Literary Fraud or Tempest in a Teapot

Viking Press published John Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley” in 1962 to rave reviews and incredible sales.  Steinbeck had revived his brilliant career a year earlier with publication of his morality tale, “The Winter of Our Discontent.”  Although the Nobel Prize for Literature is awarded for a body of work as opposed to a single publication, Steinbeck became the Nobel laureate because of that book.

But Steinbeck, as usual, was restless.  This restlessness was an itch he had to scratch all his life.  So, he decided to embark on a trip across America to discover America, or perhaps to re-discover it.  After all, the subtitle of “Travels With Charley” is “In Search of America.”  We all know the result.  “Travels With Charley” is a beloved book.  It is funny.  It is an easy read.  It is well written.  And it is a fraud.

My-TravelsWithCharley

Says who?  Bill Steigerwald says.  A career journalist, Steigerwald decided to follow Steinbeck’s “Charley” route in the fall of 2010 traveling through America exactly 50 years after Steinbeck’s trip in the pick up with camper shell he called Rocinate after Don Quixote’s horse.  He didn’t set out to expose Steinbeck, but his research of Steinbeck’s first draft, which is located at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York, plus an examination of Steinbeck’s road letters home to his wife, Elaine, and his agents in New York revealed that “Travels With Charley” is not nonfiction at all.  Steigerwald found that Steinbeck made up a lot of the people he supposedly encountered on his trip and did more, much more than make liberal use of literary license.

According to Steigerwald, 90% of the humans in “Travels With Charley” were made up in whole or in part.  He says that scholars should have been more skeptical of the book.  In reading Steinbeck’s book it appears that, other than his companion, his French poodle named Charley, Steinbeck was alone for much of the trip.  Not so, says Steigerwald.  His wife Elaine was with him for 28 straight days in the Seattle to Monterey portion of the trip, but Steinbeck never mentions her.  Steinbeck’s old running buddy from his Stanford days, Webster “Toby” Street, also traveled with him for four days from Monterey to Flagstaff.  He isn’t mentioned.  The idea of Rocinate was that Steinbeck could go alone through structured highways and along back country roads and be self-contained so that he could camp out and sleep in the truck during his exploration.  Not so, says Steigerwald.  Rather, Steinbeck often stayed in luxury hotels.  Steigerwald figures that Elaine was with her writer husband for 43 days of his 75-day round-trip across America.

“They stayed together in hotels, motels, resorts, family homes, Adlai Stevenson’s home, and at a fancy Texas cattle ranch,” according to Steigerwald.  He goes on to say that Steinbeck spent twice as much time relaxing on his journey as he did driving.  He says that Steinbeck did no journalism and spent little time with ordinary people when that was supposedly part of the book’s premise.

According to Steigerwald, “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 and 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,” says Steigerwald.  “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 punishment of the open road.  He quickly got lonely and tired and no doubt bored.”

Lest you think otherwise, Steigerwald also has praise for Steinbeck, despite his criticism, saying, “…he deserves 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 even have considered traveling the rough way he did?”

Thus, “Travels With Charley” is “essentially not a true account of the author’s trip and an authentic snapshot of 1960 America,” according to Steigerwald.

Bill's-DoggingSteinbeck

He sums up his own trip, his research, and his resulting book, “Dogging Steinbeck,” and his discoveries this way, “I never intended to unmask Steinbeck as a serial fabricator or wreck the romance for readers who love “Travels With Charley.”  I thought and acted like a journalist.  I merely followed the facts where they led me  —  and learned that Steinbeck, his wife, his agent, his editors, and his publishing company Viking pulled a fast one on the American reader in 1962.”

So, the question becomes, is “Travels With Charley” authentic?  After reading Steigerwald’s “Dogging Steinbeck” and then re-reading the great author’s book decades after my first reading, the answer is probably not.

What is clear, based on my own knowledge about writers, is that they often confuse fact and fiction because so much of what they do is creative, whether true or untrue.  And once they have written it, it becomes what they intended, whether true or not.  They can no longer tell the difference and often don’t care.  “Travels With Charley” is not a hard-hitting journalistic expose.  The book undoubtedly started as nonfiction and then morphed.  To John Steinbeck, whatever it morphed into became the truth.

