Travels Without Charley

John Steinbeck & Me -- Mile 1

Monday, 21 March 2011 04:48 AM Written by


On the Roof of Steinbeck Country


Fremont Peak, Calif.

Elevation 3,169.

Population 1.

My trip chasing John Steinbeck's ghost isn't over yet, but I know exactly when it started -- six months before my wheels started turning.

It was March 11, 2010,  Day 4 of my extreme West Coast Steinbeck research tour. I was sitting and shivering on top of John Steinbeck’s favorite mountain. I couldn’t see his grave or his ghost, but they were both out there somewhere under the glare of the dying California sun as it slipped toward Monterey Bay 25 miles from my knees.ca_476_copy

 Everything Steinbeck was down there somewhere – the house he grew up in, the statues and libraries that glorify him and preserve his works, the places and characters he made famous for eternity in  “Of Mice and Men,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Cannery Row” and “East of Eden.” It’s why they call it “Steinbeck Country.”

 Except for the pushy wind and the drone of a private plane, I had had the top of Fremont Peak to myself for two hours. 

No tourists.  No lovers. No pot smokers. No park rangers. No other ex-journalists without dogs doing books about “Travels With Charley.” 

Just lucky me, my official Reporter’s Notebook, my cameras and a head full of thoughts about my new pal John Steinbeck and the long journey I was going to take with him.

I had flown, driven and hiked 2,737 miles from Pittsburgh to reach my dizzying perch. The raw spike of weathered gray marble boulders, 100 million years old and blessedly unregulated and unimproved by lawyers or the Nanny State, is now my favorite mountain, too.DSC_0371_copy_copy

 The peak is the star attraction of Fremont Peak State Park’s collection of grassy round mountains and steep wooded canyons. It’s only 3,169 feet high. But its distinctive little tooth is visible from almost anywhere in the Salinas Valley and vice versa.












No wonder young Johnny Steinbeck hoped he could be buried there someday. It’s the closest a human being can get to a heavenly view of Steinbeck Country without putting on wings.

 I didn’t scale the last hundred feet of Fremont Peak like a mountain goat to enjoy the 360-degree view of the Monterey Peninsula or the sunset, spectacular as both were. I was up there only because Steinbeck said he climbed to that exact spot while he was on his “Travels With Charley” trek in the fall of 1960.

In six and a half months I was going to go everywhere Steinbeck went on his famous road trip – from the timeless fishing village of Stonington, Maine, to the former copper boomtown of Butte to the soggy Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

I wasn’t going to follow Steinbeck for any of the usual TV-docudrama reasons. John Steinbeck wasn’t my real father. I wasn’t hoping to find myself or anyone else. My old dog and I didn’t each have prostate cancer and six months to live. I didn’t even own a dog.

The boring truth was, I thought it would make a good book if I took Steinbeck’s route around the USA and compared the country I found in the Tea Party Fall of 2010 with the simpler, poorer, less equitable Cold War/Jim Crow America Steinbeck toured in 1960.

It’d be an easy way to show how much the country has -- and has not -- changed along the Steinbeck Highway since Ike was president, Elvis was king and everything worth buying was still Made in America.ca_427










Lonely, peaceful, rugged, a little dangerous and scary, Fremont Peak is a perfect platform for viewing Steinbeck Country.  Though it was the end of a hazy day and the sun was losing wattage by the second, I could see more than 20 miles in every direction. 

Behind and below me the valleys and rounded hills and mountain ranges stretched eastward to the Sierra Nevada. The San Andreas Fault was down there too -- which explains why Fremont Peak, Steinbeck Country and the rest of the Pacific Plate have moved 8.33 feet closer to San Francisco since Steinbeck’s 1960 visit.

 Twenty-five miles southwest across the Salinas Valley, hugging chilly Monterey Bay, was the historic city of Monterey.

To be honest, I couldn’t see it, even with the zoom of my camcorder. I only knew it was out there somewhere in the shadows, hidden by a strip of low coastal mountains, because that morning I had gone to Cannery Row to watch the sun rise over Monterey Bay.












Seeking inspiration or just a few free telepathic writing tips, I stared deeply into the frozen eyes of the Steinbeck bust in Steinbeck Plaza. I heard only the squeaky chatter of fat seagulls hang-gliding on the cold ocean wind and the banging of garbage trucks as they flipped dumpsters over their heads and into their hungry bellies.

 Cannery Row is nothing like it was when Steinbeck was a struggling writer there in the 1930s, and it’s nothing like it was in 1960, when he checked it out on his “Charley” trip.

With nearly 20 sardine canneries operating 24/7, the street in the 1930s and during World War II truly was “The Sardine Capital of the World.”

By 1960, however, Cannery Row had devolved into a hollowed out slum-by-the-sea. The lovable lowlifes, rough bars and tender cathouses of the mid-1930s Steinbeck immortalized in “Cannery Row” (1945) were long gone.

