Cutting out Elaine Steinbeck

Wednesday, 20 October 2010 01:32 PM Written by 

NESKOWIN, ORE. -- Proposal Rock Inn 

Before I left Seattle for Oregon yesterday morning, I made a brief attempt to see if I could find the motel Steinbeck stayed in for three days at SeaTac, the Seattle-Tacoma airport.

I went to several of the older motels. But there have been too many changes in 50 years and Steinbeck provided no telling details in the scenes he wrote about his layover there in the original draft of "Travels With Charley."

As Steinbeck wrote in his first handwritten manuscript, which I recently read at the Morgan Library in New York City, he waited in a motel room while his wife struggled to book a jet flight to Seattle.

All the planes were sold out and it took three days, maybe four, for her to join him.

Elaine and John Steinebck at the Frankfurt airport in 1963. Elaine's adventures along the Pacific Coast were in the first draft of "Charley" but were edited out.

Meanwhile, though they were cut from the final version of the book, the scenes Steinbeck wrote went into great detail about the modern push-button gizmos in his motel room. He listed the TV shows he watched and mocked them, too.

"The beauty and culture of our time," he wrote: "Gunsmoke. Have Gun Will Travel. I Love Lucy. I love Dinah Shore. I love Barbara Stanwick. The greatest engineering minds in the history of the world had made these marvels available to me. Just looking at all those buttons brought home to me what a primitive life I had been leading."

Steinbeck went on and on about how he luxuriated in his modern hotel room and its bathtub and soft bed while he waited for his wife. Then he went on and on about how his wife was suffering from all the stress and complications of plane travel.

In his original draft, when Elaine showed up in Seattle she became the major character in Steinbeck's story.   

Steinbeck detailed her "ordeal" with the airplane flight and included her on his tour of Seattle's Waterfront. And of course she was with him on their long, leisurely drive down the coast  to San Francisco and Monterey.

Poor Charley all but disappeared. (It was so obvious that Charley had fallen off the planet that Steinbeck felt obligated to write a short chapter -- never published, of course -- explaining that with the missus in town Charley knew he was to take a subservient role and did.)travels_cove

In the final version of the book, however, Elaine's presence in Seattle and on the trip down the coast was cut out totally.

The many "we's" Steinbeck wrote in his nearly illegible first draft were changed to "I's."

And the details of where the couple stayed as they poked along in Rocinante through Oregon and California redwood country -- at nearly empty resorts -- and where they dined were edited out.

In the published book, it is only the author and his faithful dog Charley who see the redwoods.  I'll leave it to literary scholars to determine who made the decision to dump Elaine and cut most of the original scenes of the Steinbeck family's Seatttle-San Francisco trip.

It could have been Steinbeck's editor Pat Covici or his agent Elizabeth Otis or somebody at Viking, his publishing company.

But the decision to cut Elaine out of "Travels With Charley" -- thereby dumping a handful of scenes depicting two very rich and pampered Beautiful People from New York having trouble finding proper lodging and suitable cocktails on the road -- was a smart one.

First of all, the scenes were pretty boring. 

Most important, Elaine's presence on the West Coast  wrecked the book's theme: Steinbeck was no longer a man alone on his road trip, he was teamed up with his wife and the two of them were slumming through the boondocks.

Whoever made the changes in "Charley" realized few readers would be sympathetic to the Steinbecks' little tragedies.

And they assured that the book, though flawed and fictionalized, would become a classic story about a man, his dog and the road they traveled.

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