Currently viewing the tag: "John Steinbeck"

route66 cover - 2 - final“Dogging Steinbeck,” in case you are among the 318,543,866 Americans who  haven’t gotten around to reading it yet, is a new genre I’m trying to popularize called “True Nonfiction.”

Half literary expose and half American road book, “Dogging Steinbeck” is the honest and accurate account of my long journey with the great John Steinbeck and his beloved work of BS, “Travels With Charley.”

It details how I discovered the truth about Steinbeck’s iconic 1960 road trip with his dog Charley and how I exposed the fraudulent nature of the allegedly nonfiction book Steinbeck wrote about his journey.

As I explain and prove at length, “Charley” is not very true or honest. It’s mostly fiction and a few lies. For every true thing you want to know about Steinbeck’s trip, my trip and his book without having to fork over a lousy $5.99 for “Dogging Steinbeck,” I’d advise going to TruthAboutCharley.com.

My book, which I swear is 103 percent true, is a literary detective story, a traditional American road book and a primer in drive-by journalism and how the media work. All from a libertarian point of view.

It’s also part history lesson of 1960 America, part book review, part Steinbeck bio and part indictment of the negligence of Steinbeck scholars who failed to discover Steinbeck’s literary deceit for 50 years and then blithely excused it as inconsequential or irrelevant after I told them about it.

Guess I should have included footnotes.

The liberals manning the New York Times editorial page liked what I learned. So did the leftward boys at “On the Media” on NPR. So did Paul Theroux, Brian Lamb and my 96-year-old Mom.

But a lot of people — especially young and/or romantic diehard “Charley” fans — don’t appreciate me for ruining the romance of Steinbeck’s flawed book. Just look at the dumb 1-star reviews on Amazon.

But sorry, Steinbeckies, what I did with my humble work of journalism has changed the way “Travels With Charley” will be read forevermore.

In the fall of 2012 the book’s publisher, Penguin Group, issued a 50th anniversary edition of “Travels With Charley” that admitted that what I had learned and exposed was correct — as in “the truth.”

“Charley’s” introduction, first written by Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini in 1997, from now on will contain a major disclaimer warning gullible readers that the famous book they are about to read is so full of fiction and fictional techniques that it should not be taken literally or considered to be a work of nonfiction. In layman’s terms, it should be considered a work of bullshit.

Parini’s disclaimer includes this stark sentence: “It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative.”

I wasn’t given credit for this discovery of this ugly truth. I was identified only as a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter who did some light “fact-checking” (and made lazy fools of the Steinbeck scholars).

But at least from now on no 14-year-old who reads Steinbeck’s classic road book will ever be tricked into thinking it’s a true story. I hope.

For anyone who wants to see and hear the John Steinbeck of 1961, here’s your chance.

Steinbeck and his wife Elaine were invited to JFK’s inaugural address in DC on January 20, 1961.

They went to the speech on a bitter cold day with JFK insider John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife Catherine, but skipped the inaugural ball that night and watched it on TV.

It was about six weeks after John Steinbeck returned to New York following his 1960 “Travels With Charley” road trip. Steinbeck, 58 but looking 70-something, shared a limo ride with the Galbraiths to and from the speech. On board with them was a camera crew that was shooting a Robert Drew  documentary produced for an ABC “Close Up” TV program called “Adventures on the New Frontier.”

In the documentary footage the Steinbecks and the Galbraiths are seen praising Kennedy’s inauguration speech and making jokes. The Galbraiths went to the inaugural ball in Washington that night, which is where the video ends.

The original chapter Steinbeck wrote for “Charley” was entitled “L’Envoi” and was about his trip to the inaugural. Never seen publicly until 2002, it was cut from the book for good reason — it didn’t fit with the rest of  “Charley’ and it was pretty boring.

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John and Elaine Steinbeck take a limo ride with John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife after the JFK inaugural speech of Jan. 20, 1961.

