Bill Steigerwald on Whitewashing John Steinbeck


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. 

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. By cooperating with his publisher to suppress the disturbing truth about segregation, Steinbeck inadvertently abetted the system's continuance.