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Sorry, Charley

Was John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley a fraud?


"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.

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.

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I toured the same sliver of America Steinbeck did, but what I saw in 27 states only affirmed what I already knew: America is big, beautiful, empty, safe, clean, and unfairly blessed with natural and human resources. I met only a few hundred of my fellow 309 million citizens last fall, but to a person they were friendly and helpful. And despite a depressed economy, the gauntlet of beautiful homes and shiny pickup trucks, RVs, boats, and snowmobiles I passed through day after day testified to the democratization of the material riches that the wealthy Steinbeck had decried.

From cell phone towers to Hyundai dealerships and Walmarts, I saw modern things that would have amazed, shocked, or offended Steinbeck. Yet what surprised me most was what might have surprised him most too: how little change has taken place on the Steinbeck Highway in the last 50 years. From the fishing villages of Maine to the redwoods of California to the Mississippi Delta, I drove by hundreds of towns and farms and crossroads that looked almost exactly like they did when Steinbeck passed through.

Steinbeck dropped hints in Charley that it wasn't a work of nonfiction. He insisted, a little defensively, that he wasn't trying to write a travelog or do real journalism. And he pointed out more than once that his trip was subjective and uniquely his, and so was its retelling. Whether that story was true or not, I'm glad I got to take my own strange trip down his highway—and got to laugh out loud in Alice.

Bill Steigerwald (xpaperboy@gmail.com) worked as a writer, editor, and columnist for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette in the 199s, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in the 2000s. His blog recounting his journey in Steinbeck's footsteps can be read at travelswithoutcharley2010.com.

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  1. And your point is … ?

  2. Why is “literary fraud” a problem. Hell, I did it.

  3. Next you’re going to tell me that Thoreau lived high-on-the-hog while in Walden Wood.

    1. Booze and hookers 24/7…

    2. Actually, Thoreau had it fairly easy. every week, he took his laundry into Concord, where Mrs. Emerson did the washing for him. then he stayed overnight, eating massively, and taking lots of leftovers to his cabin.

      1. He never kept it a secret, and alluded to it in Walden, if I am not mistaken.

      2. I had heard his mommy brought him lunch. Perhaps the orgasmic excess over nature in “Walden” is just him trying to compensate for this fact. “Civil Disobedience” is still amazing, though.

        1. Let me guess. Liberal? You don’t understand it so you mock it because it couldn’t possibly have merit?

          1. Please read again—->””Civil Disobedience” is still amazing, though.”

            You know, the parts where he suggests that being in jail for tax protesting is the moral thing. When I suggest this to liberals, they tend to say “but-but-but what if EVERYONE stopped paying for stuff they found to be murderous or criminal?”

            I scanned Walden and was trying to hard to be witty. I didn’t realize this reveled my deep liberal underpinnings.

            1. Also my typo in the word “too” and “revealed” suggests I hate freedom and America.

              1. Sorry Walden bored you. There must be nothing there then. Is that better?

            2. “but-but-but what if EVERYONE stopped paying for stuff they found to be murderous or criminal?”

              Those who really want of need that stuff might scratch up a supplier and pay for it.

  4. Thank God he didn’t try to pimp this out on Oprah. She would have had his testes for breakfast.

  5. Howard Zinn can vouch for the whole story.

  6. Perhaps this thread is another opportunity to discuss Wonder Woman…

  7. Is this the one about how the commie rides around South America on a motorcycle meeting the poor–and then grows up to torture political prisoners and execute people for wanting to own their own homes?

    ’cause I think I saw the movie.

    1. I guess I only saw the first half.

      1. Yeah, the first half was the part written by the torturer/executioner.

        Communists do have a great way with propaganda though, don’t they?

        Somehow the rabid capitalist stuff never seems to stick the same way the communist stuff does.

        The only thing that comes close is Dickens’ capitalist classic, “A Christmas Carol”. It’s about how one employee’s unbelievable ingratitude drives a poor old entreprenuer completely insane.

        It drives the old man so nuts that by the end of the book, he’s literally throwing money out the window!

        1. I thought I was the only one who thought that A Christmas Carol was a story about a good man being corrupted by societal pressure.

        2. Wasn’t Scrooge an orphan who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps ?

          1. I liked the part where accountant Bob Cratchit was chained to his desk so he couldn’t look for work in a more benevolent firm.

