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April 4, 2011 11:51 AM   Subscribe

Steinbeck's American-road-trip classic Travels With Charley: In Search of America? Yeah, mostly b.s.

After researching and retracing the route of Steinbeck's 1962 book, Bill Steigerwald, an associate editor for Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, concludes that it's more fiction than fact:

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.

Steinbeck’s son John agrees: He just sat in his camper and wrote all that [expletive].
posted by gottabefunky (50 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 


Does this take away my enjoyment of his writings? Not one bit.
posted by Fizz at 12:00 PM on April 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Action hero? Vet? No shit.

See also Robert Capa's autobiography Slightly Out of Focus. I'm sure Steinbeck had a hand in writing that one.
posted by run"monty at 12:02 PM on April 4, 2011


"He just sat in his camper and wrote all that [expletive]."

But if that isn't how to 'search for America,' I don't know what is.
posted by grounded at 12:02 PM on April 4, 2011 [20 favorites]


Ah well. Steigerwald makes some valid points, but even as fiction, it is still a heck of a yarn.
posted by bouvin at 12:02 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, fucking whatever. All art is artifice.
posted by clvrmnky at 12:04 PM on April 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Raisins of Pique
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:06 PM on April 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


I expect his estate to schedule an Oprah appearance post-haste.
posted by Think_Long at 12:08 PM on April 4, 2011


The fact that he made it all up means there is less of an excuse for its sucking so badly.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:15 PM on April 4, 2011


Oprah's gonna be pissed.
posted by PenDevil at 12:18 PM on April 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, and Hunter S. Thompson didn't take all those drugs in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. They still shelve that in nonfiction.
posted by dortmunder at 12:21 PM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I believe that Travels With Lizbeth is truthfully told.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:21 PM on April 4, 2011


Speaking as a fellow standard poodle owner, I think the real story here is why the fuck "libertarian journalist" Bill Steigerwald has his panties in such a bunch over this.
posted by Celsius1414 at 12:22 PM on April 4, 2011 [11 favorites]


I think he should sue Steinbeck.
posted by run"monty at 12:25 PM on April 4, 2011


Thank goodness America is just the same now as it was in Steinbeck's day though, huh? Fulla helpful friendly good-hearted folks and lots of evenly distributed wealth and plenty, right! Why shucks! I've traveled all over this ol' country and I ain't found nuthin' but family farms, big smiles, and shiny pickup trucks! So let's repeal all industrial regulations and arm everyone, ok?
posted by rusty at 12:29 PM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


On the other hand, Graham Greene's Travels with my Aunt has been determined to be true. Go figure.
posted by OmieWise at 12:29 PM on April 4, 2011


So an associate editor for the Trib wrote this article? Somehow, I am not shocked.
posted by bakerina at 12:33 PM on April 4, 2011


So an article about an author lazily inventing an inauthentic version of America ends with "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 [...] 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?"

You don't say!
posted by vorfeed at 12:37 PM on April 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


"Naked Lunch": COMPLETELY TRUE
posted by briank at 12:39 PM on April 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Oh, fucking whatever. All art is artifice.

Currently googling furiously for any of your contributions to the James Frey posts.
posted by spicynuts at 12:42 PM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have a pea under my America.
posted by y2karl at 12:42 PM on April 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Hellraiser is also true, apparently. Based on recent pinhead sightings.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 12:43 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


50 years is a long time and I do think their probably is large difference between the way society is stratified geographically. I'm always a little surprised at how different the US at large is different from the San Francisco/San Jose megaplex and I know it was less so when I was a kid. Still, Steinbeck and his editors both must have known that a straight mile by mile travelogue wouldn't fly, just because it would be boring. So the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Maybe he met the Shakespearean actor somewhere else and transplanted him to a hobo camp to pump up the chapter. What ever the truth is or was, lies beyond the words on the page in any case, so this changes nothing.
posted by doctor_negative at 12:48 PM on April 4, 2011


Even worse, Samuel Pepys had no real naval experience.
posted by ftrain at 12:51 PM on April 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


Someone needs to write a screenplay that has Steinbeck, Harry Truman, and Hunter S. getting lost in some sort of highway-time-tunnel and being deposited in Kenosha, WI in 1962.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:56 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Because I love Steinbeck for his fiction, I could care less if Travels with Charley is actually how it happened minute by minute. The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, East of Eden . . . those towering novels are what made Steinbeck great, and made an account of his trip across the U.S. of any interest at all. But it was a postscript to an incredible body of work, not one of those stories that has to be really, truly true to have merit.