My own suggestion is to read Steinbeck’s incredibly popular book again, or for the first time, and then immediately follow with a reading of “Dogging Steinbeck.” Steigerwald’s book, which is both a travelogue and an exploration, is a good, easy read that is both informative and entertaining.  Then you can compare and contrast and draw your own conclusions.   I did the exact opposite, reading Steigerwald’s book first and then re-reading Steinbeck’s, but here is what I found.

One generalization  —  the characters that Steinbeck encounters often seem too good to be true, as if they fit his purposes.  Very early in his book Steinbeck writes, “…two or more people disturb the ecologic complex of an area.  I had to go alone and I had to be self-contained, a kind of casual turtle carrying his house on his back.”  True enough, but as Steigerwald shows, Steinbeck was far, far from being alone for much of the trip.

Maybe I’m suspicious after reading Steigerwald’s book or maybe it’s my natural suspicion from my own years as a journalist, but I have trouble with the very beginning of the book.  When “Travels With Charley” starts, Steinbeck tells us how he anchored his cabin boat before Hurricane Donna hit Long Island.  That part is okay, but later, when the storm hits, he wades out to the boat, re-anchors it, operates chains that he usually could not under calm conditions, then rides a branch back to shore  —  all the while wearing heavy boots.  And all of this was accomplished by a man who had strokes, had a bum knee, drank and smoked way too much, and who was only 10 years away from an early death?  I don’t think so.

I am reminded of what Johnny Carson of the Tonight Show use to say about his jokes which is that if you buy the premise, you’ll buy the bit.  So, if you believe Steinbeck had near Herculean powers and that he did what he says he did in the beginning of his famous book, then you’ll buy the rest of the book.

Although the writing is strong through the first 90 pages or so of a c.250-page book, Steinbeck talked to few people and made no discoveries about the America he sought to re-learn.  More than halfway through the book it is clear that “Travels With Charley” is none of what he first suggested.  He wrote a lot about a lot of things, and often beautifully, and in an engaging manner, but he spoke to few people.  I kept waiting for a discovery.  He made none.  In short, he left Sag Harbor in Long Island, went to Maine, and then he’s in Chicago, but there was no searching for America at all.  He wrote an essay, an elongated essay clothed with fiction writing techniques filled with generalities.  It’s fun and funny and well written, but it’s not even a travelogue.

About halfway through the book he says to himself, “I came on this trip to learn something of America.  Am I learning anything?  If I am, I don’t know what it is.”  He seems to talk to Charley more than anyone else, so how did he expect to discover or re-discover anything about his America?

Oh, but the man can write!  For example:

“The night was loaded with omens.  The grieving sky turned the little water to a dangerous metal and then the wind got up  —  not the gusty, rabbity wind of the seacoasts I know but a great bursting sweep of wind with nothing to inhibit it for a thousand miles in any direction.”

The end of the book is interesting because he traveled to New Orleans where a group of women known as The Cheerleaders daily spat the most vile filth one can imagine at the innocent black children being integrated into “white” public schools, as well as any white person who didn’t abide by the rules of the Jim Crow South that The Cheerleaders supported.  Separate but equal was still the norm and the South didn’t want change.  To Steinbeck’s everlasting credit, he quoted the exact filth these adults vomited daily in his first draft.  His agents and publisher objected and those passages —  which are in Steigerwald’s book  —  didn’t make the final cut, despite Steinbeck’s spirited defense.  To the credit of his agents and publisher, they did leave in the n-word, not used by Steinbeck, but quoted by him from his encounters with Southerners.

Steigerwald’s discoveries did make Steinbeck’s current publisher, the Penguin Group, change their marketing of the book from nonfiction to something akin to a hybrid.  New editions of “Travels With Charley” note Steinbeck’s novelistic touches and warn readers that “it would be a mistake to take his travelogue too literally.”  Some Steinbeck scholars will now admit that the book is not nonfiction in the traditional sense.  Others are still fighting that notion.  On the one hand, there are examples of nonfiction books like Greg Mortenson’s “Three Cups of Tea” that turned out to be not true, the result of which fleeced readers of donations that they might have not otherwise made.  On the other hand, the result of Steinbeck’s liberal (too liberal?) use of literary license didn’t have such a sinister result.  So, is “Travels With Charley” a real fraud or a tempest in a teapot?  What do you think?

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