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.