So was the sardine industry -- dead from overfishing and natural causes. All but one of the street’s canneries had closed by 1960. Except for a piano bar or a Bridgett Bardot movie at the newly christened Steinbeck Theatre, arson provided the chief form of entertainment.

 As every travel writer and parachuting journalist must mention because it is so obvious, Cannery Row is now a PG-rated theme park of its former colorful, sinful self.

A street that once stunk of dead fish and buzzed with flies has been spiffed up with wine-tasting rooms, pricy restaurants and snazzy seaside hotels with awful corporate names like “Intercontinental: The Clement Monterey.” DSC_0090

Entrepreneurs and enlightened local government have transformed it into a safe place for nice families from Iowa heading for the Monterey Bay Aquarium or the candy stores and souvenir shops of Steinbeck Plaza, where the Steinbeck brand-name and mug shot are used to sell refrigerator magnets and wax museum tickets.

At my feet, sprawled on the valley floor, was the city of Salinas, Steinbeck’s hometown and the barely fictionalized setting for “East of Eden.” 

The city’s population of 160,000 is twice what it was when Steinbeck last looked down on it from Fremont Peak in 1960. Salinas is now wracked by Latino gang violence and, like so many California governments, is in serious financial trouble.

But it’s still surrounded by a shallow sea of strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach and other crops -- the “green gold” that made the city rich 100 years ago and earned it the nickname “The Salad Bowl of the World.” The valley’s fertile black soil and climate produces 80 percent of the lettuce Americans eat per year.

 In Salinas’ old downtown I visited the Victorian middle-class house Steinbeck grew up in and the National Steinbeck Center, the city’s official shrine to Steinbeck. pics_of_golf_canada_steinbeck_fest_305_copy

One of few reasons tourists have to visit the scorched windy flats of Salinas, the center, which also puts on Steinbeck Fests each summer, is smartly designed and visitor friendly. Steinbeck’s life story and his books co-star in a dozen well-staged exhibits and clips of movies like “Cannery Row” or “East of Eden” are shown in loops in small themed theaters.

 The center’s holiest relic is “Rocinante,” the fully restored dark green 1960 GMC pickup-camper shell combo Steinbeck used for his “Charley” trip. You can’t get inside the cab or the camper, or even touch them, because Rocinante is corralled behind a tall fence of Plexiglas. ca_250

Steinbeck set up the camper like the cabin of a small boat. Squared-off and hard and clunky, the cab’s Spartan interior is uncomfortable just to look at. It’s a reminder of how luxuriously we all travel today and what Steinbeck had to endure for 10,000 miles – with only a French dog, an AM radio and his imagination for company.

 While I was in Salinas, I also drove across town to visit Steinbeck’s gravesite in Garden of Memories Memorial Park.

Despite a colorful “Steinbeck” sign with a helpful hand pointing the way, his small flat stone is hard to find among the weathered grey slabs and old spiky stone monuments. DSC_0274_copy_copy_copy

 Seeking anonymity, privacy and simplicity even in death, Steinbeck is buried with his parents, third wife Elaine and sister Mary in the Hamilton plot, the plot of his mother’s family.

A pot of bright yellow mums, wilted and knocked on its side by the unrelenting wind, gave away Steinbeck’s final whereabouts.

Standing guard over his modest marker was a 2-inch white ceramic poodle with a pink heart for its collar. Maybe I was overreaching, but I took that replica of Charley as a sign from Steinbeck’s ghost – a symbol. Whether it was a good sign or a bad sign, I had no clue.

 In March of 2010 I had no idea where else my trip with John Steinbeck was going to take me. I certainly never dreamed that I  would end up on NPR’s “On the Media” explaining why “Travels With Charley” is a 50-year-old fraud. Or get a write up in the New York Times Book section.

But last March, while Pittsburgh waited for spring and two feet of snow to melt, chasing Steinbeck’s ghost across America had become my destiny, my mission, my mad obsession, my extreme act of entrepreneurial journalism, my big waste of money and time – I wasn’t sure which.

Alone, chilled to the bone and sitting on the roof of Steinbeck Country waiting for the cold sun to go down, the only thing I knew for sure was it was too late to turn back.


Join the conversation:

John Steinbeck's Fall of Discontent

Thursday, 27 January 2011 12:33 PM Written by
John Steinbeck, who 50 years ago was about to begin the daunting job of writing “Travels With Charley” without notes or a theme, wasn’t too thrilled with the America he saw during his trip or the traits and values of the everyday Americans he found living in it.

In his 1995 book “John Steinbeck, a Biography,” Jay Parini described Steinbeck as becoming  “demoralized and angry” as he traveled from east to west in the fall of 1960.ist2_4371390-steinbeck-stamp_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy

When “Charley” came out in 1962, however, it contained little of that anger.

