The New York Times Groks The Trouble With Charley (and Bullshit Nobel Laureates)


Yesterday's New Yawk Times carried a house editorial about Bill Steigerwald's recent Reason article documenting the lying and dissembling at the heart of Nobel Prize-winning writer John Steinbeck's supposedly non-fiction book, Travels with Charley (1962). Steinbeck, best known for the novels Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath, set out to tour the country on the cheap with his pet dog but, as Steigerwald documents pretty brilliantly, the famous author misrepresented his itinerary and clearly made up many, if not all, of the book's memorable moments. The Times editorial board agrees, writing "Steinbeck's 'Travels With Charley in Search of America' is shot through with dubious anecdotes and impossible encounters":

This might not flabbergast anyone who has read the book lately. It is full of improbably colorful characters and hard-to-swallow dialogue straight out of a black-and-white 1960s TV show. "What's the matter with you, Mac, drunk?" says a red-faced New York cop. "You can just rot here," says a forlorn young man in the Rockies who wears a polka-dot ascot and dreams of being a beautician in New York. "Flops. Who hasn't known them hasn't played," says a traveling Shakespearean actor in North Dakota.

One especially incredible melodrama is set in New Orleans. It is a meditation on racism with a scary white bigot, a white moderate and two emblematic African-Americans: a timid, weather-beaten field hand and a bold young student who is tired of the boycotts and sit-ins.

It is irritating that some Steinbeck scholars seem not to care. "Does it really matter that much?" one of them asked a Times reporter.

Steinbeck insisted his book was reality-based. He aimed to "tell the small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth." Books labeled "nonfiction" should not break faith with readers. Not now, and not in 1962, the year "Travels With Charley" came out and Steinbeck won the Nobel Prize for literature.

Whole Times editorial here.

A Nobel laureate being totally full of shit? Who'da thunk it!

An earlier Times piece quotes Steigerwald himself sounding like a Steinbeck character:

"Other than the fact that none of that is true, what can I tell you?" He added, "If scholars aren't concerned about this, what are they scholaring about?"

But the scholars are a depressingly jaded bunch, especially when it comes a fairly clear-cut line between non-fiction and fiction:

Susan Shillinglaw, who teaches English at San Jose State University and is a scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., said in a phone interview: "Any writer has the right to shape materials, and undoubtedly Steinbeck left things out. That doesn't make the book a lie."

Talking about the authenticity of the characters in "Travels With Charley," she said, "Whether or not Steinbeck met that actor where he says he did, he could have met such a figure at some point in his life. And perhaps he enhanced some of the anecdotes with the waitress. Does it really matter that much?"…

Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini tells the Times:

 "Does this shake my faith in the book? Quite the opposite. I would say hooray for Steinbeck. If you want to get at the spirit of something, sometimes it's important to use the techniques of a fiction writer."

I must say that I question the Times account here, because I think the last person who says they "would say hooray" for anything died even before Travels With Charley was published. I'm a die-hard postmodernist, but let's not be retarded here: If a narrative's power pulls directly from its facticity rather than its fabulism, then it better be a defensible version of reality. Defensible in the sense of this pretty much happened the way I've tried to capture it.

When you think of the New Journalism, which is often accused of destroying objectivity in news, Tom Wolfe at his best wasn't bringing fictional techniques to reporting in order to make shit up; he was using them to better get at social reality. An essay like "Radical Chic" would be completely devoid of merit or meaning if it turned out that Wolfe simply made up quotes by Leonard Bernstein or Otto Preminger. If a novelist wants to write a non-fiction book and then makes stuff up "to get at the spirit of something," more power to 'em. Just don't call it non-fiction. The real insight of postmodernism is that we should show "incredulity toward metanarratives" and that our ability to understand reality without distortion is provisional and limited even when we're trying our best to get things right. That's got nothing to do with the grift that Steinbeck pulled and what his critical enablers are defending here.

Jesse Walker blogged the Times' coverage of Steigerwald's piece here.

Read Steigerwald's story here.