        3. “Somehow the rabid capitalist stuff never seems to stick the same way the communist stuff does.”

          “…he’s literally throwing money out the window!”

          A reading:

          “In his lifetime, jovial and flamboyant Amon G. Carter of nearby Fort Worth gave Mr. Stanley a run for his money as the best-known Texan of his time, but their personalities were somewhat different. Carter’s notion of showing good will, and one that was widely approved by its beneficiaries, was to arrive in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria for the annual newspaper publishers’ convention, take over an entire floor, and throw all the keys out the window into Park Avenue. He then kept open house like a maharaja for the duration.”

          (Lucius Beebe — “The Big Spenders”, 1966, p. 303)

        4. You guys are wrong about A Christmas Carol. It wasn’t anti-capitalist it was anti-selfishness. If you don’t want a nanny state then people are going to have to help each other voluntarily. Scrooge was right about one thing though (before he changed): if you want to celebrate a holiday that’s fine, but you shouldn’t expect to be paid for a day you don’t work.

          As for the rest: Steinbeck sucked. I never finished a single one of his books that I started, and finally gave up. I never got around to “Charlie”. It’s no surprise to me that he was a liar and a fraud as well as a socialist.

  8. Fraud is something of a strong word. Even Bill Stiegerwald says so–Steinbeck’s book was marketed as non-fiction when in fact it was mostly fiction. But all non-fiction is part fiction (if not, it’s “reference”).

    Is Exit Through The Giftshop fraud? No, it’s just fiction mixed with non-fiction, presented in a non-fiction format.

    Steinbeck’s book is basically stories about meeting people and seeing places. He saw all the towns/areas he said he saw, and undoubtedly Steinbeck met the TYPE of people he claimed to have met on that trip. I’m sure he’d camped or slept out under the stars, as well.

    Fraud would be Laura Ingalls Wilder claiming to have written something when she didn’t, or authors (featured on Oprah) making claims about the Holocaust or drug addiction that are untrue in order to plug their books.

    I guess what we would need here is statements by Steinbeck that everything in Travels With Charley was true (and that we should buy the book because of it). That would be fraud.

    Stiegerwald is 100% right that this book should be on the fiction shelf.

    1. Fraud would be Laura Ingalls Wilder claiming to have written something when she didn’t

      Funny you should mention that. Previously in Hit and Run:

      that the hugely popular and influential Little House books were highly influenced, edited, maybe even “ghostwritten” to a significant extent, by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s radical libertarian daughter and fellow novelist, Rose Wilder Lane.

      1. psst..I think that’s why he referenced Wilder (of all people) in the first place…

    2. Fraud would be Rigberta Menchu.

  9. “Yet what surprised me most was what might have surprised him most too: how little change has taken place on the Steinbeck Highway in the last 50 years. From the fishing villages of Maine to the redwoods of California to the Mississippi Delta, I drove by hundreds of towns and farms and crossroads that looked almost exactly like they did when Steinbeck passed through.”

    This line struck me. I’m 54, and when I visit my Dad in my little home town, it’s true, very little has changed in the last half century.

  10. Next up Reason does an exclusive on how War and Peace really isn’t the definitive history of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, how America really didn’t turn its lonely eyes to Joe DiMaggio and Country Roads of John Denver fame were actually in Maryland not West Virginia.

    It is art folks. Travels with Charlie is a great book because of its insights into character and life not because it was a fucking Frommers to 1962 America.

    1. John shows his disillusionment.

    2. Agreed. This piece isn’t “debunking” a “fraud”, it’s just identifying a perfectly ordinary bit of poetic license.

      Did Hunter S Thompson really take as many drugs as he claimed in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”? Did the Circus Circus restaurant incident happen exactly as the book describes? If not, would this be “fraud”?

      1. WAy off. Nice try, but you are just talking now

    3. Yes, but you just used a novel and two songs to demonstrate that some things are not nonfiction.

      This is supposed nonfiction by a former journalist (not a gonzo one like Thompson). There is certainly more of an assumption of truth behind nonfiction, otherwise why is it in a different section?

      1. But I think there is a grey area between hard journalism and pure fiction. This is the area books like In cold Blood, Travels With Charlie and War and Peace live in. War and Peace, although a novel colors our view of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia to this day.

        1. Still, In Cold Blood or anything that requires obvious trips by the author into someone else’s head is different (or should be) than the author was there and he saw this.

