“Hah!” I shouted as a million North Dakota cornstalks rattled in the October wind. “Who were you trying to kid, John? Who’d you think would ever believe you met a Shakespearean actor out here?”
For three weeks I had been retracing the 10,000-mile road trip John Steinbeck made around America in 1960. I wasn’t in the habit of speaking directly to his ghost. But I couldn’t stop from laughing at the joke Steinbeck had played on everyone in the pages of his subsequent travelog, released in 1962 to general acclaim and still revered as a mid-century document of the American soul.
A huge commercial success from the day it hit bookstands, Travels With Charley in Search of America was touted and marketed as the true account of Steinbeck’s solo journey. It stayed on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for a year, and its commercial and cultural tail—like those of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath—has been long and fat. For five decades Steinbeck scholars and others who should know better have not questioned the book’s honesty. But I had come to realize that the iconic American road book was not only heavily fictionalized; it was something of a fraud.
No one could hear me talking to Steinbeck’s ghost that October afternoon. I was parked on an unpaved farm road in the earthly equivalent of outer space: the cornfields of North Dakota, 47 miles southwest of Fargo.
The closest “town” was Alice, a 51-person dot on the map of a state famous for its emptiness. The closest human was more than a mile away, hidden in the cloud of dust that her combine made as it shaved the stubble of the family wheat crop.
The area was the scene of one of the most dubious moments in Travels With Charley. Steinbeck wrote that he and his French poodle, Charley, camped overnight somewhere “near Alice” by the Maple River, where he just happened to meet an itinerant Shakespearean actor who also just happened to be camping in the middle of the middle of nowhere. According to Steinbeck, the two hit it off and had a long, five-page discussion about the joys of the theater and the acting talents of John Gielgud.
Bumping into a sophisticated actor in the boondocks near Alice would have been an amazing bit of good luck for the great writer. And it could have really happened on October 12, 1960. But like a dozen other improbable encounters that Steinbeck said he had on his 11-week road trip from Long Island to Maine to Chicago to Seattle to California to Texas to New Orleans and back to New York City, it almost certainly didn’t.
It’s possible Steinbeck and Charley stopped to have lunch by the Maple River on October 12 as they raced across North Dakota. But unless the author was able to be at both ends of the state at the same time—or able to push his pickup truck/camper shell “Rocinante” to supersonic speeds—Steinbeck didn’t camp overnight anywhere near Alice 50 years ago. In the real world, the nonfiction world, Steinbeck spent that night 326 miles farther west, in the Badlands, staying in a motel in the town of Beach, taking a hot bath. We know this is true because Steinbeck wrote about the motel in a letter dated October 12 that he sent from Beach to his wife, Elaine, in New York.
Steinbeck’s nonmeeting with the actor near Alice is not an honest slip-up or a one-off case of poetic license. Travels With Charley is loaded with such creative fictions.
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My initial motives for digging into Travels With Charley were totally innocent. I simply wanted to go exactly where Steinbeck went in 1960, to see what he saw on the Steinbeck Highway, and then to write a book about the way America has and has not changed in the last 50 years.
I had a lot of Steinbeck homework to do, and I dove in. First I reread Travels With Charley—and immediately became suspicious about the credibility of almost every character that Steinbeck claimed he had met, from the New England farmers who sound like Adlai Stevenson crossed with Descartes to the archetypal white Southern racist in New Orleans.
Using clues from the book, biographies of Steinbeck, letters Steinbeck wrote from the road, newspaper articles, and the first draft of the Charley manuscript, I built a time-and-place line for Steinbeck’s trip from September 23, 1960, to December 5, 1960. The more I learned about Steinbeck’s actual journey, the less it resembled the one he described.