(Page 2 of 3)
The synopsis of Steinbeck’s road book is fixed in our culture’s hard drive like a mythic TV Guide movie listing. It goes something like this: “Travels With Charley: Novelist John Steinbeck and his poodle spend three months alone on the American road, roughing it and camping out each night like hobos as they carefully document the soul of a changing nation and its people.” But after nine months of fact checking and 11,276 miles of drive-by journalism, I can tell you for sure that:
• Steinbeck was almost never alone on his trip. Out of 75 days away from New York, he traveled with, stayed with, and slept with his beloved wife, Elaine, on 45 days. On 17 other days he stayed at motels and busy truck stops and trailer courts, or parked his camper on the property of friends.
• Steinbeck didn’t rough it. With Elaine he stayed at some of the country’s top hotels, motels, and resorts, not to mention two weeks at the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove, California, and a week at a Texas cattle ranch for millionaires. By himself, as he admits in Charley, he often stayed in luxurious motels.
• Steinbeck rarely camped under the stars in the American outback. The campout in Alice, North Dakota, wasn’t the only fabricated resting place in Charley. Steinbeck also made up the very next night, when he said he slept under the stars in the evil Badlands as the coyotes howled. He couldn’t have done that, since that was the same night he was taking his hot bath in a motel in Beach, North Dakota.
• Steinbeck also fibbed about camping alone overnight on a farm near Lancaster, New Hampshire. When a local writer, Jeff Woodburn, innocently went looking for that farm and the Yankee farmer who owned it as part of a 50-year anniversary story, he discovered that neither had ever existed. What Woodburn learned was that in September 1960 Steinbeck had actually lodged overnight at the exclusive Spalding Inn, where hotel management had to loan him a tie and jacket so he could eat in the dining room.
About five nights of Steinbeck’s trip are unaccounted for, so it’s possible he slept in his camper shell on one or two of them. But virtually nothing he wrote in Charley about where he slept and whom he met on his dash across America can be trusted.
Did Steinbeck actually camp out on a second farm in New England or near the Continental Divide along Route 66 in New Mexico? Did he sleep in his camper in the rain under that bridge in Maine? Did he really camp on private land in Ohio and Montana? And did the shy Steinbeck really bump into all of those interesting, quotable, all-American characters parading through Charley’s pages? Or did the great novelist make up, embellish, or liberally fictionalize the Canuck potato pickers in Maine, the erudite Yankee farmers, the fire-and-brimstone preacher, the son of an Idaho mountain man who wanted to be a hairdresser, the good veterinarian in Amarillo? Not to mention a full spectrum of civil rights characters, from a Southern white racist to an old black field hand?
Only Steinbeck’s ghost knows for sure. Does it matter?
Maybe Travels With Charley should be shelved with Steinbeck’s novels instead of in the nonfiction section. All nonfiction is part fiction, and vice versa. It’s not like Steinbeck wrote a phony Holocaust memoir that sullies the memories and souls of millions of victims.
From what I can gather, Steinbeck didn’t fictionalize in the guise of nonfiction because he wanted to mislead readers or grind some political point. He was desperate. He had a book to make up about a failed road trip, and he had taken virtually no notes. The finely drawn characters he created in Charley are believable; it’s just not believable that he met them under anything like the conditions he describes. At crunch time, as he struggled to write Charley, his journalistic failures forced him to be a novelist again. Then his publisher, The Viking Press, marketed the book as nonfiction, and the gullible reviewers of the day—from The New York Times to The Atlantic—bought every word.
Travels With Charley is almost 50 years old. It has its slow parts and silly parts and dumb parts. It contains obvious filler and fiction, but in many ways it is still a wonderful, quirky, and entertaining book. It contains flashes of Steinbeck’s great writing, humor, and cranky character, and it appeals to readers of all ages. That’s why it’s an American classic and still popular around the world.
Still, there’s no denying Steinbeck got away with writing a dishonest book. Not only did he fudge the details of his road trip, but he pulled his punches about what he really thought about the America he found. In Charley he fretted about the things he didn’t like about American society: pollution, early signs of sprawl, the rise of national chains, the increasing prevalence of plastic. But in private he complained directly about the failings of his 180 million fellow Americans: They were materialistic, morally flabby, and headed down the road to national decline.
If Steinbeck sounds like a liberal who’d been living like a prince in New York City too long, it’s because that’s what he was. Fifty-eight and in poor health when he set out on his ambitious voyage of discovery, he quickly ran aground on his own loneliness and the realization that our “monster land” was too big and too complex for one man to understand.
[article continues below video advertisement]