  11. Travels with Charlie is a great book because of its insights into character and life

    Is it?

    1. It’s a great book because it affirms liberal viewpoints

      1. All books can be classified as left books or right books.

        All that really needs to be said about a book is “it’s a great book because it’s on my side” or “it’s a bad book because it’s on the other side”.

        This makes reading books much easier. Hell, you don’t need to waste time reading books; just skim what other people say about a book, figure out which side it’s on, then pronounce your judgment accordingly.

  12. It is a great book. I think it is by far the best thing he ever wrote. he just has an understanding of people and is brilliant at describing them. I love that book.

    1. It’s Steinbeck’s one readable book, I’ll give you that much.

      1. I just read, “The Pearl.” It was wonderful.

        1. If you liked “The Pearl” so much, why not read the original, Norris’s McTeague. You will get “Of Mice and Men” as a free throw in.

    2. I think a couple of his larger works were most readable, when he was in his professional stride: Winter of our Discontent and In Dubious Battle. East of Eden was a tedious self-indulgence.

  13. Good God, I’m agreeing with John.

    1. Steinbeck never actually went to China.

        1. Pearl Buck was the daughter of China missionaries, and lived in China from the age of three months until she went “home” to the USA for college at about 19. She grew up bilingual in Chinese and English

  14. I dunno, apart from the marketing(which is clearly fraudulent), I think there is something profoundly misleading with saying “these are actual people, events, and conversations that I had”, versus “I made up these people, events, and conversations”. I think it changes people’s experience of the book, from “Wow, this actually happened.” to “Oh, look, a picaresque and imaginative tale.”

    1. Right.

      I dont think anyone expects the conversations to be word for word accurate, but I think there is an expectation that the conversations actually happened.

      If he actually met an actor while camping near Alice, ND, I dont think anyone would care if the conversation was mostly fiction.

      1. Or if he took two or three conversations and combined them into one more interesting one.

  15. Camping out and sleeping on the Continental Divide along Route 66 in New Mexico? I bet he had no trouble finding a flat sleeping spot.

  16. Sounds to me like he’s pissed he spent money to go to North Dakota.

  17. The synopsis of Steinbeck’s road book is fixed in our culture’s hard drive like a mythic TV Guide movie listing

    Is it?

    By which I mean, I’d literally never heard of it before – and none of the themes discussed here have any particular resonance, either.

    It’s not exactly Catcher in the Rye famous. Hell, it’s not even On The Road famous.

    1. I’d never heard of it either, and I was forced, like every other middle- and high-school student, to read copious amounts of Steinbeck, Salinger, Hardy (fuck him!), et al. I ain’t ‘zackly literarily ign’rint.

  18. Just another damn reminder of how naive I was when I was reading The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, Grapes of …., etc. in high school in the 1950s. Every English teacher shilled for Steinbeck back then. Born of privilege and always guilty for being so,he enjoyed commiserating with the “common” folk to assuage that guilt. What a colossal whiner.


  20. I second the post at 6:32 PM. I’d never heard of the book before either and I even took a 20th Century American Literature class which included other works by Steinbeck.

  21. By way of contrast: George Orwell of course characterized “Down and Out in Paris and London,” his extremely realistic and reality-based account of bumming it, as fictionalized. Because he was honest.

  22. Thanks for a fascinating glimpse into the literary history of our country. I have always had my suspicions about Kerouac’s stories and the self concocted autobiographies of many writers.Self mythologization is an old and common trait, it would seem.

    At his age I would think Steinbeck, as you surmise, winged it. At some point, the myths become the facts become the myths again.

  23. Charley was always one of my favorites. A few years ago when I was at the Steinbeck Center, I picked up a copy. I didn’t make it through even a third. It didn’t ring true and now I know why. I’ve decided not to chance re-reading any more Steinbeck.

  24. Steinbeck was indeed a great novelist. Even when he was writing “nonfiction”, he was a great novelist.

    Who was that black woman who [about 20 years ago] fabricated her life story and got prizes for it?

    1. Hillary Clinton?

  25. Euthanize the poodle, Steinbeck. For a more interesting journey next time take along Charlie Sheen.

    1. I have a title for it. “Also Spracht Charlie Sheen”

  26. I never read it but endured The Pearl in high school, read Grapes of Wrath on my own and after college read and enjoyed Cannery Row and Tortilla Flats. Had he pitched Travels With Charley as fiction, it would be acceptable – but his dishonesty ruins it, particularly since so many “intellectuals” seized and promoted its “truths”.

