Currently viewing the tag: "Truth About Charley"

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.
The 27th review of my book on Amazon.com — by a woman named Judy who grew up in Montana — is perfect. Nicely written, smart and sensible, it’s a fair and balanced assessment by a Steinbeck fan who wasn’t blinded by her love of “Travels With Charley.”

 

4.0 out of 5 stars Valuable Addition to American Road Trip Literature, April 8, 2013
Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

I read just about every American travelogue and “Travels with Charley” was my first and favorite. I was a believer through the first couple of readings, but after decades of long road trips I began to be suspicious. Dogging Steinbeck confirmed my doubts. I never learned much during days spent just rocketing over highways except that this is a vast country sparsely populated with mostly kind, helpful people. The best conversations, comparable to the ones Steinbeck apparently enjoyed daily, generally occur only in hostels or while soaking nude in remote hot springs.

I believe Steinbeck did not set out to perpetrate a fraud. He could not have known that he couldn’t learn much in his mode of travel over just 11 weeks. Finding knowledge, adventure, and joy in a road trip takes skill and a propensity to dawdle.

Just as Steinbeck’s fraudulent account was not premeditated, Bill Steigerwald’s book was not motivated by the desire to unmask Steinbeck. No experienced road-tripper could miss the fictional aspects, especially armed with Steinbeck documents detailing the actual trip as was Steigerwald. One critical reviewer who obviously has not read Dogging Steinbeck called it a hatchet job. It is most certainly not. The author’s respect for both the truth and Steinbeck is obvious.

I wish John Steinbeck had been healthy and free enough to apply his wonderful literary skill to the kind of trip he needed to take to write the book that he initially envisioned. But if the book we got was the only one he could write, I forgive him. Because of Travels with Charley my life has been richer, happier, and, while travelling, I have attended Sunday services from cathedrals to adobe missions to inner-city converted store fronts. Still, Charley is the only fictionalized travelogue I will forgive. A travel book is only one perspective of one journey, and Steigerwald is right to insist that readers are owed a true account.

I felt that Steigerwald’s account of his trip and his research was as honest as he could make it. His political opinions do not detract from the book: although he did not make his book about himself, he did tell us who he is and that can only help readers to understand his perspective. I recommend this book to all who enjoy American road trip literature.

I don’t get too many emails about my expose of Steinbeck and my debunking of “Travels With Charley,”  but most of them are pretty smart and supportive.

Then I get really silly/dumb emails like this one:

“You sad, sad man. Why couldn’t you leave it alone AND us with our reading pleasure ?  What’s next, the REAL invasion of Poland or the TRUE story of the Omaha Beach landing? It’s history and doesn’t need the bones laid bare.”

I hope this is from a 12-year-old, but if not, here’s my annoyed response.

“Perhaps you don’t mind if famous writers make up books and pass them off as true accounts; perhaps you don’t think there’s anything wrong about a major publisher, Viking Press, making tens of millions of dollars selling a book under false pretenses; perhaps you would rather remain ignorant of the truth about “Charley” so that you can continue to believe your romantic notions about a book that is not only full of fictions and lies but is not a very good book; I’m a journalist who set out on a mission to faithfully retrace Steinbeck’s route but quickly learned that his book was mostly fiction and a lot of carefully crafted lies. There’s nothing sad about what I did or who I am. In the real world, this is what honest journalists do — follow the facts as they find them/see them and report the results honestly. If you can’t take the truth on this silly book like a man/woman, what do you do when you find out the truth about things that matter. Unless you’re about 12, I’d say it’s time to grow up.”

 

 

I have an obvious interest in reading what Amazon’s readers have thought of “Blue Highways” and “Travels With Charley.”

Most people liked “Blue Highways.” I thought it was pretty good — much better than “Charley” — though the first time I picked it up 20 years ago I couldn’t get through more than 30 pages.

After I forced myself to read “BH” in 2010 as prep for my road trip, however, I changed my tune.

William Least Heat-Moon, who is really English prof William Trogdon and is only about 1/16th more Indian than I am, is a fine writer and good journalist with superior descriptive abilities and the ability to meet regular people and capture their charms.

Trogdon, naturally, given his profession, carried the usual East Coast left-liberal baggage with him on his late 1970s road trip — America was too commercialized, homogenized, franchised, etc., etc.  If his book wasn’t excerpted in the New Yorker, it should have been.

Overall, I’d give  “Blue Highways” four stars on Amazon’s rating scale. But my favorite review is this great hatchet job from 2000 by “A Customer”:

12 of 74 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer

(Make that star rating up there NEGATIVE 5 stars) I can’t believe I’m actually taking the time to write this for such an awful book, but I read all of the other reviews here and I can’t understand why everyone thinks this book is so incredible. I thought it was the most uninteresting, torturous book I have ever read. If this book is any indication of what Heat-Moon’s personality and his English classes were like, I understand why he was laid off (and why his wife cheated on him!). 400-something pages of grueling, thick, unconnected text ruined my entire summer and destroyed any previous desire that I might have had to travel cross-country. I would not recommend this book to anyone; I think it should be destroyed.

I hope “A Customer” has died by now so he doesn’t get a chance to take his axe to “Dogging Steinbeck.”

 

Getting emails from smart, satisfied but critical readers of “Dogging Steinbeck” — whether it’s travel master Paul Theroux or an Everyreader — is gratifying.

This one, from a Missouri man who’s teaching English somewhere in the vastness of China, is one of the best-written pieces of correspondence I’ve  received in my journalism career — and I’ve gotten probably a thousand of them. I’ve deleted his last name at his request.

Dear Mr. Steigerwald,

My name is Randy and I am writing concerning your book, Dogging Steinbeck. I will begin by telling you that I enjoyed it very much and admire you for your effort and your reporting. Your book came to my attention as I was browsing and downloading books for my Kindle.

