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In the end it was no great loss that politics was purged from Charley’s first draft, because Steinbeck had pulled most of his punches anyway. What he wrote was softball stuff compared to what he expressed in long letters to Adlai Stevenson and his operatives in the run-up to the 1960 primary. In one letter now among the Stevenson papers kept at Princeton’s Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Steinbeck casually referred to Kennedy as “a bed-hopper.” It was a character flaw the author obviously knew about in the summer of 1960, even if the voting masses didn’t.
Nor was Steinbeck shy about sharing his distaste for Richard Nixon in his first draft. But he didn’t dare tell readers of Charley about the personal dirt he had on Nixon—which he privately urged the Stevenson camp to leak. In a letter to a Stevenson aide in the summer of 1960, Steinbeck wrote that he knew a talkative “psycho-analyst” in New York who bragged that he traveled three times a week to Washington to “put Dickie on the couch.” Calling for tactics Tricky Dick himself would have countenanced, Steinbeck said, “it is pleasant to know that Poor Richard is not happy. But this should be used.” If the Stevenson people didn’t use it, Steinbeck said he’d try other channels. (Nixon’s secret shrink was Dr. Arnold Hutschnecker, whom the Kennedy campaign didn’t find out about until the first week of September 1960.)
The Reality of Racism
Near the end of the Charley manuscript comes something that had to be cut because it was too graphic to publish in 1962. It was Steinbeck's transcription of what he heard a group of white mothers screaming outside the newly integrated William Frantz Elementary school in New Orleans’ white Upper Ninth Ward. The women, the so-called Cheerleaders, gathered outside the school each morning and their protest had become a national news story. Steinbeck drove to New Orleans specifically to see the daily circus of hate and what he saw rightly disgusted him. He felt that the “sad sickness” of that racist sideshow could not be conveyed unless the foul things the working-class women screamed were put down on paper for all to see. Writing that he knew there was “not a chance in the world that my readers will see” the women’s “bestial and degenerate” words, he quoted—or, more likely, he wrote down a condensed version of how he remembered them. His rendering raises questions of veracity in me if only because the taunt seems so masculine in its specifics. But there's little doubt that he was capturing what too many Americans thought when it came to integrating blacks into their full share of American life.
This is what Steinbeck said one woman shrieked at a white man who was defying the boycott by bringing his child to the virtually empty school: “You mother fucking, nigger sucking, prick licking piece of shit. Why you’d lick a dog’s ass if he’d let you. Look at the bastard drag his dirty stinking ass along. You think that’s his kid? That’s a piece of shit. That’s shit leading shit. Know what we ought to do? Strip down them fancy pants and cut off his balls and feed them to the pigs—that is if he’s got any balls. How about it friends?”
Whether the quote is literally accurate or not, that paragraph of filth and hate, like Steinbeck’s political play-by-play, never made it into the final version of the work. Travels with Charley is very much a PG-rated road book. Steinbeck's partisan leanings would have disturbed the general tone of the story by revealing its narrator as something other than a world-weary observer who cared more about deep truths and social trends than any ephemeral presidential election (his partisanship also ran the obvious risk of alienating the nearly 50 percent of American voters who voted for Nixon in 1960). The stark and vile racism expressed by the women in New Orleans similarly would have disrupted the overriding sensibility of Steinbeck's last major book. Cutting the women’s crude remarks shielded millions of readers from the indefensible and irrational hatred and foulness at the heart of racial discrimination.
And so the obscenities were cut, as Steinbeck knew they would be. He ultimately rewrote part of the Cheerleaders scene, capturing the ugliness of the scene without using a single dirty word (he reported that the women used words that were "bestial and filthy and degenerate" without quoting them directly). The resulting book proved to be a massive hit with readers and critics, but partly because Travels With Charley was less than honest not just about early 1960s America but about its author’s true feelings.
Bill Steigerwald worked as a writer, editor, and columnist for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette in the 1990s, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in the 2000s. This is adapted from his forthcoming book On the Road With Steinbeck’s Ghost: In Search of America and the Truth about Travels With Charley. The blog he wrote while retracing Steinbeck’s journey in the fall of 2010 is at The Truth About “Travels With Charley.”