    And all those places that are the same, are only the same physically – look at the social structures – the rate of divorce, the familial isolation and the extent of government intrusion – and you would realize how radically different the world is today. The fact the buildings are the same as in 1960 means nothing.

    1. Doesn’t it mean everything, though? This country stopped growing, evolving, when we murdered industry in the 60’s. Or, some could argue, earlier.

  27. The author has committed two unforgivable linguistic sins: using “loan” for “lend,” and “gauntlet” for “gantlet.” They are not the same words, and they are not interchangeable.

    1. I missed gauntlet/gantlet, but flinched immediately at “loan” as a verb. A journalist, ex- or otherwise, should know better. But it’s been going on for decades. Just saw it in a book published in 1941. Not by Steinbeck.

    2. “Some people are bothered by the word loan as a verb, preferring to use lend in its place. There’s not much reason for the anxiety–loan has been a verb since around the year 1200, and I think an 800-year probation is long enough for anyone–but it’s now little used in America. My advice: don’t be bothered by loan as a verb but, if you want to avoid irritating those who have this hangup, it’s never wrong to use lend.”
      (Jack Lynch, The English Language: A User’s Guide, Focus, 2008)
      (The grammar expert says you have a hangup.)

      Also, not only are “gauntlet” and “gantlet” used interchangeably nowadays, a Google search shows “running the gauntlet” is 20 times more commonly used than “running the gantlet”. I’m afraid the original error has now become accepted usage, and thus no longer unforgivable.

      1. Jack Lynch the “grammar expert” doesn’t even know me I don’t think unless it’s somehow through Dubya’s Orwellian-named Patriot Act. Maybe he got my name through that. You’ll have to ask him. In the year 1200 folk at least in England and environs were speaking Old English (Anglo-Saxon), which is maybe 90 percent a foreign language to our contemporary English or perhaps Norman French which is 100 percent foreign either then or now. Maybe either language had “loan” as a verb but I’d have to see the proof. This bird Lynch sounds as if he wouldn’t care if Steinbeck wrote a novel and presented it or allowed it to be presented as by god fact. I’m not a libertarian thanks be to god but it doesn’t sound like a very libertarian stance to take though who knows maybe they don’t have a stance on grammar. From what I have read of Ayn Rand’s tortured prose she certainly did not.

        1. Yes, he and Dubya used the evil, Orwellian Patriot Act to find out about your persnickety ways. They also think you might be a truther, dude.

          (Loan. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc.)

          1. the act of lending; a grant of the temporary use of something: the loan of a book.
          2. something lent or furnished on condition of being returned, especially a sum of money lent at interest: a $1000 loan at 10 percent interest.

          ?verb (used with object)
          4. to make a loan of; lend: Will you loan me your umbrella?
          5. to lend (money) at interest.
          ?verb (used without object)
          6. to make a loan or loans; lend.

          1150?1200; Middle English lon ( e ), lan ( e ) (noun), Old English l?n < Old Norse l?n; replacing its cognate, Old English l?n loan, grant, cognate with Dutch leen loan, German Leh(e)n fief; compare lend

          ?Usage note
          Sometimes mistakenly identified as an Americanism, loan as a verb meaning “to lend” has been used in English for nearly 800 years. The occasional objections to loan as a verb referring to things other than money, are comparatively recent. Loan is standard in all contexts but is perhaps most common in financial ones: The government has loaned money to farmers to purchase seed.
          (Loan. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc.) http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Loan

  28. Who could doubt, when all was said and done, that man was not an egg custard, but rather a philosophical board game of infinite comedy and rare stink?

  29. Gosh, it’s almost like Steinbeck didn’t actually go through the long, exhausting process of meeting someone and getting them comfortable enough and interested enough to spill their guts to a stranger about the most intimate parts of their lives and beliefs. It’s almost like he knew how long and hard such a trip would really be, and, with the flubs and washouts, how many people he’d actually have to talk with to get a book, and so he decided he didn’t have enough desire to actually do it. Almost.

    It’s like he decided the way he wanted America to look, and what he wanted to have come out of folks’ mouths, and he just put it there.

    Thank goodness Steinbeck was so honest, and would never let his politics or ideology color what he did or wrote.

