Steinbeck’s true enough ‘Travels With Charley’

Journalist Bill Steigerwald has caught John Steinbeck in a lie.

The Nobel laureate, according to Steigerwald, probably invented characters and embellished the hardships of the cross-country journey he made with his dog, Charley, in the fall of 1960, chronicled in his bestseller “Travels With Charley.”

I am a Steinbeck fan, and I happen also to have once been caught in a lie by Steigerwald — a lie linked to Steinbeck and his journey.

This is a small part of the reason that, even after reading Steigerwald’s essay in the April issue of the libertarian magazine Reason, which generated a New York Times story and a hand-wringing editorial, I think it doesn’t matter.

Steinbeck showed us postwar America as it looked from the window of his green GMC truck, custom-fitted with a camper. He may not have slept in the camper much (one of Steigerwald’s main contentions) or been alone with only a poodle for companionship (Steigerwald found that his wife was with him for a lot of the trip), but he gave us something we wouldn’t have otherwise. He showed us the country in a rich, kaleidoscopic view: one nation that included Swiss-cheese candy in Wisconsin, a New Yorker-reading aspiring hairdresser near the continental divide and the ugly invective that came with integration in New Orleans.

Steigerwald, who drove more than 11,000 miles retracing Steinbeck’s route, starts his essay in North Dakota, on the banks of the Maple River, outside the town of Alice. It’s territory that I covered on my own Steinbeck-inspired travels, and the book’s passage on that part of the trip illustrates why the author’s fabrications don’t diminish the whole.

Steinbeck writes in “Charley” that he encountered a traveling actor while camping near the river; the men discussed life on stage and how an interloper can get his audience to trust him. Steigerwald asserts that it’s highly unlikely Steinbeck met this fellow or spent the night outside Alice, because the timing is off. And because Steinbeck wrote to his wife from the other side of the state, at a motel in Beach, N.D., making no mention of camping by the Maple River.

I happened to see professional actors perform a wonderful staged reading in Fargo, N.D., so I find it easier to believe that an actor could have been camping out one fine Dakota fall day. And not to quibble too much with other people’s quibbles, but this section of the book opens with Steinbeck speaking treatises on the American character to his dog. Probably not a verbatim recounting of the afternoon. But he does use his thespian friend to explain some key themes of his journey: The nature of just-passing-through and how, if you look closely enough, there are no real “yokels” anywhere.

Throughout the book — and in his letters to friends and family about the trip, while he was on the road and while writing — Steinbeck noted that he was collecting impressions, not a historical record. In a 1961 letter on an excerpt published in the magazine Holiday, he grumbled that editors had cut the “ideas, memories, conjectures and most generalities. I must not leave them out in the second part because I think they will make the book a book.”

The truth of the book was in those memories and conjectures. From the road, Steinbeck wrote to his agent: “Darned if I know whether I’m getting anything. At least I’ll know what is not so.” I like that definition of truth — Steinbeck showed us what was so, and separated out the rest.

But then again, I’m on the side of the fabricators.

Steigerwald and I ran into each other last fall when we both were chasing the “Charley” trail. From his blog, I knew that he’d gotten a head start on me. We had each set out on a version of Steinbeck’s journey, 50 years after he made it, and on Oct. 8 in Chicago, our paths converged at the Ambassador East Hotel. That’s where Steinbeck and his wife, Elaine, had stayed, so it was where my mother and I stayed while we were passing through.

We were walking back from breakfast when we saw a man get out of a red SUV, toting a fancy camera and a reporter’s notebook. “Do you think that’s the other guy?” my mother asked.

I followed him into the hotel. He was asking permission to take photos in the lobby, and then I heard “[mumble, mumble] Steinbeck.” It was him.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you by any chance the journalist who is following John Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’ route?”

Steigerwald was charming and could talk with obsessive interest about Steinbeck, a quality I admire in any sentient human being. I said I was a fellow Steinbeck enthusiast and was also following some of the author’s journey. He talked about how he was roughing it, sleeping in Wal-Mart parking lots, attempting to retrace the trip as cheaply as possible.

He admired the hotel lobby, with its chandelier and marble floor, and told me it was too rich for his blood. “You’re not staying here, are you?” he asked.

“No,” I said.

We talked about “Charley” and how much the country had changed between 1960, when Steinbeck worried about Americans overloaded with material possessions, and post-recession 2010. He said his journey had turned into a debunking mission. Steinbeck hadn’t actually slept in his camper when he said he had; Steigerwald had found at least one place in New Hampshire where the author said he had camped on a farm but in fact had stayed at a local inn.

Then my mother came back to the lobby. “Hi! I’m the mom. I’m her Charley,” she said. “I’m the one who recognized you!” Next she said to me: “See you in the room.”

I looked down. “Actually, we are staying here tonight,” I explained to the floor.

I had lied because I was younger than Steigerwald, spending money on a hotel room, and I didn’t want him to think that I wasn’t roughing it on Steinbeck’s trail like he was. It’s a bit like Steinbeck and his readers: He needed them to come along for the ride, to see it in an adventurous, relatable way. In his telling, he wasn’t a rich author parachuting in to take the pulse of the country, he was hurtling down local byways in a pickup.

In “Charley,” Steinbeck wrote about the monuments that towns erect to past events and figures, noting that History Happened Here. He found the impulse interesting but said it did “make for suspicion of history as a record of reality.” He recounted the “process of a myth” by telling a story he had heard about himself as a child, wearing an ill-fitting coat fastened with horse-blanket pins. He knew it was untrue. His mother was “a passionate sewer-on of buttons” — his coat wouldn’t have been without them.

“The story could not be true, but this old gentleman so loved it that I could never convince him of its falsity, so I didn’t try. If my home town wants me in horse-blanket pins, nothing I can do is likely to change it, particularly the truth.”

I am like that old gentleman; I want this author to camp by a river with a traveling showman, to talk about Sinclair Lewis in Minnesota and harangue mobile-home dwellers about their lack of “roots.” I want him to have done and seen all the things and met all the characters that he said he did.

Nothing is likely to change my mind. Particularly the truth.

Rachel Dry is an assistant editor for Outlook.

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