“Hah!” I shouted as a million North Dakota cornstalks rattled in the October wind. “Who were you trying to kid, John? Who’d you think would ever believe you met a Shakespearean actor out here?”
For three weeks I had been retracing the 10,000-mile road trip John Steinbeck made around America in 1960. I wasn’t in the habit of speaking directly to his ghost. But I couldn’t stop from laughing at the joke Steinbeck had played on everyone in the pages of his subsequent travelog, released in 1962 to general acclaim and still revered as a mid-century document of the American soul.
A huge commercial success from the day it hit bookstands, Travels With Charley in Search of Americawas touted and marketed as the true account of Steinbeck’s solo journey. It stayed on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list for a year, and its commercial and cultural tail—like those of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath—has been long and fat. For five decades Steinbeck scholars and others who should know better have not questioned the book’s honesty. But I had come to realize that the iconic American road book was not only heavily fictionalized; it was something of a fraud.
No one could hear me talking to Steinbeck’s ghost that October afternoon. I was parked on an unpaved farm road in the earthly equivalent of outer space: the cornfields of North Dakota, 47 miles southwest of Fargo.
The closest “town” was Alice, a 51-person dot on the map of a state famous for its emptiness. The closest human was more than a mile away, hidden in the cloud of dust that her combine made as it shaved the stubble of the family wheat crop.
The area was the scene of one of the most dubious moments in Travels With Charley. Steinbeck wrote that he and his French poodle, Charley, camped overnight somewhere “near Alice” by the Maple River, where he just happened to meet an itinerant Shakespearean actor who also just happened to be camping in the middle of the middle of nowhere. According to Steinbeck, the two hit it off and had a long, five-page discussion about the joys of the theater and the acting talents of John Gielgud.
Bumping into a sophisticated actor in the boondocks near Alice would have been an amazing bit of good luck for the great writer. And it could have really happened on October 12, 1960. But like a dozen other improbable encounters that Steinbeck said he had on his 11-week road trip from Long Island to Maine to Chicago to Seattle to California to Texas to New Orleans and back to New York City, it almost certainly didn’t.
It’s possible Steinbeck and Charley stopped to have lunch by the Maple River on October 12 as they raced across North Dakota. But unless the author was able to be at both ends of the state at the same time—or able to push his pickup truck/camper shell “Rocinante” to supersonic speeds—Steinbeck didn’t camp overnight anywhere near Alice 50 years ago. In the real world, the nonfiction world, Steinbeck spent that night 326 miles farther west, in the Badlands, staying in a motel in the town of Beach, taking a hot bath. We know this is true because Steinbeck wrote about the motel in a letter dated October 12 that he sent from Beach to his wife, Elaine, in New York.
Steinbeck’s nonmeeting with the actor near Alice is not an honest slip-up or a one-off case of poetic license. Travels With Charley is loaded with such creative fictions.
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My initial motives for digging into Travels With Charley were totally innocent. I simply wanted to go exactly where Steinbeck went in 1960, to see what he saw on the Steinbeck Highway, and then to write a book about the way America has and has not changed in the last 50 years.
I had a lot of Steinbeck homework to do, and I dove in. First I reread Travels With Charley—and immediately became suspicious about the credibility of almost every character that Steinbeck claimed he had met, from the New England farmers who sound like Adlai Stevenson crossed with Descartes to the archetypal white Southern racist in New Orleans.
Using clues from the book, biographies of Steinbeck, letters Steinbeck wrote from the road, newspaper articles, and the first draft of the Charley manuscript, I built a time-and-place line for Steinbeck’s trip from September 23, 1960, to December 5, 1960. The more I learned about Steinbeck’s actual journey, the less it resembled the one he described.
The synopsis of Steinbeck’s road book is fixed in our culture’s hard drive like a mythic TV Guide movie listing. It goes something like this: “Travels With Charley: Novelist John Steinbeck and his poodle spend three months alone on the American road, roughing it and camping out each night like hobos as they carefully document the soul of a changing nation and its people.” But after nine months of fact checking and 11,276 miles of drive-by journalism, I can tell you for sure that:
• Steinbeck was almost never alone on his trip. Out of 75 days away from New York, he traveled with, stayed with, and slept with his beloved wife, Elaine, on 45 days. On 17 other days he stayed at motels and busy truck stops and trailer courts, or parked his camper on the property of friends.
• Steinbeck didn’t rough it. With Elaine he stayed at some of the country’s top hotels, motels, and resorts, not to mention two weeks at the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove, California, and a week at a Texas cattle ranch for millionaires. By himself, as he admits in Charley, he often stayed in luxurious motels.
• Steinbeck rarely camped under the stars in the American outback. The campout in Alice, North Dakota, wasn’t the only fabricated resting place in Charley. Steinbeck also made up the very next night, when he said he slept under the stars in the evil Badlands as the coyotes howled. He couldn’t have done that, since that was the same night he was taking his hot bath in a motel in Beach, North Dakota.