  30. Interesting work, and I have no doubt you are right about much of your debunking of Steinbeck’s trip; although compressing some events into the wrong days isn’t too great a sin.
    And Alice, N.D., is not far from Fargo, where running into an actor would not be improbable…
    But there is some doubt about Steigerwald’s own account of his visit to the Alice, N.D., area. He said a someone was harvesting wheat nearby, on Oct. 12. Last fall there was no spring wheat remaining that late, because it was an early growing season. It may have been soybeans or corn. And a combine doesn’t shave the stubble off a wheat field, it leaves stubble after shaving off most of the crop. So…check your notes.

  31. Um, who gives a shit?

  32. Life makes indifferent art and most anything worth reading needs a bit of editorial massaging. It is a kindness to the reader. If anyone is to be criticized, it is not the author who is just doing what authors do, but Steinbeck scholars who have not done what one would assume that scholars would do.

    The book might also remind us that fifty years ago liberals were nicer people than they are now.

  33. As a retired North Dakota farmer, Steigerwald’s comment about going to Alice is problematic and of a certain sameness to Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie.

    North Dakota is wheat country, although an increasing amount of corn is being grown. By October 12, all the wheat should have been combined, and it would have been soybean harvest season. Soybeans are combined right down to the ground, because the pods extend far down the plant.

    It’s clear from Travels with Charley that Steinbeck did not take notes. I personally think that much of the time he drove in an alcoholic haze. We know that memory is constantly being recreated. Certainly the history of President Reagan and his “remembrances” of movies as real events in his own life is an indication of how memory works.

    Did Steinbeck and Steigerwald remember Alice, ND in a similar fashion: a feeling of place but not exactly what it is since they have no long history of association with the place? Is it like Hunter Thompson’s: it’s not the truth but it’s like the truth.

    Nearby Fargo, ND is the cultural center of the Northern Plains. It is certainly likely Steinbeck could have run into the type of person he describes. My farmer father-in-law acted in plays at the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theater. Perhaps he ran into Rodney Nelson, who wrote the novel “Buffalo Alice,” inspired by the highway sign pointing the way north to Buffalo and south to Alice.

    1. I think you’re saying that Steigerwald can’t tell soybeans from wheat. Beans are broadleaf plants, and grains are grasses, but maybe a city boy wouldn’t know that. I would recommend that anyone that ignorant of agricultural matters refrain from publishing commentary on them.

      As for Steinbeck, I can easily see how someone who wasn’t taking notes could misplace an event from Fargo to the other end of ND. On the other hand, if he wasn’t too drunk to keep his truck on the road, he wasn’t nearly drunk enough to to remember staying in a luxury hotel with his wife as camping out alone.

  34. Steinbeck was in decline for a long time. He was arguably overrated even when he was writing good stuff like The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden (the best thing he ever wrote, in my opinion). By the time of Travels With Charley, he was in his Short Reign of Pippin IV and Winter of Our Discontent phase.

    1. Am I the only one that found the Grapes of Wrath painfully dull? A whole chapter about a goddamned turtle in the road!? Come on!

      1. I reread the Grapes of Wrath recently, and if you don’t think he made some good points about the use of land, banks, and the like, you read it with your eyes closed.

      2. There’s a lot of people who think Grapes of Wrath is not particularly well-written. I liked it and even I agree that the end is terrible. But I haven’t met anyone who thought it was dull.

        1. Even though ‘Grapes of Wrath’ was obvious socialist propaganda, the ending of that novel was one of the most memorable things I have ever read.

        2. Even though ‘Grapes of Wrath’ was obvious socialist propaganda, the ending of that novel was one of the most memorable things I have ever read.

          1. That’s what makes horse races.

          2. I thought it was deeply and profoundly contrived, and such an obvious ham-handed effort at making the working class the equivalent of Christ on the cross that its admittedly strong imagery was overcome by its pretension.

  35. A liberal friend of mine has an interesting solution to this discussion. He has a list of book reviewers he likes, and reads all their reviews and never reads the books. He says “why bother, I learn what I want to know and I always agree with them”.

    1. Wow, you aren’t kidding your friend is a liberal.

  36. Look, I can’t get worked up over this, but a good title for the piece would be “Peripatetic Prevarication.”

  37. Your comment about the less than aggressive reviewers of the day still works today — look at the pass Obama got in the 2008 election. Much of his early life remains shrouded in mystery.

    Not that much as changed.