In short, Steinbeck is about as far as you get from a writer whose reputation rests on a single supposed true tale which turns out to be mostly invented.
posted by bearwife at 1:05 PM on April 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


I agree with the comment posted above that it was not a particularly good book....the issue though seems to be that it is sold as non-fiction--a travel book--but is really a piece of nearly all fiction.Alas, even the fictionalized America written up glows compared to what he would now encounter in a real trip.
posted by Postroad at 1:09 PM on April 4, 2011


I can see the rabbits.
posted by maxwelton at 1:16 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The most compelling part of the book to me has always been his loving description of outfitting his custom truck, how much he loved living out of cans and using his trashcan washing machine, and Charlie going nuts on smelling a bear.

But as usual when I read Steinbeck, I feel like the characters are all earnest method actors really trying to convince me of their roles.
posted by emjaybee at 1:21 PM on April 4, 2011


All of Steinbeck's writing walks a tightrope between showing how things really are and showing how we either believe or want things to be. It's difficult to tell when he's doing which. Travels with Charley is no different.

I love the book, and I love it because I want to believe that every word is true. I want a Rocinante. (In fact, I spent a three-hour road trip yesterday fantasizing about the cabover camper I'll buy as soon as I have the money and the black and white dog I'll take along for company.) I want to take that journey too, because I want to experience it.

But I never will take that exact same trip, because I understand the difference between wish and reality. I know that if I were to do it -- to follow the route he took -- I'd be depressed by the same Walmarts and Hyundai dealerships that Steigerwald references. I'd want to see trout pools instead. I'd want the sudsy bucket on a bungee cord to be the PERFECT clothes laundering system, but really it would just make a mess in the back that I'd have to clean up every day. It wouldn't be the same trip. It wouldn't be the same experience. It's not possible to recreate it. And it would never be possible to recreate it, even if the Shakesperian actor encounter had really happened and even if each night camping under the stars went down as written. The point is, it's all irrelevant. It's not his actual experience that matters. It's the reader's.

It's been a few years since I've read the book, but I remember Steinbeck talking about how he ended up back in Monterey at the end of his journey. In reality, he'd been away for years. Central California hated him after the publication of the Grapes of Wrath, so he left for the East Coast in exile. I remember the wistfulness he had when he returned to Monterey at the end of the book. That's really what it all comes down to. That's the most crucial element of the story, and probably the truest. All that happened or didn't happen between point A and point B is unimportant.

If nothing else, it's a great book for his description of how Charley pronounces the letter 'F.'
posted by mudpuppie at 1:44 PM on April 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


I loved this book when I read it as an 18 year old...30 years ago. I haven't re-read it since, but I still remember it fondly. It was certainly real enough for my 18 year old self, though I'm sure parts of it would clang pretty badly when read through 48 year old eyes.

As bearwife said, this man wrote The Grapes of Wrath, purportedly in less than four months. And East of Eden. And Of Mice and Men. And some excellent short stories ("The Chrysanthemums") and novellas ("The Red Pony") Of course, he also wrote The Pearl, which was God-awful, but I'll give him a Mulligan or two.

Like I said, I liked this book when I was younger, and it doesn't bother me that it was fiction. As Steinbeck said in his Nobel acceptance speech:
[T]he writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit—for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature.
Even if his characterizations in Charlie were a little too pat, a little too perfect (and/or completely fabricated) he still gets a pass from me.
posted by mosk at 1:46 PM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


Steinbeck may have been fabricating but Bill Steigerwald's still an ass and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is a horrid right-wing rag run by the guy who funded most of attacks on President Clinton.
posted by octothorpe at 1:51 PM on April 4, 2011


I think the MetaFilter response here is awfully biased by the fact that the author is John Steinbeck and that this article appears in a libertarian publication.