NEXT: Some Notable Atlas Shrugged Movie Reviews: P.J. O'Rourke, Kyle Smith, and Others

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  1. “but let’s not be retarded here”

    I thought the Jacket was smarter than having to resort to this sort of crap. Why do I send money to you people?

    1. I need to set up paypal on my blog 😉

      1. No, I’ll do a paywall. That way I’ll get paid because people want to witness my genius.

    2. Gillespie didn’t say that, it was a character called “Gillespie,” created by Gillespie.

  2. So it’s fake but accurate?

    1. Truthy, Night Elf. Truthy.

  3. Hmm, no one gave a shit the first time Reason posted on this story

    1. I am not amused! Dance puppets dance!

    2. Apparently the New York Times did.

      1. do they still print it? 😉

        1. 8========D – – – – – O:
          Daddy ^ …………. Me ^

  4. Obligatory objection to the Times still listing lying Walter Duranty with their list of Pulitzer Prizes.

    1. Seconded. But Pulitzer refused to revoke the prize…

  5. I guarantee you that most “non-fiction” work is 50% made up or more, or at the very least, so heavily modified that it might as well be.

    I think that it’s the people who expect this shit to be “true” because they were told it was who need to rethink how gullible they are.

    1. No, I don’t think that applies to most non-fiction, when you consider that the category includes a lot of technical material, routine reporting, and opinion. You might be right if you limited it to popular non-fiction in book form.

      However, like you, I’ve always realized a lot of stuff is made up because nobody could remember it with the specificity with which it’s reported. When someone says that 20 years ago this person said, “Blah, blah,” and goes on for a paragraph, who could believe those were that peerson’s exact words?

      My greater concern is that a large percentage of works labeled as fiction is true factual material. Those disclaimers are usually lies; the resemblance to persons, events, etc., living and dead, is deliberate.

      So how do you accurately label a work that’s 50% true, 50% made up? “Faction”? It’d be a lie to call it either fiction or non-fiction. And while 50-50 may be an unusual mixture, there’s always some truth in lies, and some lies in truth.

    2. What I especially don’t believe is history. The farther back you go, the less you can trust the details. For instance, there’s overwhelming evidence that the USA existed 200 years ago. However, there’s very little evidence for precise statements about things particular individuals did in the USA 200 years ago, and where the things they did were alleged to be contentious there’s strong reason to doubt anyone’s account of them.

      1. To take another example, one can estimate probably within a factor of 4 the population of Earth 500 years ago, but evidence for the existence of particular individuals is untrustworthy, regardless of how many witnesses there might be said to have been at the time. Shakespeare is a commonly given example, but that’s because there’s so much att’n paid to that persona; one could easily do the same for other prominent alleged contemporaries.

      2. How confident are you, for instance, of the day of the week? Jews have been keeping a calendar for millenia, but there were probably many times a few thousand years ago that the number of people in cx with each other was small enough, and where they cared little enough, that they lost track.

  6. The NYT white-washed Stalin’s crimes for years.

    It’s almost a surprise that they would have any interest in actual truth.

  7. This is know as “Gonzo Journalism”. i.e. the facts don’t matter as long as you have caught the spirit of the matter.

    Closely related to the line I heard from howling radicals in Berkeley when I caught them lying: “I’m lying in the interests of a higher truth”.

    1. I once met a perfectly respectable, intelligent person who was a Berkeley student during the “wild years” of the 1960s. Back in that time, he told me, he was pretty horrified and disgusted with media accounts of the student and community activism in and around the Berkeley campus: reports were greatly sensationalized and far overstated the level of unrest there. He went into San Francisco — to places such as the Chronicle and other media outlets — to see if they would be interested in receiving (or publishing) more realistic eye-witness accounts. Of course, they were not. Sensationalism sells, after all. According to that fellow, this is when he learned that so much that we “think” we know either never happened at all, or was wildly misrepresented by media concerns that were greedily, desperately trying to get (monopolize!) our attention — and perhaps had the axes of unstated ideological agenda to grind, as well.