• Steinbeck also fibbed about camping alone overnight on a farm near Lancaster, New Hampshire. When a local writer, Jeff Woodburn, innocently went looking for that farm and the Yankee farmer who owned it as part of a 50-year anniversary story, he discovered that neither had ever existed. What Woodburn learned was that in September 1960 Steinbeck had actually lodged overnight at the exclusive Spalding Inn, where hotel management had to loan him a tie and jacket so he could eat in the dining room.
About five nights of Steinbeck’s trip are unaccounted for, so it’s possible he slept in his camper shell on one or two of them. But virtually nothing he wrote in Charley about where he slept and whom he met on his dash across America can be trusted.
Did Steinbeck actually camp out on a second farm in New England or near the Continental Divide along Route 66 in New Mexico? Did he sleep in his camper in the rain under that bridge in Maine? Did he really camp on private land in Ohio and Montana? And did the shy Steinbeck really bump into all of those interesting, quotable, all-American characters parading through Charley’s pages? Or did the great novelist make up, embellish, or liberally fictionalize the Canuck potato pickers in Maine, the erudite Yankee farmers, the fire-and-brimstone preacher, the son of an Idaho mountain man who wanted to be a hairdresser, the good veterinarian in Amarillo? Not to mention a full spectrum of civil rights characters, from a Southern white racist to an old black field hand?
Only Steinbeck’s ghost knows for sure. Does it matter?
Maybe Travels With Charley should be shelved with Steinbeck’s novels instead of in the nonfiction section. All nonfiction is part fiction, and vice versa. It’s not like Steinbeck wrote a phony Holocaust memoir that sullies the memories and souls of millions of victims.
From what I can gather, Steinbeck didn’t fictionalize in the guise of nonfiction because he wanted to mislead readers or grind some political point. He was desperate. He had a book to make up about a failed road trip, and he had taken virtually no notes. The finely drawn characters he created in Charleyare believable; it’s just not believable that he met them under anything like the conditions he describes. At crunch time, as he struggled to write Charley, his journalistic failures forced him to be a novelist again. Then his publisher, The Viking Press, marketed the book as nonfiction, and the gullible reviewers of the day—from The New York Times to The Atlantic—bought every word.
Travels With Charley is almost 50 years old. It has its slow parts and silly parts and dumb parts. It contains obvious filler and fiction, but in many ways it is still a wonderful, quirky, and entertaining book. It contains flashes of Steinbeck’s great writing, humor, and cranky character, and it appeals to readers of all ages. That’s why it’s an American classic and still popular around the world.
Still, there’s no denying Steinbeck got away with writing a dishonest book. Not only did he fudge the details of his road trip, but he pulled his punches about what he really thought about the America he found. In Charley he fretted about the things he didn’t like about American society: pollution, early signs of sprawl, the rise of national chains, the increasing prevalence of plastic. But in private he complained directly about the failings of his 180 million fellow Americans: They were materialistic, morally flabby, and headed down the road to national decline.
If Steinbeck sounds like a liberal who’d been living like a prince in New York City too long, it’s because that’s what he was. Fifty-eight and in poor health when he set out on his ambitious voyage of discovery, he quickly ran aground on his own loneliness and the realization that our “monster land” was too big and too complex for one man to understand.
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I toured the same sliver of America Steinbeck did, but what I saw in 27 states only affirmed what I already knew: America is big, beautiful, empty, safe, clean, and unfairly blessed with natural and human resources. I met only a few hundred of my fellow 309 million citizens last fall, but to a person they were friendly and helpful. And despite a depressed economy, the gauntlet of beautiful homes and shiny pickup trucks, RVs, boats, and snowmobiles I passed through day after day testified to the democratization of the material riches that the wealthy Steinbeck had decried.
From cell phone towers to Hyundai dealerships and Walmarts, I saw modern things that would have amazed, shocked, or offended Steinbeck. Yet what surprised me most was what might have surprised him most too: how little change has taken place on the Steinbeck Highway in the last 50 years. From the fishing villages of Maine to the redwoods of California to the Mississippi Delta, I drove by hundreds of towns and farms and crossroads that looked almost exactly like they did when Steinbeck passed through.
Steinbeck dropped hints in Charley that it wasn’t a work of nonfiction. He insisted, a little defensively, that he wasn’t trying to write a travelog or do real journalism. And he pointed out more than once that his trip was subjective and uniquely his, and so was its retelling. Whether that story was true or not, I’m glad I got to take my own strange trip down his highway—and got to laugh out loud in Alice.
Bill Steigerwald (firstname.lastname@example.org) worked as a writer, editor, and columnist for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette in the 199s, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in the 2000s. His blog recounting his journey in Steinbeck's footsteps can be read attravelswithoutcharley2010.com. This column first appeared at Reason.com.