Travels with Steinbeck
Bill Barich retraced the literary icon’s famous journey, but came to more optimistic conclusions about the state of the union – and of the Golden State.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Literary fads come and go, so it’s no surprise that John Steinbeck’s reputation has suffered critical brickbats since the glory days of The Grapes of Wrath, only to see his works re-emerge as surprisingly relevant now that the nation, and California, has found itself in its worst decline since the Great Depression.
It’s no small irony, then, that Travels With Charley: In Search of America, his fabled account of a cross-country trip the author took with the family poodle in the midst of the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign, became one of his most popular – and probably least understood – books.
What many took to be a heartwarming account of an American icon’s journey with a lovable pooch was really a valiant attempt by an ailing author to reconnect with his muse, and with the country he’d lost touch with in his years as an East Coast exile and frequent visitor to European capitals.
“I, an American writer writing about America, was working from memory,” Steinbeck writes, explaining his motives for undertaking the journey.
“I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and waters, its color and quality of light… I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal.”
Steinbeck’s angst – and curiosity – resonated with Bill Barich, an author who shared with his predecessor a taste for the underclass, if not the underworld. Barich’s works range from Laughing in the Hills, his classic 1980 account of a sojourn with the touts, jockeys and trainers of Golden Gate Fields, to 2009’s A Pint of Plain, about his search for the lost world of the authentic pub in Ireland.
He retraced Steinbeck’s trip in his latest book, Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America, reported in the midst of the 2010 presidential race and published last fall.
Barich sold his home in Marin County to satisfy what appears to be a chronic case of wanderlust and moved to Dublin. But he’s now back in the U.S. and working as a story editor with David Milch (of Deadwood and NYPD Blue fame) on an HBO racetrack series called Luck, starring Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte and due to run next fall.
In a telephone interview from Santa Monica, Barich explains why he took the Steinbeck trip, and elaborates about his return to the West Coast.
“Just as I skipped out of the U.S. a month before Bush’s election, I seem to have skipped out ofIreland before the [economic] collapse,” he explains, seemingly bemused at his good fortune. On Luck, “Michael Mann shot the pilot at Santa Anita, and we’re currently writingand shooting the next nine episodes – a pretty nice bonus for all the time I spent hanging around the ponies.”
The author had worked with Milch, a longtime Laughing in the Hills fan and a thoroughbred owner himself (one of his horses, Val Royal, won the 2001 Breeder’s Cup Mile), on an NYPD Blue script. Barich says he’s enjoying the opportunity, and the weather, a sharp contrast to bone-chilling Dublin winters.
The Hollywood offer came after Barich was already embarked on the Steinbeck project, which came together by chance.
While wandering around an Irish “charity shop,” or, what in the States would be referred to as a thrift shop, he happened to pick up a paperback edition of Travels with Charley, which he hadn’t read since his youth.
He bought the old Bantam edition from 1962 or 1963 for a grand total of two Euros.
After delving into the book, which he’d remembered as a romantic Kerouacian adventure – “wouldn’t it be great to head into that camper and head into the great unknown?” – he says he was shocked, upon re-reading it, at its “disturbed, melancholy and in some cases, bitter” tone.
After further research, looking at Steinbeck’s collected letters, Barich found Steinbeck more deeply pessimistic than he cared to admit about the state of the country.
“There’s a line in the book where he talks about how the America he was traveling through was ‘building energy like gases in a corpse,’” Barich says.
“Reading it again in August 2008, it seemed like the gases had exploded. I wanted to look at the land 50 years after Steinbeck had and see what I thought.”
In a bow to the economy, Barich drove a rented Ford Focus instead of Steinbeck’s van, famously named Rocinante, in honor of the windmill-tilting steed in Don Quixote. But despite traveling the country in the midst of the recession, he found himself considerably more optimistic than his famous forebear.
“Steinbeck expressed his doubts in 1960, and I shared them to a degree,” Barich writes. “Almost 50 years later, our citizens were frequently lax, soft and querulous, and they sometimes capitulated to a childish sense of entitlement that, once thwarted, turned into an equally childish disappointment. So many lived in a bubble, too, especially in isolated rural towns, and found their satisfaction in ‘past greatness and half-remembered glory.’”
But Barich writes he also felt more hopeful than Steinbeck, maybe because he’d done more listening. “Whenever my faith wavered, as it often did, I met someone who helped to restore it. The young were particularly useful in that regard, less concerned about the economic freefall and as breezily dreamy as I was in my optimistic prime. All across America, I encountered people who weren’t threatened or cowed and still ardently believed in the bright promise of the future.”