    1. So, then, you’re, like, a birther, dude?

      1. Good comeback!

  38. “What is truth?” as someone once asked. Steinbeck’s defenders seem to think it’s overrated.

  39. The leftist, Farley Mowat seems to be an even more blatant offender. When I read My Father’s Son, there were numerous times when it was obvious to me this WW2 “memoir” was phoney. I later found I’m not the only one to question the great man’s exploits. I didn’t read Never Cry Wolf but apparently it’s more of the same:
    ‘In a 1964 article published in the Canadian Field-Naturalist, [2] Canadian Wildlife Federation official Frank Banfield compared Mowat’s 1963 bestseller to Little Red Riding Hood, stating, “I hope that readers of “Never Cry Wolf” will realize that both stories have about the same factual content.”‘
    From Wikipedia (Yes, Wikipedia. So shoot me.)
    Did I mention he’s a leftist?

  40. I was in Vietnam on Christmas Day of 1966 when the four-star jeep arrived carrying General Westmorland and a civilian in a tan outfit. The Pacific Stars and Sripes carried an article about how John Stienbach was visiting Vietnam so I instinctly knew that the man with the general was Stienbach. I always knew that his books were rooted in lefty dogma and I tolerated that. While I spoke with Stienbach, I spoke about ‘travels’ and ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and the like. Our time was limited because the general’s staff was ready to go. Quite an experience! But Stienbach was a true lefty and probably a socialist.

    1. Yes, but what about John Steinbeck?

  41. “Stienbach” is the name on his Kenyan birth certificate.

    1. Wow! More sparking wit!

  42. Author/naturalist Craig Harrison reports that there are similar inaccuracies in Steinbeck’s Log of the Sea of Cortez. In a private e-mail (which he gave me permission to circulate), he described taking a wildlife cruise in the Sea of Cortez with two very seasoned guides:

    “They said they had been very puzzled by many of the descriptions in the Log of the Sea of Cortez because Steinbeck confused his descriptions of many locations. He often described a unique feature
    that, in fact, is a place 50 or 100 miles away.

    “The guides said that a very aged John Huston (film maker and friend of Steinbeck, apparently) was on board one of their cruises not long before Huston died. The problems with Sea of Cortez came up. According to Huston, Steinbeck took no notes on the cruise, drank a bottle of Scotch every day, and was in the throes of a divorce with his first wife (who was on the cruise but never mentioned).

    “After returning to California, Steinbeck was broke and called John Huston and asked what to do. Huston takes credit for telling Steinbeck to write up a book about the Sea of Cortez cruise, but Steinbeck said he didn’t remember much because of his drunken stupor and took no notes. Apparently Huston told Steinbeck to use Ricketts’ notes to jog his memory.

    “The problems with Steinbeck fouling up many locations and the reasons for it may or may not be well known. Naturalists in the Sea of Cortez are apparently very cognizant of the screw-ups.”

  43. Okay, so he was a drunk, a liar, a socialist, a terrible author (IMO) and an all around loser. Sounds like a liberal icon to me! I’m sorry for what little time and effort I wasted on his work; although I will admit that Of Mice and Men made a good movie.

  44. A good friend of mine always says” What does truth have to do with a good story?”
    I agree. It is a great story, I enjoyed reading it and I’ll enjoy it the next time I read it.

  45. I guess my objection to Travel with Charley is on different grounds. I thought it was boring and unbelievable when I read it (mid 80s). Like a lot of Steinbeck’s writing, there’s a lot less here than meets the eye…

  46. We live in a time of midgets. But the type of midgets who shoot the feared gunfighter in the back as he’s playing poker and then run around telling everyone about it. Steinbeck has given millions of readers happiness and a certain type of truth that’s not really susceptible to factoid checkers such as Stiegerwald. Long after this whine is forgotten, Steinbeck and his “fraud” will be warming readers curled up with his book trying to forgt they live in a world of Steigerwalds.

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  48. This movie has some nike sb skunk dunks for sale of the same flaws I saw in another attempt at a faithful adaptation of a work of fantastic literature long thought unfilmable, Zach Snyder’s 2009 version of Watchmen…That is, it kobe 7 for sale struck me as a series of filmed recreations of scenes from the famous novel

  49. mes nonfiction bestseller list for a year, and its commercial and cultural tail?like those of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men

  50. Next you’re going to tell me that Thoreau lived high-on-the-hog while in Walden Wood.

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