We're talking about deliberate and considered deception to advance ideas. If lying wasn't necessary to convince people of those ideas, why present it as non-fiction in the first place? It seems John Steinbeck's politics have caused some willful blindness.
posted by christonabike at 3:13 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


But it's not non-fiction. It's a yarn. There's a lot of true information about whales and whaling in Moby Dick, even though it's fiction. And there's a lot of fiction in any piece of non-fiction you can name.

I don't even *like* Steinbeck, but the writer's first job is to entertain, to spin a yarn. A writer isn't a journalist, who is supposed to give us the pure unvarnished whatsits.
posted by jrochest at 3:24 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


We're talking about deliberate and considered deception to advance ideas. If lying wasn't necessary to convince people of those ideas, why present it as non-fiction in the first place?

Dude, this isn't Watergate. Nor is it a political whitepaper from a think tank. It's a travel story, told by a writer.

It seems John Steinbeck's politics have caused some willful blindness.

Would you say the same thing about the politics of Bill Steigerwald, the Tribune-Review, and Reason.com? Or is that only a rule for leftists?
posted by Celsius1414 at 3:27 PM on April 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


More spoilers that don't matter:

Robert Pirsig, he of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is neither a philosopher nor a mechanic.
Hunter Thompson may not have had all of the experiences exactly as described in "Fear and Loathing..."
Kosinski's "The Painted Bird" is more surrealized than factual.
And Castaneda's Don Juan character may not have existed.

They were still fascinating reads.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 3:39 PM on April 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


Kosinski's "The Painted Bird" is more surrealized than factual.

That is the best news I have heard in thirty years. That book was horrific.
posted by y2karl at 3:42 PM on April 4, 2011


Yeah - I had the exact same reaction to that statement.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:46 PM on April 4, 2011


Oh good! So the death of the American small town, the growing blandness and sameness of America, and the heckling of black children trying to make it through an obnoxious mob in order to enter an integrated school never happened?

This is an incredible relief.
posted by jeanmari at 4:39 PM on April 4, 2011


So, did he really take the dog with him?
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 4:40 PM on April 4, 2011


For Steigerwald's next tricks, he's going to outfit a green van and drive for three months only on the "blue" roads as depicted in a Rand McNally atlas, then take a boat from the Atlantic to the Pacific, then drive 15,000 miles from the southernmost tip of Tierra del Fuego to the northernmost terminus of the Dalton Highway in Alaska, then drive over 38 states in the course of two months, then call up Bryson's friend Katz and drag him up the Appalachian Trail! He will disprove them all!
posted by jeanmari at 5:01 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I enjoyed the hell out of Travels with Charley, and don't really give a shit how much of it is pure reportage. I never took it that way anyway. Plus, the book gave us one of the all-time ever great descriptions of how beautiful Montana is, with bonus dig at Texans: "The land is rich with grass and color, and the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda. Montana seems to me to be what a small boy would think Texas is like from hearing Texans"
posted by dersins at 5:04 PM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


It seems John Steinbeck's politics have caused some willful blindness.

I think not. I have loved Steinbeck since I first encountered him, back when I was young and stupid and my politics were libertarian/Republican. He's a great writer, regardless of whatever his politics were. He's a great world writer, at that -- it is worth noting that he won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1962.

If we judged writers on their politics, rather than their ability to perform wonders with the written world, I suspect I'd have nothing to read.
posted by bearwife at 5:17 PM on April 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I was okay with the article until the end, where the author made it clear that his whole point was to discredit Steinbeck as a "liberal", which is so stupidly simplistic that I can't actually believe the author actually did any real research on the man and his life.

Steinbeck had shrapnel wounds from reporting from WWII reporting in the Mediterranean, and was a a hawk about the Vietnam war. He was probably more of a real Libertarian than most people who call themselves that today; he once said socialism was "simply another form of religion and thus delusional". He was pro-union, and anti-racism and anti-collectivism. He was also pro-Israel, something many hardcore leftists today can't tolerate.

So yeah, a complicated guy who most of all believed strongly in individualism, and was always skeptical of religions and ideologies. Of course, what neoconservative writers do best is sort people into us and them (liberal), without any regard to nuance. It's a cheap and tawdry way to make a poor premise into a shitty argument; emotional crack for making people feel good about policies that ultimately make their lives suck.
posted by oneirodynia at 6:01 PM on April 4, 2011 [12 favorites]


The article may all be true, but I can’t believe any of it. Not anymore. There are billions of dollars spent on misinformation of every kind by the Right in this country. Any time I see an article trying to take down someone who might be perceived as leftist I have to assume it’s a lie. I’m even suspicious of a lot of internet discussion postings these days. People make their living doing that now.

