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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2011

Fact-checking Steinbeck

BY CHARLES McGRATH
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In the fall of 1960 an ailing, out-of-sorts John Steinbeck, pretty much depleted as a novelist, decided that his problem was he had lost touch with America. He outfitted a three-quarter-ton pickup truck as a sort of land yacht and set off from his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with his French poodle, Charley, to drive cross-country. The idea was that he would travel alone, stay at campgrounds, and reconnect himself with the country by talking to the locals he met along the way.

Steinbeck's book-length account of his journey, Travels With Charley: In Search of America, published in 1962, was generally well reviewed and became a best-seller. It remains in print, regarded by some as a classic of American travel writing. Almost from the beginning, though, a few readers pointed out that many of the conversations in the book had a stagey, wooden quality, not unlike the dialogue in Steinbeck's fiction.

Early on in the book, for example, Steinbeck has a New England farmer talking in folksy terms about Nikita S. Khrushchev's shoe-pounding (or brandishing, depending on whom you ask) speech at the United Nations weeks before Khrushchev actually visited the United Nations. A particularly unlikely encounter occurs at a campsite near Alice, N.D., where a Shakespearean actor, mistaking Steinbeck for a fellow thespian, greets him with a sweeping bow, saying, "I see you are of the profession," and then proceeds to talk about John Gielgud.

Even Steinbeck's son John said he was convinced that his father never talked to many of the people he wrote about and added, "He just sat in his camper and wrote all that (expletive)."

In the current issue of the libertarian monthly Reason, Bill Steigerwald, a former journalist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — which, along with The Blade, makes up the Block News Alliance — writes that not only is the meeting with the actor made up, but on the evening in question, Oct. 12, Steinbeck wasn't anywhere near Alice. He was in Beach, N.D., more than 300 miles to the west, staying not in the camper but in a motel.

According to Steigerwald, Steinbeck stayed in motels a lot — when he wasn't at luxury hotels. On a night when he supposedly camped out on a farm near Lancaster, N.H., Steinbeck was actually at the Spalding Inn, a hotel so fancy that he had to borrow a coat and tie to eat in the dining room.

Nor was Steinbeck alone that much. On more than half of his trip he was accompanied by his wife, Elaine. All told, Steigerwald estimates that Steinbeck spent no more than a couple of nights in the camper itself, and says, "Virtually nothing he wrote in Charley about where he slept and whom he met on his dash across America can be trusted."

The Reason article is a distillation of a blog Steigerwald wrote for the Post-Gazette for several weeks in 2010 while retracing Steinbeck's journey in a leased Toyota RAV4. And he did sleep in the car, he pointed out in a recent phone interview. He stopped frequently in Walmart parking lots, and once he parked in a car dealer's lot, impersonating a used car. Steigerwald insisted that he began his project not intending to expose Steinbeck but to commemorate his journey and to write a book about how the United States had changed in 50 years.

"I didn't set out to blow the whistle," he said. "As a libertarian, I kind of like the old guy. He liked guns; he liked property rights."

In the published version of Travels With Charley Steinbeck's itinerary is often hard to follow, so Steigerwald created a timeline, drawing on newspaper accounts, biographies, and Steinbeck's letters, to determine where Steinbeck was on such and such a date. Discrepancies with the book's account immediately popped up. Steigerwald also consulted the handwritten first draft of Travels With Charley — now at the Morgan Library & Museum — where Steinbeck's wife is a much more frequent presence than she is in the final text.

"This is just grunt journalism," Steigerwald said of his research methods. "Anyone with a library card and a skeptical gene in his body could do what I did."

He added that he was a little surprised that his findings hadn't made more of a ripple among Steinbeck scholars: "Travels With Charley for 50 years has been touted, venerated, reviewed, mythologized as a true story, a nonfiction account of John Steinbeck's journey of discovery, driving slowly across America, camping out under the stars alone. Other than the fact that none of that is true, what can I tell you?" He added, "If scholars aren't concerned about this, what are they scholaring about?"

Susan Shillinglaw, who teaches English at San Jose State University and is a scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., said in a phone interview: "Any writer has the right to shape materials, and undoubtedly Steinbeck left things out. That doesn't make the book a lie."

Talking about the authenticity of the characters in Travels With Charley, she said, "Whether or not Steinbeck met that actor where he says he did, he could have met such a figure at some point in his life. And perhaps he enhanced some of the anecdotes with the waitress. Does it really matter that much?"

Jay Parini, author of a 1995 biography of Steinbeck who wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition of Travels With Charley, said he was surprised to learn that Elaine Steinbeck had accompanied her husband on so much of the trip. "I spent several hours with Elaine, and she never mentioned that," he added. "She made a big deal about how painful it was for them to be separated and how she insisted that he take the dog along for company."

About the book's accuracy he said: "I have always assumed that to some degree it's a work of fiction. Steinbeck was a fiction writer, and here he's shaping events, massaging them. He probably wasn't using a tape recorder. But I still feel there's an authenticity there."

He added, talking about Steigerwald's discoveries: "Does this shake my faith in the book? Quite the opposite. I would say hooray for Steinbeck. If you want to get at the spirit of something, sometimes it's important to use the techniques of a fiction writer. Why has this book stayed in the American imagination, unlike, for example, Michael Harrington's The Other America, which came out at the same time?"

In 2010, Bill Barich published Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America, an account of his own Steigerwald-like journey, in which he came to some more upbeat conclusions than Steinbeck had. "I'm fairly certain that Steinbeck made up most of the book," he said recently. "The dialogue is so wooden."

He added: "Steinbeck was extremely depressed, in really bad health, and was discouraged by everyone from making the trip. He was trying to recapture his youth, the spirit of the knight-errant. But at that point he was probably incapable of interviewing ordinary people. He'd become a celebrity and was more interested in talking to Dag Hammarskjold and Adlai Stevenson."

In some ways, Barich went on, Steinbeck's view of America was much darker than he let on in the book. "The die was probably cast long before he hit the road," he said, "and a lot of what he wrote was colored by the fact that he was so ill. But I still take seriously a lot of what he said about the country. His perceptions were right on the money about the death of localism, the growing homogeneity of America, the trashing of the environment. He was prescient about all that."



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