For both authors, the trip was a way of reconnecting with their California roots.
“Just coming West I had that same sense of possibility I had when I moved out here in the ’60s [from Long Island],’’ Barich recalls.
“I was working as a stock boy for a book wholesaler in San Francisco with co-workers far more advanced in the catechism of hip. They’d say, ‘Hey man, we should go to Big Sur.’
“We stayed in Deetjens, which was affordable at the time – they didn’t care if eight people stayed in a room as long as they didn’t make too much noise. I don’t know if Henry Miller was still alive, but he was certainly a presence… I remember meeting his daughter one night.”
Barich mused that Kerouac’s stay at City Lights proprietor Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Bixby Canyon cabin did not turn out as planned.
The author’s well-meaning friends told him, “‘It will be great – you’ll be all alone and get a chance to cool out,’ but he ended up drunk and depressed, hearing noises in the night and the sounds of the surf,” as later recounted in the Beat author’s nightmarish novel, Big Sur.
Barich’s own experiences in the region were considerably less frightening.
“I remember the ethereal waitresses at Nepenthe, who wafted past you, braless, with their golden hair,” says the author, who has since shaken off the memory of those youthful visions, happily settling down with his partner, the Irish artist Imelda Healy. But his affection for the frontier endures.
“Something about the West is so still in formation that it just grabs me every time. I know by now that not everything is possible, but some things are… ”
Although Barich is 67 and Steinbeck was 58 at the time of his trip, the two authors’ health, and temperaments, factored into their diverse approaches toward what is “possible.”
Steinbeck is widely believed to have suffered some mini-strokes that hadn’t been properly diagnosed before he embarked on his journey. His literary career had peaked, and he was ambivalent about the legacy of fame, even though he ultimately won the Nobel Prize in 1962 in no small part due to the popularity of Charley – and to the consternation of the literary establishment of the time, which thought that his moment had passed.
“He was trying to recapture his own youth, but he was very unaware psychologically of his own motives,” Barich says. He adds that even the choice to name the camper Rocinante stemmed from Steinbeck’s romantic fascination of knight errantry, since childhood, underscored by his later experiences exposing California’s factories in the fields.
“When he went out in a bakery wagon in the 1930s to report on the plight of the Okies, he really was a knight on an errand,” Barich avows, adding that there was a “purity, and a kind of heroism,” on those earlier journalistic trips that later became the grist for classics like In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath that Steinbeck thought he’d lost.
Barich says the author “wanted to be reborn, which for a man of 58 was ambitious, at the very least,” but from the outset the trip was plagued with problems.
“You see rather quickly that he made a mistake [by] heading directly into winter,” he says. “He went to Maine, where the depression he was trying to combat was agitated and his mood did not improve. It was cold, wintry, and he found New Englanders stereotypically taciturn.”
More troublingly, questions have been raised recently about whether Steinbeck reported his travels truthfully.
In particular, his avowals of sticking to an austere regimen in his camper, rather than staying in the hotels he could surely afford, and his claims that he and the dog made the journey alone, (with the exception of a reunion in Chicago with his wife) wouldn’t pass the “Oprah Test” of accuracy applied these days to the fictionalized “memoirs” of the likes of James Frey.
Retired Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaperman Bill Steigerwald decided he wanted to directly repeat Steinbeck’s journey, blogging about it under the headline, “Travels Without Charley.” But the experiment turned into a mini-jihad as Steigerwald uncovered what he believed were major falsehoods.
“Steinbeck not only took his wife along, he was with her more than half of the time he was on the Charley trip,” Steigerwald writes. “Out of about 75 days on the road, Steinbeck probably spent at least 50 nights sleeping in the best hotels and motels in America, at his family cottage in Pacific Grove or at a fancy cattle ranch in Texas.”
By Steigerwald’s estimation, Steinbeck slept in Rocinante a maximum of three or four nights between Oct. 5, when he met his wife Elaine in Chicago, and early December, when he returned to New York City.
But putting aside the question of whether it’s appropriate to judge works of a different era by contemporary standards, there are also some questions about the documentation for Steigerwald’s “scoop.”
“None of the photos [in his blog] seem to be documented, which is peculiar for someone who prides himself as a stickler for accuracy,” says Susan Shillinglaw, scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas and director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University.
“He missed the forest for the trees – it’s like that ‘controversy’ over whether George Orwell really shot an elephant. Yes, it’s nonfiction, but [Steinbeck] really did take the trip! He doesn’t say he spent every night in the trailer.