      I was at Berkeley in the mid-1970s; it was, for the most part, tranquil. I tried to rationalize this night-and-day contrast with what I had seen on TV and read in the papers with the great changes that could happen in just a few years, especially with the winding down of the very motivational Vietnam War. But maybe, to begin with, the scene was never as much of a radical hotbed as we were primed to think. It becomes harder and harder to get at the truth with the passage of time and the cementing of people’s sentimental recollections of the era.

      1. I was Berkeley 1975.

        Sometimes you get lucky and find things you can easily check for accuracy.

        ex. The radicals claimed 12,000 rioters. The police claimed 2,000.

        I am an engineer (too dumb to think about genuinely IMPORTANT things). I paced Royce Quad several times and did the math. +/- 20% I believe the police.

        Now, where were all those highly educated purveyors of truth – the media? Was it too much work to multiply two numbers and divide by square footage per person? Or was it too intellectually demanding?

        1. Heck, I’ve never known of a single case of first hand knowledge of an event matching a news report. Sometimes just little details are wrong, but often the whole story is laughably different.

    2. facts don’t matter as long as you have caught the spirit of the matter.

      I invented it

  8. Anyone who uses “retarded” casually in a sentence should have a little empathy for, and show proper respect to, anyone who uses “hooray” in a sentence. For the record, I use both on occasion — sometimes together and at least one every few weeks. And I don’t live in any backwater; I’ve been a Californian all my life, living in many of the regions made famous by Steinbeck on the one hand and Kerouac on the other. I suspect that I am far from unique in this.

  9. “Non-Fiction” is a bookseller’s marketing term, not a promise of journalistic stenography. Grow up and stop ignoring the long history of travel narrative both pre- and post- Steinbeck to play a cheap game of gotcha.

    1. You’re really Tim Cavanaugh, right?

  10. As a said in the previous thread — if he had camped out in North Dakota and met an actor, it wouldnt matter if the conversation in the book was mostly made up.

    But the fact that he didnt meet an actor, or in fact, even camp out, makes it bullshit. Or fiction. But non-fiction it aint.

    I understand quotes arent going to be journalistically accurate, but some basis in reality is important for a non-fiction work.

    1. That’s pretty much it. Which details matter most to you, and in how much detail? Is it really important whether one person wrote the works identified as Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays, or is the most important thing that they exist at all from whatever source?

    2. The French and the Academy give awards to Michael Moore.

      “When you can fake sincerity and honesty, you’ve got it made”.

  11. Steinbeck insisted his book was reality-based. He aimed to “tell the small diagnostic truths which are the foundations of the larger truth.”

    Preach it, Brother!

  12. Wikipedia questions Steigerwalds objectivity for having published in Reason. Howeva’ facts speak for themselves no matter where they published, trick bitch

    1. I just reverted that. Nothing that the commenter wrote was actually relevant to Steigerwald’s objectivity.

  13. “Any writer has the right to shape materials, and undoubtedly Steinbeck left things out. That doesn’t make the book a lie.”

    No, writing fiction isn’t a lie. But if I found out “On the Road” was pure fiction… If I found out that Hunter S. Thompson made it all up…

    Yes, that would turn those books into lies.

    I suggest Steinbeck’s defenders try another angle–say he was doing alternate history! Ahead of his time!

    …but then that would be a lie.

    1. On the Road is way too boring to be made up.

      1. Agreed; although, to be fair, being mostly made-up did nothing to render Travels with Charley either interesting or readable.

      2. I loved “On the Road”.

        I’ve hit the road myself a number of times. …kinda like that.

        I wish my prose was like that. “On the Road” wasn’t boring. Not to me anyway.

  14. Thats actually kinda crazy when you think about it.

  15. In the grand scheme of things this matters not.

  16. I saw the first post about this a few days ago, and the post, plus something else, (I forget what) made me think of of Wolfe, so I looked up Radical Chic and found a link that will let you read it for free. I’m not embellishing. Sort of a brainwave here.

    That party at Lenny’s!

    1. That piece never gets old; it’s every bit as cringe-inducingly funny today as it was the first time I read it 36 years ago in high-school as assigned reading in New Journalism class, definitely the best English course I ever took.

