Currently viewing the category: "Truth About Charley"

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.

In the fall 2011 issue of the Steinbeck Review, Tom Barden, a smart and sensible English professor and dean at the University of Toledo, reviewed two 2010 “Travels With Charley”-centric books.

The quarterly’s editor, who edited the 2012 book “Steinbeck in Vietnam: Dispatches from the War,” looked at “Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America” by Bill Barich and “Travels with Max: In Search of Steinbeck’s America Fifty Years Later” by Gregory Zeigler.

First, however, professor Barden validated my discoveries about the lack of veracity in “Charley.” He based his opinion not on my book “Dogging Steinbeck,” which did not exist yet, but on what I had revealed in my April 2011 Reason magazine article, “Sorry, Charley.” Barden also said that Steinbeck’s serial inventions were no surprise or shock to anyone, especially academics like him, since Steinbeck was a novelist.

Here’s what Barden wrote in the Review:

I was not particularly drawn to the premise of Barich’s and Zeigler’s books. Delving into 21st century America’s soul via Steinbeck’s 1961 Travels with Charley struck me as too contrived. But readers of Steinbeck Review deserve an appraisal of the resulting volumes, especially in light of Bill Steigerwald’s “Sorry, Charley” essay in the April 2011 issue of Reason magazine, so here goes.

First, I should weigh in on Steigerwald. His research into motel bills, restaurant checks, and private letters made what I found to be a thoroughly convincing case that Steinbeck’s narrative in Travels with Charley in Search of America did not reflect anything close to his actual trip. Steigerwald presented ample documentation that Steinbeck spent most of his time in posh motor hotels eating good dinners with his wife Elaine, who was with him much more than he let on. The responses to Steigerwald’s revelations varied from incensed (Steinbeck’s daughter-in-law), to defensive (Steinbeck scholars Jay Parini and Susan Shillinglaw), to sympathetic toward Steinbeck (travel writer Paul Theroux). My response was basically–so what? I was reminded of John Steinbeck IV’s comment about his father’s book in The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck. Speaking for his brother Thom and himself, he wrote “we were convinced that he never talked to any of those people in Travels with Charley. He just sat in his camper and wrote all that shit. He was too shy. He was really frightened of people who saw through him. He couldn’t have handled that amount of interaction. So the book is actually a great novel.” (p. 151) Exactly. Oh my, he invented most of the content of Travels with Charley…zoot alors! Not only that, people, he paid for stories from Mexicans when he worked at the Spraekel’s Sugar factory in Salinas as a teenager and used them later—like that one about a nursing mother who saves a starving old man by breastfeeding him.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Steigerwald’s research and the ensuing controversy was the clear assumption by everybody concerned that Steinbeck’s book is still worth discussing after fifty years. I think Travels with Charley does still matter. But I don’t think it matters because of its veracity (or lack thereof), or its ideas, or its insights about American culture. To me, it still matters because it is packed from beginning to end with terrific and terrifically idiosyncratic writing at the sentence level. Pick it up and start reading randomly and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll run into passages like this one about the giant redwoods in Northern California—“In the redwoods nearly the whole of daylight is a quiet time. Birds move in the dim light or flash like sparks through the stripes of sun, but they make little sound.” (p. 171)

So, to return to the books under review, I used the yardstick of Steinbeck’s spectacular prose to review Barich and Zigler’s books. By that measure, one of them holds up pretty well and the other doesn’t. I’ll start with the latter. Zeigler’s little yappy-looking dog Max appears on both the front and back covers of his book and is also featured in many of the photos interspersed throughout the text. I did not take the dog or the illustrations as a good sign. Flipping through the text before I started reading, I felt as if I were about to be subjected to somebody’s boring vacation slideshow. My suspicions were confirmed when I started reading—the prose, like the dog, was too cute, the Steinbeck trope was too labored, and any intellectual or emotional stimulation was pretty much absent. Zeigler covered 15,000 miles in nine weeks, and it felt like it took that long to get through his book. He wove references to Steinbeck’s trip, his poodle, his biography, and even his family’s feud over copyright issues into his narrative, and all the while maintained a running commentary on such interesting roadside attractions as the Lion’s Den Adult Bookstore, geezer geyser gazers, a veterinary insemination operation that bragged “we do cows,” and the general beauty and/or scuzziness of the American landscape. But, for me, it never coalesced into a meaningful trip or travel narrative. The cover blurb says “Travels with Max offers a retrospective on Steinbeck and his work, as well as an insightful, humorous and upbeat perspective on modern America.” But I didn’t get the insights, the humor, or the retrospectives. For instance, here’s Zeigler’s description of a saguaro cactus that was located in too close proximity to a golf course: “Wild hitters like me had slammed drives into their green flesh. Some were studded with several balls, like buttons on a stout man’s vest.” I couldn’t help comparing that negatively with Steinbeck’s description of the giant redwoods.

Barich’s book, on the other hand, is well conceived, well written, and, fortunately, un-illustrated. Even before starting, I was impressed by the effusive cover blurbs about Barich’s writing. Jim Harrison, a Michigan-based poet and novelist for whom I have huge respect said simply “Barich is a splendid prose stylist.” And Larry McMurtry, a master storyteller by anybody’s standards, agreed. They are right. He writes with measured dignity and has a good ear for dialog and a sharp eye for telling detail.

As to content, Barich follows Steinbeck’s lead in avoiding major cities and typical tourist attractions. Although he visits Washington, D.C. and passes through St. Louis on Interstate 70 (where the drivers’ aggression terrified him), he focuses mostly on small towns like Culpeper, Virginia, Chillicothe, Ohio and Florence, Kansas. There’s humor in Barich’s book, but it is not of the corny variety Zeigler indulged and it is more connected to ideas and thoughtful observations. In Shenandoah National Park, for example, he notices that “Americans used to travel to beautiful spots to get away from it all, but now they bring it all with them.” Unlike Steinbeck’s, Barich’s road trip is one-way–east to west. He arrives in California via Needles and makes his way to Monterey on the coast, where he muses at length on “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden,” both of which he loves and respects. Finally, he pulls in to San Francisco – a city he lived in for many years – just in time for Election Day, 2008.

That election looms large over Long Way Home. The book ends in a mood buoyed by the fact that America, for all its historical racism and injustice, has just elected the young, smart and eloquent Barack Hussein Obama. All through the book, but especially at the end, he rejects the world-weariness and gloom that hung over Steinbeck’s trip with Charley. Where Steinbeck found moral and spiritual malaise, Barich found America renewing itself after eight years of George W. Bush. It is a thrill to feel, but that buoyancy seems pretty raveled and frayed now. Bigotry, ignorance and fear-mongering didn’t fade away; in fact, they seem to have gotten stronger in response to Obama’s cerebral calmness. The wrenching ending of Steinbeck’s book stands in contrast to Barich’s optimistic finale, but the venom of those “cheerleaders” who screamed profanities at little African American girls as they walked to school in Civil Rights Era Mississippi is on daily display now on Fox News, on talk radio, and in much of the Republican Party. On finishing Barich’s book, I felt a strong surge of missing John Steinbeck. I think he would be more effective than most of our current progressive voices in confronting and refuting today’s Rush Limbaughs, Pat Robertsons and Glenn Becks head-on.

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…

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.

 

 

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.