Fifty years ago, John Steinbeck took a road trip across America with only his dog Charley for company. He published a non-fiction book about his experiences two years later, called Travels with Charley: In Search of America. Journalist Bill Steigerwald retraced Steinbeck’s journey this year and says the only problem with Steinbeck’s story is that it’s mostly a fabrication.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. Fifty years ago, novelist John Steinbeck took a road trip across America with only his standard French poodle Charley for company. He published a book about his experience two years later, the book titled Travels with Charley: In Search of America. It’s full of evocative scenes like this one, where Steinbeck happens to meet an itinerant actor in a cornfield in North Dakota.
MAN, READING: I saw a man, not young, not old, but with a jaunty, springy step. He was dressed in olive drab trousers and a leather jacket, and he wore a cowboy hat but with a flat crown and the brim curled and held to a peak by the chinstrap. He had a classic profile, and even in the distance I could see that he wore a beard.
BOB GARFIELD: Journalist Bill Steigerwald retraced Steinbeck’s journey this year, and he says that his only problem with Steinbeck’s book is that it’s mostly a fabrication. Steigerwald’s suspicions were aroused before he even started his own trip. Reading Travels with Charley, Steigerwald thought it was fishy that Steinbeck so easily found characters to talk to on the road, characters who were always ready and able to discuss American life in prose-ready paragraphs. Steigerwald also found chronological problems. Letters Steinbeck wrote to his wife and agent while on the road were postmarked from locations that didn't match up with the locations in the book. And, he found evidence that Steinbeck hadn't even actually been alone. So what parts of the book are actually true?
BILL STEIGERWALD: He did drive that distance, about 10,000 miles. He did drive it in a pickup truck with a camper shell on the back. He did have Charley with him. But he wasn't very alone very often. In Chicago, after he'd been on the road about 13 days maybe, his wife joined him.
BOB GARFIELD: So he was traveling with his wife a good deal of the time, not only with his dog. And he wasn't roughing it, either?
BILL STEIGERWALD: No, he wasn't roughing it. He stayed at some of the nicest hotels, resorts and motels in America. By my count, let's say 65 out of about 75 days he was not camping out. Once he got to Seattle, his wife Elaine joined him, around the middle of October, 1960, and for the next 30 days she was with him, sleeping with him, eating and drinking and traveling with him, from Seattle down to the Monterey Peninsula, where they stayed at the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHING] Which isn't exactly a pup tent under the stars, is it?
BILL STEIGERWALD: No, not at all. It, it’s kind of a shame because the book is a wonderful book in, in many, many ways. It’s a classic beloved by everyone. But it’s largely a myth. It’s always been classified as nonfiction, and yet, the book really, really is heavily fictionalized.
BOB GARFIELD: You evidently had some sort of epiphany as you were -
BILL STEIGERWALD: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - driving across the most desolate prairie of North Dakota -
BILL STEIGERWALD: [LAUGHING]
BOB GARFIELD: - with, you know, nothing but a grain elevator every 25 miles.
BILL STEIGERWALD: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: And you realize, [LAUGHING] wait one second here. Tell me about the supposed actor.
BILL STEIGERWALD: Well, that, that’s what’s funny. I mean, in North Dakota, and we don't want to say anything bad about North Dakotans because they're all swell, but it is really empty. An emptier part of an empty state is the area around Alice, North Dakota, which had a population of 150 in 1960 and has a population of 50 now. And I went there because he mentions this place. This is where he met the actor, supposedly, and where he camped out, supposedly. So I went there, and I'm just driving along there -I just parked my car there and stopped, looked around and I said, this is absurd, you know. Obviously, the area is so huge, I'm sure there could be a place where the Maple River crosses one of these roads, where Steinbeck pulled in by a copse of sycamore trees and camped out, and all of a sudden looked over and, oops, here comes an itinerant Shakespearean actor with which he’s going to have a five-page conversation about John Gielgud [BOB LAUGHS] and the joys of, [BOB LAUGHS] of the theater in the middle of - the middle of nowhere.
BOB GARFIELD: So, we will have a guest on following you who, if I guess correctly, will say that Bill Steigerwald may be right about John Steinbeck, but let us not obsess on nominal facts; let us look at essential truth. What truths about America emerged from Travels with Charley that might not have emerged, had Steinbeck been scrupulous about, you know, actual facts?
BILL STEIGERWALD: I don't think he had any great insights about America. He deliberately dodged big cities and he deliberately stayed off the beginnings of the interstate highway system. So he really didn't see much but, you know, sort of American farm stock. He saw the empty parts of America. I think that it would be good to just sort of treat Steinbeck’s book - what it is - and that is written by a great writer who knew how to - create a book out of almost nothing.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm! All right, Bill, thank you so much for joining us.
BILL STEIGERWALD: I appreciate it, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: You can read writer Bill Steigerwald’s blog chronicling his journey at Travelswithoutcharley2010.com.