      1. When Tom Wolfe was a younger man, he could be vicious and penetrating. I vaguely remember a piece he wrote where he just buries Larry King. I cannot ever see Larry without thinking of Wolfe’s evisceration of him.

        And if I had had a New Journalism class in high school, I would have loved it. Its influence on me is still great, but I just would have had about a six year head start.

  17. The ignis fatuus of writing is that non-fiction is often fantasy but it is symmetrised by fact hiding in fiction, and the latter provocative because it may mature into reality over time

    1. I actually believe this shit^

        1. left you a message on my site on the Meebo widget

  18. A much better road book than Steinbeck’s is “Blue Highways”.

    1. Or the “Grin and Bear It” cartoon: “Next time, remember: the red lines are roads, the blue lines are rivers!”

  19. Oh brother!

    Why won’t you just say what we have all been thinking for years?

    Joseph Campbell is a giant douche and it is funny as hell that he slept with Steinbeck’s wife Carol in the 1930’s.


  20. What do you think about the reverse: labeling non-fiction as fiction? That goes on a lot too.

  21. this topic has sort of come up before, and I’m still not sure how much I disagree with Dr.G on this one… but I do think I disagree. At least with the idea that calling something ‘fiction or non-fiction’ is ultimately that important. I think the ideal of a truly pure ‘non-fiction’ is impossible in the end – yet I don’t go so PoMo as to consider any and all literary Bullshitting as fair game….

    Maybe I’d take a stronger stance if I cared that much about the fact that the Steinbeck book won a Nobel prize, but was ultimately fabulist bullshit. I don’t care that much because i think even if Steinbeck limited himself to ‘just the facts’ a la Dragnet, he’d probably end up putting in facts that told more or less the same story through his same lens, expressing his personal POV about the subject regardless of whether every character was real and every word verbatim.

    I think the comparison with Wolfe is fair; but how about his peers like Mailer or Thompson?… I mean, take “Fear and Loathing”, for instance…. I think most readers can accept that the book is largely imagined…but would be completely confused and probably upset if there weren’t *at least some basis* for the imaginings… meaning – what if Hunter Thompson were in fact a teetotaling Mormon? Never been to vegas or covered sporting events while heavily intoxicated…. Then I think you’d call it ‘fiction’, for sure… But is ‘Fear’ really fairly called fiction at all? Without the knowledge that the story is at least *based* on real experiences, it loses some aspect of its veracity. But no one requires even a single event to be transcribed “factually” in order for it to be valid…

    Or say Celine’s ‘journey’; yes, its labeled pure fiction… but is it? He himself basically took autobiographical storytelling and purposely funged it up with BS (a la a fictionalized Paris) in order to justify telling an autobiographical story where all the blood and shit and nastiness is rendered in high-detail.

    I think there’s a much wider grey area in between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ genres than people are willing to initially accept; I do generally agree with Nick’s take on the Steinbeck kerfuffle, but am not so quick to see a clear line where non-fiction May Never Tread (without becoming retarded?) without needing a new marketing label… because in the end, the labels are more for selling books to readers than they are cut-in-stone guidelines for writers.

    Whats’ the difference between James Frey & JT LeRoy? Discuss:

  22. p.s. I preferred ‘Mau Mauing The Flack Catchers’ of the two Wolfe essays in that book…

    But seriously; do you really think every single little vignette in every Wolfe story is “100%-accurate”? (or – the claim made is ‘at least he HAD a conversation’); I doubt it, and frankly I don’t think it matters much (or even at all) to the quality of his observations…

  23. A little late there, NY Times. A little fucking late.

  24. You lost me at that crude and violent usage of the word “retarded.” Thoughtful, intelligent, reflective people don’t use that word.

  25. listened to this windbag mother fucker on the radio today,so the author boosted his accounts of people,maybe he was trying to hide the fact that americans are stupid and boring,so a guy stretched the truth almost 50 years ago,is he even still alive SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU SELF RIGHTEOUS WINDBAG PRICK!!!!

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