New Travels With Charley Edition Acknowledges Factual Problems Unearthed by Reason Contributor Bill Steigerwald


Maps and legends

In the April 2011 issue of Reason, the great Pittsburgh journalist Bill Steigerwald wrote about the startling discovery he made while attempting to retrace John Steinbeck's steps as portrayed in the classic Travels With Charley in Search of America: namely, that the events portrayed in the book as nonfiction were in fact heavily fictionalized. (Read his follow-up piece here.)

Now, Steigerwald reveals on his website "The Truth About 'Travels With Charley,'" a new Penguin 50th anniversary edition of the book acknowledges the truthiness problem:

The introduction to the book, first written in 1997 for a paperback edition by Middlebury College English professor, author and Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini, has been updated by Parini to address the "controversy" I've created about its veracity and honesty.

In his original 1997 intro, Parini had pointed out Steinbeck's heavy use of fictional elements, especially dialogue. But otherwise he treated "Charley" as if it was essentially a true account of the author's iconic road trip. (It wasn't.)

For the special 2012 edition's introduction, however, Parini was asked by Penguin to insert a few new sentences and parenthetical disclaimers that effectively warn readers they are about to read a work of fiction:

"Indeed, it would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist, and he added countless touches — changing the sequence of events, elaborating on scenes, inventing dialogue — that one associates more with fiction than nonfiction. (A mild controversy erupted, in the spring of 2011, when a former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did some fact-checking and noticed that Steinbeck's itinerary didn't exactly fit that described in the book, and that some of the people he supposedly interviewed, such as an actor at a campsite in North Dakota, never existed.)

"It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative."

Whole thing, including Steigerwald's understandable pique about not being mentioned by name or referenced in the edition's "further reading" list, here.