorse, Alaska, covering 16,000 miles. He spoke to everyone from a West Virginia couple saving souls to a Native American shaman and taco entrepreneur. What he found is a story that will entertain and inspire readers as much as it informs them about the state of today’s United States, the glue that holds us all together, and the conflicts that could cause us to pull apart.