Journalist paints Travels with Charley as a work of fiction; Steinbeck fans yawn.
Thursday, December 13, 2012
John Steinbeck’s last major work, a golden-years account of his cross-country adventure with his French poodle Charley, is the kind of book that can set a flame under the boot of a too-rested vagrant; it’s a tale with the power to excite the young and shake the old. To many, Travels With Charley is a poignant snapshot of the country at the beginning of a turbulent period in American history, and a reason to hit the road.
One thing they may not know: The travelogue, long marketed as non-fiction, isn’t entirely true.
The 50th-anniversary edition of Travels, released this October, includes this in its preface: “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 non-fiction.”
This explanation comes after the investigation of journalist Bill Steigerwald, author of the new e-book Dogging Steinbeck, who spent two years doing exactly that.
The beloved book, according to Steigerwald, is “a literary fraud.”
“Steinbeck didn’t bring back a snapshot of the real world; he didn’t bring back a snapshot of America or its people,” Steigerwald says. “He made 80 to 90 percent of it up.”
The former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter discovered this while writing a series of blogs on Steinbeck’s trail. His original mission was to write a book about how much America has changed in the past half-century by retracing Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile road trip.
But along the way, he found inconsistencies between the story Steinbeck tells and other documents, like the author’s correspondence on the road and the book’s original manuscript.
He learned, as the Penguin introduction now notes, that some of the people Steinbeck interviewed, like an actor in a North Dakota campsite, never existed.
He also saw, by reading the manuscript, that Steinbeck spent a good deal of time on the road with his wife Elaine, and in nicer conditions (like fancy hotels, rather than the travel camper he named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse) than the book leads the reader to believe. The rugged adventure between man and dog Steinbeck conjured couldn’t be true, the journalist says.
“Whatever he saw, he saw out the window at 50 miles per hour,” Steigerwald says.
Despite the stir, Steinbeck admirers stand by the literary giant.
“Henry David Thoreau did the same thing,” says Susan Shillinglaw, an English professor at San Jose State University and former director of the university’s Center for Steinbeck Studies. “Do we now consider Walden a work of fiction? No, we don’t.”
Steinbeck, in her view, was a writer, not a journalist obligated to the strict telling of the truth, and a writer has the flexibility to shape material.
Steigerwald’s discovery “makes for an interesting discussion, but it doesn’t change the book,” she says. “It’s a book that’s a memoir, largely based on fact.”
Herb Behrens, a volunteer who works in the archives section at the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, where Rocinante is part of the permanent collection, agrees. “It doesn’t detract from the story, and people have been delighted by it and reading it for years,” he says.
Steigerwald says one of his main peeves is the “very calculated editing” by Viking Press to falsely market the book.
“If they called it fiction,” he says, “we wouldn’t be talking today.”