  • Any excuse to post this again -- any.Here is my most recent VICE Bad Cop Blotter, in which I rant about the decriminalization of childhood.
  • Here is my most recent Rare piece, which is about the death penalty. Compare and contrast with my Antiwar piece on the same topic, and please note the same breed of moronic, I didn’t read it but I am angry anyway commenters ([whisper] I miss you Hit and Run. Except Tony [tears]).
  • My latest Antiwar piece was about the fight for journalism drones, and in it I fully admit my urge to Luddite scream when I think about domestic drones. So something for the techies AND the Amish! (Okay, not really.)
  • P.S. Antiwar is doing another fund drive, so if you want to donate to a lovely site that lets me write just about whatever I like, and also has been consistently antiwar since the days of Clinton, please consider doing so. 
  • Another thing you could do — if you are anywhere near Princeton, New Jersey — is go see Bill Steigerwald (dad, occasional Stag Blog contributor) and his friend Ethan Casey, also an author and traveler, go talk about their books on Thursday at the Princeton Library. Go see them at 7 pm, May 15. 
  • (I’ll be busy seeing Willie Watson on that date, though. Because, obviously.)
  • And hey, since there’s a proper hook and everything, maybe go buy dad’s Dogging Steinbeck book, which is full of ruminations on truth, America, literature, politics, and basically everything interesting in the whole wide world.
  • Ethan Casey also has books about his travels in Pakistan, Haiti, and America.
  • I’ve recently started almost-hate-reading the blog Saving Country Music — something about its style is so self-aggrandizing, hipster-country, that it drives me nuts. Also, the dude was down on Old Crow Medicine Show’s authenticity, which is something I cannot abide if you’re going to do it half-assed like that. Nevertheless, the dude did do a fine review of the new Willie Watson album. (And yet I still argued in the comments at 2 am.)
  • Tech Dirt on the FOIA-ed emails that reveal the full scope of the pathetic, creepy person that is Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis. Background on the insanity here and here.
  • Denis Lawson, AKA Wedge Antilles, the Rebel pilot who defies the red shirt curse (wrong Star, I know) will not be in the new trilogy because he’s more into being a cool, under the radar Scottish dude. Or something. I shed a conflicted tear, because I hate J.J. Abrams as a director, I hate every Star Wars after Jedi, and I am therefore not even sure I want the original trio in a new movie. But at the same time, George Lucas has been so terrible for so long that there’s almost a “fuck it, I don’t care, let’s see what these sequels are like” feeling that is appearing at last. (Or — OR — I still have a lingering belief that the addition of Harrison Ford will somehow make it all okay again.)
  • Via Jesse Walker, a beautiful demonstration of the power of correlation, not causation. 
  • The DOJ might be secretly pushing banks to shut down the accounts of porn stars and other disreputable folk. Very creepy articles that makes one want to bury gold in the backyard.
  • Jezebel commenters delight in story of homeschool girl kicked out of her prom because the dads wouldn’t stop leering at her. This is offered up as reason that “the homschooling community” is untrustworthy” and why you shouldn’t be allowed to homeschool without a teacher’s certificate. Okay then. In my day, homeschool prom was just a special place where rap songs are edited to a hilarious extent and people play Christian rock versions of “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees. In a world, awkward and terrible, but not this gross. I think there was some praying as well, but I tuned that out.
  • The confusing and racist origin of the ice cream truck song.
  • High heels are totally dumb and unfeminist (yeah, I said it, eat it third wavers). But Collectors Weekly has a fascinating look at their origins, as well as that of the corset, which is not great for you, but is not quite the iron maiden we’ve been lead to believe.
  • People are still being suspended for not saying or standing for the Pledge? Conservatives, let this shit go. Even ignoring the “under God” kerfuffle, this is a piece of socialist propaganda written by the cousin of the writer of the worst fucking Utopian novel in the universe. You know it’s creepy for children to be saying loyalty oaths in public schools, you know it’s unamerican. Let. It. Go.

Done, here’s the video of the day:

Can’t stop listening to this song. Can’t.

Oh, and bonus new Old Crow Medicine Show (sorry, Willie) song! Like “Wagon Wheel” it is actually a finished version of an old Bob Dylan sketch.

I look forward to Darius Rucker’s cover come 2023.

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.

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.