“What’s more important are how he addresses issues like the race issue,” the attempted integration of a New Orleans school which took place despite racist heckling from a group of white mothers who called themselves the Cheerleaders. He spent a lot of time with his publisher about the importance of using the language of the Cheerleaders, not watering it down. “They took out one or two words but for the most part retained it, which was courageous at the time. That’s far more important than where he slept,” Shillinglaw adds.
Barich believes Charley’s literary merits far outweigh its journalistic sins, but concedes that there are legitimate questions about the authenticity of parts of Steinbeck’s account.
“Some aspects of the book strike me as made up,” he says, adding that many of Steinbeck’s “characters” are not identified by name and that the “dialogue’’ purporting to represent his talks with people on the road sounds stilted, which may be a polite way of saying that it was probably made up.
But life on the road was surely lonely, and his poor health was a reasonable excuse for abandoning at least part of his original mission, Barich contends, pointing out that Steinbeck’s agent “urged him to travel by bus and stay in motels and hotels, but Steinbeck argued that the camper would be his home on wheels – a place where he could invite strangers in for a drink.”
Such convivial visions quickly died.
“On his first day on the road, he stopped at a liquor store in Connecticut and bought enough booze to float a fraternity party, but he seldom shared it with anybody,” Barich says. “One can’t help but feel he spent many nights alone in the camper kicking back with Charley instead of re-engaging with his countrymen. At this point in his life, Steinbeck seemed interested in the ‘common man’ only in the abstract.”
More charitably, Barich points out that Steinbeck’s son, Thomas, said Steinbeck was a dying man when he set out, and “his ill-health probably inhibited him more than he let on.”
He adds, “Travel’s still got some of his best writing – particularly, about nature, where his observations are particularly keen.”
Prescient as ever, Steinbeck was disheartened by the growth of trailer parks and urban sprawl – trends that have only increased in the intervening years – and the poisoning of the natural world. “We can put chemical wastes in the rivers, and dispose of bowel wastes, but every town is ringed with automobiles, machines, wrecks of houses,” he wrote Elaine. “It’s exactly like the Christmas Eves I described – opened and thrown away for the next package.”
Barich said Steinbeck’s vision was “correct on many counts,” particularly in his railing against the destruction of the local sense of community that once held the country together.
Recalling his own first East-West car trip in 1969, he says, “small towns were still intact and there were mom and pop bars. The kinds of places I remember from my youth are pretty much gone. All of those institutions are disappearing.”
With the exception of a lucky chance encounter with organic farmers in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where “locals bred goats for milk and cheese, and grew lavender and medicinal herbs,” the author found chains like Applebee’s and Kopper Kettle overwhelmingly disproportionate to healthier – and tastier – alternatives along the road. “I finally gave up the search for the neighborhood restaurant,” he says ruefully. “So… you march to the temple singing.”
Nevertheless, he says it was refreshing to find so much common ground among people of different backgrounds across the country. “If there’s a way in the ideal world to explore that without the divisiveness of a Rush Limbaugh, or his equivalent on the left, you’d have to feel hopeful.”
Even the experience of attending a Sarah Palin rally in Ohio farm country didn’t shake Barich’s confidence.
“To me, that was just a celebrity show,” he laughs. “When you’re out there in these places where there’s literally nothing going on in terms of entertainment, you could show Mighty Joe Young and pull in 10,000 people.
“But there’s a great sense of disenfranchisement through the heartland, and a seizing on the American past which is very unhealthy,’’ he says, adding that he found it stunning to drive from West Virginia through Colorado and find “almost no people of color,” except for Asians at the odd Chinese restaurants along the way.
“For the people in these towns to take it on themselves to say they’re the only ones who are Americans is truly wrong,’’ he adds. “But there were bits and pieces of the pioneer spirit still in action. It’s definitely a bit of a celebrity death match, with a Puritan streak. I suppose America is constantly fighting, probably more than most European places, to define – or redefine – itself. I think that’s what we’re seeing played out now. What’s the country about? What’s our mission?”
Steinbeck scholar Shillinglaw and Barich agree that Charley was not Steinbeck’s greatest book. But his courage in embarking on the quixotic (no other word really applies) voyage endures.
“Steinbeck himself would have said it was not his most trenchant or most difficult book to write,” Shillinglaw says. “But having someone who can afford to not stay in a camper every night along the way [decide not to do so] doesn’t make him a less important spokesman for American values. He was always the conscience of America and continues to be.
“Writers get tired,” Barich reflects. “I think he got tired. Maybe it’s a harsh judgment, but I don’t think any of Steinbeck’s later work stands up to The Grapes of Wrath. But he wrote two or three books that were truly great. What more can you ask for, really?”