As someone who used to lean Right I hate to have to be that paranoid and dogmatic, but that’s what it’s come to. At this point I figure if I just assume the Right is lying no matter what, I will be correct 98% of the time. I don’t even have to bother myself with listening.
posted by bongo_x at 7:48 PM on April 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


"He wrote of having many questions going into his journey, the main one being, "What are Americans like today?" However, he found that the "new America" did not live up to his expectations.

According to Thom Steinbeck, the author's oldest son, the real reason for the trip was that Steinbeck knew he was dying and wanted to see his country one last time. Thom says he was surprised that his stepmother (Steinbeck's wife) allowed Steinbeck to make the trip; because of his heart condition he could have died at any time

I think it's a fair cop, calling him on the BS. If he wanted to write an essay about America, write a damn essay. If he wants to write a travelogue, well, goddammit, take the trip. If he wants to write a cute fiction, put "novel" on the cover.

Me, I don't like being lied to, however charmingly. It makes me question everything else about the person and his motives.

But that's just me. Read to the bottom of the link and you will find serious scholars whose reactions to the article is that Steinbeck is above such things.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:04 AM on April 5, 2011


How do you know it was Steinbeck, and not the publisher who decided to label it "non-fiction"? I don't think Steinbeck ever presented the book as 100% true. On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are also called non-fiction, yet both are fictionalized travel stories. I don't think any of these authors went on the talk show circuit declaring these yarns to be journalistic accounts, and I doubt anyone has actually read them as 100% factual.

Keep in mind that the rise of non-fiction autobiographical stories that have to be completely true is a relatively new literary expectation. Half a century ago people had different expectations and didn't run around fact-checking every travelogue published as non-fiction. You can feel what you like about how that has changed over the years, but it doesn't make sense to hold classic books to the constraints we have now. now authors can barely get fiction published, compared to true-life exposes. It puts a different pressure on ascribing fiction versus non, and it also seems to say that the reading public has a different relationship to novel than it used to.
posted by oneirodynia at 8:44 AM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


How do you know it was Steinbeck, and not the publisher who decided to label it "non-fiction"? I don't think Steinbeck ever presented the book as 100% true. On the Road and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas are also called non-fiction, yet both are fictionalized travel stories.

Yeah, count me in the "I thought everybody already knew this" camp. Also, Steinbeck's unfinished King Arthur novel is gold. Fucking gold.
posted by Amanojaku at 10:13 AM on April 5, 2011



How do you know it was Steinbeck, and not the publisher who decided to label it "non-fiction"? I don't think Steinbeck ever presented the book as 100% true.


Not much of a touche, that. At the very least then, he didn't stop them from labeling it as non-fiction. By contrast, both On The Road and Fear and Loathing are widely labeled as novels.

Keep in mind that the rise of non-fiction autobiographical stories that have to be completely true is a relatively new literary expectation.


Don't know that I believe that. Straight true travelogues date back two thousand years and more, and in parallel with the Baron Munchausens of this world. Especially since the age of the Grand Tour, there's loads of travel memoirs that I'm willing to believe are utterly truthful, and often still quite interesting.

The annoyance factor here comes with with his claim to want to dig deep rather than just tell a yarn. If you're going to play at being a reporter, then do the job. Real journalists get fired for making things up.

count me in the "I thought everybody already knew this" camp

Duly noted. You'll find a large swath of nobodies (check Amazon comments for examples) who take or took it as it was presented.
posted by IndigoJones at 6:24 AM on April 6, 2011


octothorpe: "Steinbeck may have been fabricating but Bill Steigerwald's still an ass and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review is a horrid right-wing rag run by the guy who funded most of attacks on President Clinton."

The Steigerwald brothers are kind of an interesting Pittsburgh phenomenon. Bill is a right-wing hack. John was a long-time sports guy on KDKA. Paul is the play-by-play guy for the Penguins. And Danny is a rock guitarist.
posted by Chrysostom at 2:16 PM on April 8, 2011


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