Why I'm Hounding Steinbeck

Friday, 22 October 2010 03:27 PM Written by 

MILL VALLEY, CA. -- Daughter Michelle's house

Why am I driving around America in a 10,000-mile circle?

Why am I, an ex-journalist, wasting time and gasoline fact-checking John Steinbeck's classic road book?

Why am I spoiling a perfectly good work of literature by comparing what Steinbeck said he did in "Travels With Charley" with what he really did or did not do on his iconic journey in the fall of 1960?

Good & fair questions.

First off, I'm not following John Steinbeck's ghost for any of the usual made-for-TV docudramatic reasons.

I'm not going through a divorce or going through a delayed mid-life crisis at 63 -- which in Boomer years, by the way, is 17.

My beloved dog and I don't each have prostate cancer and only six months to live. I haven't even owned a dog since the great, unreplacable Alex ate something bad and died three years ago.old_stuff_004_copy

And, sorry Hollywood, I don't have a stuffed dog, a bobble-head dog or a locket of Alex's fur onboard my red RAV4.

The only dog-related thing I carry with me is my late dad's U.S. Navy dog-tags.DSC_0039





And they were attached to my car keys long before I dreamed up this crazy exercise in drive-by journalism.

The boring truth is, I thought -- naively, it has turned out -- that doing a book about Steinbeck's 1962 book/1960 road trip would be simple.

I’d plot Steinbeck's actual route, go everywhere Steinbeck and Charley went, take notes, take pictures and talk to people. Then I'd write a book about everything I saw/observed/thought and compare the differences between 1960 and 2010 America. My intentions were innocent.

Then I started my research – what we ex-journalists call reporting.

I had a lot of catching up to do on Steinbeck. I'm not a big literature guy -- just a C+ History major/ English minor.

I was not a huge fan of Steinbeck's writing, though I am now. And unlike Bruce Springsteen, my working-class consciousness hadn't been awakened in high school by "The Grapes of Wrath" -- or anything else.  

I did my Steinbeck 101 homework.

I re-read “Travels With Charley” and other Steinbeck works.

I read the Steinbeck biographies by Jackson Benson and Jay Parini.

I talked to scholars like Benson and archivists from the West Coast Steinbeck Industrial Complex.DSC_1013_copy_copy

I called up authors like Curt Gentry and Barnaby Conrad, who interviewed Steinbeck or partied with him in San Francisco during his “Charley” trip half a century ago. 

I read “Travels With Charley” for the third time.

I visited libraries to look for specific clues of time and place in the letters Steinbeck wrote from the road.

I read his handwritten "Charley" manuscript to compare what he originally wrote and what was edited or cut out of the final version.

Long before I went to this year's  annual Steinbeck Fest at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Ca., where the theme was Steinbeck and his lifetime of travels, I was in too deep financially and psychically to turn back. pics_of_golf_canada_steinbeck_fest_305

Plus, once you tell everyone you know you're going to do something crazy, you'd better do it or they'll think you're nuts.

Unfortunately for "Charley's" reputation as a work of nonfiction, I'm a naturally skeptical and curious ex-journalist. The more I learned about Steinbeck's actual 10,000-mile trip, the less it resembled the trip he described in "Charley."

For 50 years, America has been misled by the book. Most people, including me before I learned otherwise, carry around the impression that Steinbeck and Charley spent three months on the American road, roughing it and camping out most nights almost like hobos as the famous author carefully documented the soul of a changing nation and its people.


In fact, out of about 75 days "on the road," Steinbeck probably spent at least 50 nights sleeping in the best hotels and motels in America, at his family cottage in Pacific Grove or at a fancy cattle ranch in Texas.

So so what? 

“Travels With Charley” has always been classified as nonfiction but no one ever claimed it was a documentary.

Steinbeck himself insisted in “Charley” – a little defensively -- that he wasn’t trying to write a travelogue or do real journalism. 

And he said more than once in the book that his trip was subjective and unique, and so was its retelling. (Most of "Charley's" reviewers didn't pick up those hints in 1962.)travels_cove_copy

"Leave 'Charley' alone, you cranky old fact-checking ex-journalist," I can hear people say.

"Write a libertarian expose of the public mass transit racket or something else -- something that's important.

"You're ruining everyone's fun.

" 'Charley' is almost 50 years old.  It's a wonderful and quirky and entertaining book. It contains flashes of Steinbeck's great writing and humor and it appeals to readers of all ages. That's why it's a classic.

"Who cares if it's not the true or full or honest story of Steinbeck’s road trip? It was never meant to be. It's a metaphor, a work of art, not a travelogue.

"Steinbeck has enough detractors. Lay off.

"Who cares if he made up a few characters and stuck them in his little book?

"Who cares if he didn't really camp overnight near Alice, N.D., or in the Badlands or on that dumb farm in New Hampshire?

"Who cares if 'Charley' would not or could not be called 'nonfiction' today? All nonfiction is part fiction."

Those are all good & fair questions & complaints.

It's just way too late for me to answer them or apologize. I'm too far down this road to turn back or ask for new directions.

As Steinbeck said and knew from experience long before he left his driveway in Long Island, when you take a trip, you don't take it, it takes you.





To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.