Editor’s Note: When John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley in Search of America was first published 50 years ago on July 27, 1962, it quickly sold hundreds of thousands of copies and stayed on the nonfiction bestseller lists for over a year. Since then it has become a classic American road book, loved by millions on account of Steinbeck’s quirky humor, vivid descriptions of the natural world, and wise and cranky observations about America and its people.
Yet as Bill Steigerwald revealed in Reason’s April 2011 issue, Steinbeck’s work of “nonfiction” is riddled with fictional people and events and offers a mostly inaccurate portrait of the Nobel laureate’s actual travels. As part of his groundbreaking research, Steigerwald read the original manuscript of Travels With Charley at New York’s Morgan Museum and Library, where he discovered that the book’s first draft was heavily edited to remove Steinbeck’s New Deal politics and create the myth of an open-minded journey. Thus the reading public was deceived into seeing Steinbeck as an impartial observer, rather than as the staunch partisan he really was. Just as Barack Obama used composite characters and other fictional conceits in his memoir Dreams from My Father (as detailed in David Maraniss’ recent biography of the president), Steinbeck departed from the truth in order to further his narrative.
Also excised from Steinbeck’s original manuscript was a paragraph of racist and offensive language drawn from Steinbeck’s encounter with a group of white female protesters outside of a recently integrated school in New Orleans. Disgusted by the hatred and annoyed that the national news media of the day censored the women’s crude language, Steinbeck was eager to expose their statements. But the paragraph detailing their ugly hate was cut from the published version of the book and virtually no one has seen it in half a century. By cooperating with his publisher to suppress the disturbing truth about segregation, Steinbeck inadvertently abetted the system’s continuance. Until now, the only place those chilling words of hate could be read was in the reading room of the beautiful Morgan Library.
Three weeks before I left on my trip to retrace John Steinbeck’s steps in Travels With Charley in Search of America, I did something no one in the world had done in four years. I went to the Morgan Library & Museum in Manhattan to read the first draft of the book. The handwritten manuscript—along with a typed and edited copy—has been stored at the Morgan like the Ark of the Covenant at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark for almost 50 years.
Few scholars, graduate students, or critics had bothered to read it. If they had, the Travels With Charley myth—that for 11 weeks Steinbeck slowly traveled alone, camped out often, carefully studied the country, and told readers what he really thought about America and its 180 million people—might have been debunked decades ago.
The Charley manuscript has been at the Morgan since Steinbeck donated it in 1962. It is broken up into five or six handwritten chunks that Steinbeck finished about nine months after he returned from his road trip in early December, 1960. Written entirely in his barely decipherable scribble, with hardly a word crossed out or changed, each page is filled from top-to-bottom and edge-to-edge. It’s mostly in pencil on carefully page-numbered yellow or white legal pads. One 50-page section, which Steinbeck wrote while vacationing in Barbados in February of 1961, is written in pen in a ledger-like book that also includes a daily journal he kept.
For three summer days in 2010 I sat in the reading room at the Morgan Library like a monk and took notes in longhand. I compared the first draft of what Steinbeck had given the working title In Quest of America with the final version of Travels With Charley stored on my smart-phone’s Kindle app. According to Declan Kiely, the Morgan’s curator of literary and historical manuscripts, fewer than six people had looked at the Charley manuscript since 2000. I was the first since 2006.
The edits to the first draft mostly make sense; a lot of extraneous details and long-windedness on Steinbeck’s part are cut. But excising material about Steinbeck’s regular liaisons with his wife Elaine in fancy hotels, his stay with his good friend and failed presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, and his outright contempt for Richard Nixon serve another purpose. The casual or romantic reader is left with the impression that Steinbeck was alone and on the road most of the time, when in fact he was neither. By the time Viking Press was done marketing the book as nonfiction and dressing it up with excellent but misleading illustrations by Don Freeman, the Travels With Charley myth was born and bronzed. The book was an instant and huge bestseller. Critics and reviewers, followed by several generations of scholars, never questioned the book’s nonfiction status.
Nixon, Kennedy, and Adlai Stevenson
The historic Nixon-Kennedy presidential race was playing out in the fall of 1960 and part of Steinbeck’s original mission was to take the political pulse of the country. He was sad to find that most of the people he saw on his trip did not have political opinions. Steinbeck was not a disinterested political observer. He was openly partisan and said as much in the first draft, where he wrote that he and Elaine “were and are partisan as all get out … confirmed, blown in the glass democrats….” That admission was cut.
A devout New Deal Democrat, Steinbeck had supported, worked for, and almost idolized the witty and egg-headed Adlai Stevenson, who lost the White House to Eisenhower in 1952 and 1956 in lopsided elections. Steinbeck even stayed at Stevenson’s 70-acre estate outside Chicago during the Charley trip, a fact that didn’t make it into the published version of the book. Steinbeck, who wanted Stevenson to try again in 1960, didn’t swoon over the prospects of a President John Kennedy. He was leery of JFK’s character flaws and didn’t think he could win because he was a Roman Catholic. But he loathed Nixon, as the first draft of Charley repeatedly makes clear.
A 50-word passage mentioning Nixon was cut from the scene in Charley where Steinbeck is lost in a rainstorm in Medina, New York. Steinbeck had joked about hearing Nixon on the radio blaming every natural and unmentioned calamity “as far back as the Flood” on the Democratic Party. A few pages later a larger cut was made. Steinbeck wrote in the first draft that he watched Nixon and JFK debate on TV in his motel room in Buffalo. He criticized Nixon and Herbert Hoover and went on for about 150 words, making fun of their pedestrian reading habits and comparing their low intelligence levels to Kennedy’s high one. “Being a democrat,” he wrote, without capitalizing the word, “I wanted Kennedy to win….”
All four Nixon-Kennedy debates occurred while Steinbeck was on the road. Based on his letters and what he wrote in the first draft, he saw or heard each debate in full or in part. He wrote that he watched the third presidential debate on the TV in his room at a “pretty auto court” in Livingston, Montana. He sarcastically asked himself if Montanans had any real interest in the major geopolitical issue of the debate—whether the United States should stay and defend the tiny islands of Quemoy and Matsu, which the Red Chinese were shelling and threatening to take from Taiwan. Other political comments he made in San Francisco, Monterey, and Amarillo—some of them bipartisan in their cynicism—were axed completely.
Though it took most of the edge away from the book, cutting out almost all the presidential politics from Travels With Charley was smart and logical editing. First of all, by the time the book hit bookstores—in late July of 1962—the 1960 election was ancient history. Who cared what Steinbeck thought about the third JFK-Nixon debate? Plus, Steinbeck’s political sniping was partisan, boring, and at odds with the rest of the book’s grouchy but generally likable tone.
Yet cutting the politics out of Charley was an odd thing to do in a book that was supposed to be a nonfiction account of a trip taken during one of the country’s most exciting and historic elections. The names Kennedy and Nixon hardly appear. In fact, thanks to the edits made to the first draft, each of their names appears just once—on page 176 of the 246-page 1962 Viking Press hardback edition, when Steinbeck arrives in Monterey a few days before the election and has a brief, hot partisan argument with his Republican sister.