Whitewashing John Steinbeck

Why partisan politics and virulent racism were cut from the celebrated "non-fiction" road book Travels With Charley


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.

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."