Although I had not read “Travels With Charley” for many years, I remembered enjoying it as a kid — I am now 63 years old — and was intrigued by your concept. I hope you don’t mind if I raise three points which came to mind after reading your book.

Perhaps it would be relevant to tell you at this point that, since 2004, I have been living in China, working as an English teacher in a strange combination of semi-retirement and self-exile. However, most of my life was spent in a much more conventional setting of a small town in central Missouri.

Now, except for brief trips each summer back to visit my parents in Missouri, all of my knowledge of current events and trends in America comes via the Internet — principally from Yahoo news when I go online to check email. That leads to my first point…

One of the great pleasures in reading your book is that you found so many friendly and interesting people in your travels. Certainly the mass media does not spend much time talking about nice people; the weirdos, extremists, instant celebrities, and truly dangerous are far more likely to be in the news that I see. It was nice to be told that the vast majority of average Americans were still pleasant and helpful to a traveling stranger.

I was also very pleased to be repeatedly reminded by you of the many ways that our daily lives have vastly improved over the past five decades. It happens that my small town in Missouri is on old Route 66 so I have personal knowledge of just how dangerous those highways were 50 years ago. Likewise, our medical technology, self-educational opportunities, and personal comfort today are incomparably superior to that of our youth.

Do you recall that old saying, “Don’t go looking for trouble… for you will surely find it.”? It seems to me that most people, most days go through life in a responsive mode. If we approach them in a friendly and respectful manner, they will respond in kind. (If, on the other hand, you act like a jerk, you will quickly encounter obstacles and reciprocation.)

Perhaps your book is like another more famous volume, Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” in that the book also tells us a great deal about the writer. If you encountered many nice people, maybe it is because you expected them to be nice and that you impressed them as being a nice guy yourself.

Still, compared to the shallow, ungrammatical characters that Steinbeck wrote about in his book, you probably met more interesting people and had more fun — not counting his lavish expenditures at high-end hotels and with his wife’s rich Texas friends.

The second point I would like to mention is about the controversy that your book has apparently created. I have to say “apparently” because I was not aware of this literary turmoil until I read your book.

Frankly, I am not a huge Steinbeck aficionado. In my younger years, I read several of his books and enjoyed them but I have not thought of them (or him) for many years. Therefore, before I read your book, I also downloaded the original “Charley” at the same time and read it again — for probably the first time in 40 years.

Immediately after I finished it, I began your book. It was interesting to me to read about how the Steinbeck establishment went into damage control mode and, indeed, even attacked your credibility, truthfulness, and motives. What now seems incontrovertible was that Steinbeck did wholly manufacture entire episodes and characters.

I am willing to accept an explanation of “artistic license”; indeed, I have no problem with that. What I found more disturbing was your revelation that, rather than being a lonely, thoughtful old man taking a meandering, low-budget trip, Steinbeck was not roughing it at all. Your conclusion that he spent only about five nights in his entire journey actually sleeping in his camper greatly diminishes the aura of Steinbeck, the common man.

My third point is that I wish to take exception with your conclusion that “Charley” was not a good book. I am willing to grant you that this is more a work of fiction than a travel book but I still maintain that it is wonderful reading. I had forgotten just how good it is until I read it again last week.

Okay, finding an itinerant Shakespearean actor/vagabond drifting across North Dakota strains credibility now that you have brought it to my attention. But, honestly, I don’t care; he was an articulate, warm character. If Steinbeck used these literary creations to make his point… well, that is what novelists do — and he did it rather skillfully, I thought.

A big part of the writing challenge is in creating a picture that the reader finds understandable. In browsing through many of the books available to download on my Kindle, a great many authors are far, far less adroit with such literary devices than Steinbeck.

In conclusion, if you somehow managed to tarnish the reputation of this American icon, to show his literary feet of clay and expose his wealthy lifestyle and attitudes, so be it.

I have a great many concerns about our society, many of which you addressed in your book. However, one of the brightest aspects of our current and near-future condition as a nation is the transparency made possible by our new technology in all of its forms — Internet searches, viral news (even if mostly fluff), and self-publishing, among others.

If our business and political leaders begin to realize that their “good ol’ boy” network is being carefully scrutinized — even, as in this case, 50 years later — they may curtail some of the more outrageous behaviors and deceptions.

In closing, I send you best wishes from China for your continued literary success. I hope it is a commercially successful future also.

Best regards…

 

Seems John Steinbeck wasn’t alone when it came to inventing facts for a “nonfiction” book.

Truman Capote, the father of the nonfiction novel, apparently did a lot more fact-fudging and truth-twisting “In Cold Blood” (1966) than he ever admitted and most people thought.

The Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Helliker has the sordid details in “Capote Classic ‘In Cold Blood’ Tainted by Long-Lost Files.”

Capote’s fictional tricks and lies in “In Cold Blood” were not as  thoroughly misleading as Steinbeck’s literary fraudulence in “Travels With Charley,” which I detail in “Dogging Steinbeck.”

But Capote gives me further ammo in my crusade for a new genre — True Nonfiction.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

John Steinbeck’s beloved, iconic, best-selling road book “Travels With Charley in Search of America” turned 50 on July 27.

For half a century, we were told and taught that it was a work of nonfiction. It wasn’t.

“Travels With Charley” (1962) is not the true and honest account of the cross-country trip Steinbeck made in the fall of 1960. You can read about how I stumbled upon the truth about his last major work in “Sorry, Charley” in the Post-Gazette or the April 2011 issue of Reason magazine. At Reason.com you can read “Whitewashing John Steinbeck,” which for the first time publicly reveals a highly X-rated paragraph of filthy language that was cut from the original manuscript of “Charley” in 1962.