The Travels With Steinbeck Myth

Friday, 26 November 2010 09:59 AM Written by 
EIGHTY FOUR, PA. -- My House

 As I think I've pointed out on this blog 311 times by now, "Travels With Charley" is not what the American reading public has been led to think it is.

I.e., it's not nonfiction.

From North Dakota comes fresh evidence of just how deeply the myths and fictions of John Steinbeck's “Travels With Charley” trip have been buried into the consciousness of American culture.

Our story starts on Nov. 12, when an innocent Washington Post staffer named Rachel Dry wrote “Following Steinbeck to Fargo,” a long travel piece about how she partially fulfilled her dream to retrace Steinbeck’s “Charley” trip 50 years later.

I met Dry in early October on my 11,276-mile trip down the Steinbeck Highway, when I stopped in Chicago to check out the Ambassador East Hotel, the old-money/celebrity hotel where Steinbeck stayed in 1960.

Dry, who was staying at the hotel with her mother, was in the middle of driving a 1,500-mile stretch of Steinbeck’s route.

She had started in upstate Vermont and would go from Chicago to Fargo and Alice, N.D., the 51-person dot on the map in Dakota corn country not far from where Steinbeck said in “Charley” he camped overnight -- though he never really did.DSC_2004_copy_copy_copy_copy

For a sharp young journalist with a degree from Harvard working in the Post’s Sunday opinion & commentary section, Dry showed a troubling degree of trust in the literal truth of what Steinbeck wrote.

But her perfectly fine, edge-free and non-controversial travel feature managed to really tick off North Dakota humanities cultural commentator and newspaper columnist Clay Jenkinson.

Professor (I presume) Jenkinson wrote a snippy-stern Sunday column for the Bismarck Tribune on Nov. 21 that bore the headline “Post reporter followed the itinerary but she missed the journey.”

Jenkinson is no dummy or lightweight.

A nationally renowned Thomas Jefferson scholar and historical impersonator, jefferson_fche is, among his many other impressive talents and credentials, the Theodore Roosevelt Center scholar at Dickinson State University, as well as Distinguished Scholar of the Humanities at Bismarck State College.

I don’t blame Professor Jenkinson for ripping Dry or her article for any sin against North Dakota or its fine people, mortal or venial, real or imagined.

I have long believed it’s the sacred duty of all professional and amateur columnists in Flyover Country to bird-dog, watch-dog and torture every visiting national writer or reporter, whether they deserve torturing or not.

But Professor Jenkinson blew it. When he took great offense at what he deemed was Dry’s casual, sacrilegious disregard of the True Steinbeck Spirit he hung himself on a rope of his own ignorance.

Identifying himself as a “road trip purist,” the pontificating professor summed up the prevailing  Steinbeck “Travels With Charley” myth in one fat paragraph:

 "If you want to invoke the great Steinbeck, several essential criteria must be observed. First, you have to make the whole journey -- New York to Maine, Seattle, southern California (sic), Texas, New Orleans, New York. 10,000 miles. You cannot ditch the rental car in Fargo and fly home. Second, you have to sleep and cook in a camper. You get none of the "on the road" effect in hotels. There has to be a droll, slightly vulnerable, "roughing it" feel to the accommodations. Third, you cannot take your mother. I love my mother dearly and have traveled the West extensively with her. She's a great companion. But she's no Charlie (sic). You cannot be Steinbeck unless you are essentially alone with your thoughts and your observations in the heart of America. If Steinbeck had taken another human being, including his wife Elaine, he could not have written an American classic."

 Any professsor who loves Jefferson and Jefferson’s words and ideas as much as Jenkinson does can’t be all bad, says this libertarian. 121003_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy

But he might be surprised to know that Steinbeck not only took his wife Elaine along, he was with her more than half of the time he was on the "Charley" trip.

What Professor Jenkinson wrote about Steinbeck’s beloved road trip shows how even really smart people are totally dumb/confused/misled about the asynchronous (that's as fancy a word as I can come up with; I hope it's used correctly) relationship between reality and what's written in “Travels With Charley.”

Smart guys like Professor Jenkinson aren’t supposed to believe and perpetuate silly myths and romantic misconceptions about an iconic piece of American literature; they’re supposed to debunk and explain them.

So, in the spirit of informing my betters, I invite Professor Jenkinson (and Ms. Dry, too) to browse my blog for a few days and pay particular attention to where Traveler Steinbeck slept most of the time, and with whom, as he raced across our great land half a century ago.

Then I urge Professor Jenkinson to send a nice email of apology to Ms. Dry and admit to her that his ideas about the Steinbeck Spirit and the proper way to travel by car in America are not based on reality, either.


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