Steinbeck worried in his nonfiction bestseller about the destructive suburban sprawl, the polluted rivers and the rings of trashed cars he saw around cities, which to this day earns him green stars as a pioneer environmentalist.

And he noted that on his 10,000-mile road trip he had not met many “real men” of conviction or found many people with strong opinions about anything except sports.

But if you read some of the letters Steinbeck wrote while on the road and afterwards, you find the truth: He was very disappointed by the country he found.

Steinbeck was amazed at the burgeoning mobile home culture he “discovered” and described the people who lived in trailer courts at length in “Charley” with a kind of amazement.

But he mocked them in a letter to his wife Elaine. He didn’t call them “trailer trash” or anything.

But he told Elaine that these trailer people – who he said were in love with their cheap aluminum mobile homes and unanchored life styles -- were “like Martians.” He joked that he felt like asking them to take him to their leader.

Steinbeck was much more critical in an often-quoted letter he sent in July of 1961 to his editor Pat Covici, which can be found in part in Parini’s bio and in full in “Steinbeck: A Life in Letters.” Bill Barich quotes from the quote in his Steinbeck-inspired travel book, "Long Way Home."

Steinbeck tells Covici he was struggling to give birth to “Charley.”  What he had written so far, he said, was a “formless, shapeless, aimless” even “pointless” thing.

Yet, Steinbeck said, what he was writing may have been a realistic representation of the aimlessness and pointlessness he saw around him on his lap around the USA – what he called “ant-hill activity.”

Steinbeck thought the country was in a state of decay and complained that its people were against a lot of things but not in favor of anything of substance. Plus, everyone hated each other -- whites hated blacks, blacks hated whites, Republicans hated Democrats and vice versa.

Concluding this overly pessimistic assessment, Steinbeck tells Covici:

 “In all my travels I saw very little real poverty, I mean the grinding terrifying poorness of the Thirties. That at least was real and tangible. No, it was a sickness, a kind of wasting disease. There were wishes but no wants. And underneath it all the building energy like gasses in a corpse. When that explodes, I tremble to think what will be the result. Over and over I thought we lack the pressures that make men strong and the anguish that makes men great. The pressures are debts, the desires for more material toys and anguish is boredom. Through time, the nation has become a discontented land.”


But how accurate or fair was Steinbeck's grim assessment of America?

Steinbeck is often lauded today for being in touch with America and the hearts and minds of working people.

That was certainly true in his early days, when he was a strapping young man in California observing and living and working among the ranch hands and migrant farm workers of the Salinas Valley and the sardine packers and fishermen of Cannery Row.

But by the time he went on his “Charley” trip, in 1960, he was a different John Steinbeck.

He was a rich and famous and parochial 58-year-old New Yorker who hung out on a cultural and political “island” with celebrities, artists and politicians and traveled for months at a time in Europe.

In 1960 he had little in common anymore with the common American, whose values and tastes he didn’t share. He knew it, too. Getting back in touch with America was one reason he wanted to circumnavigate it alone and anonymously.travels_cove_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy

But how much of the country did Steinbeck actually see as he drove at high speed on a narrow ribbon of highway? Not much, as I know from doing my own high-speed sprint along what’s left of his route.

The more you know about Steinbeck’s route, the more you realize how little of America he could have seen.

He dodged most of the big cities. He skipped most of the South. He didn’t linger anywhere for longer than overnight, except during his lavish rest stops in Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Monterey and Texas, where he was either with his wife Elaine, socializing with his friends and relatives or relaxing at his family cottage.

On the road and behind the wheel of Rocinante, he wasted no time on research or side trips.

He sprinted from Chicago to Seattle in seven or eight days.

He sprinted from Monterey to Amarillo in four or five days, admitting in "Charley" that for hundreds of miles he drove without really seeing anything. He sprinted straight home from the South, seeing little and stopping only for gas, food and naps in his camper.

Steinbeck himself expressed worries in the first draft of “Charley” that he was missing important segments of “monster” America and only seeing the fringes of society. That was edited out of the final version, but he was right.

America is too big. No one could have seen all of it, or even a representative slice of it, on a trip like his or mine or William Least Heat-Moon's or Tocqueville's.

Steinbeck didn’t try to pretend otherwise. He didn’t claim to have discovered any great new or definitive truths about America. Just the opposite.

He issued disclaimers and caveats all over the place in “Charley” about the limits of what he saw or learned.

More than once he cautioned the reader to remember the obvious but rarely stated truth:

The country he saw through his windshield was his reality alone, not anyone else’s. And what he described in "Travels With Charley" was 100 percent subjective.

What he wrote about was filtered through his novelist’s eyes, ears and brain and shaped by his mental state and moral, cultural and political values. Whether it was the true parts or the stuff he made up.

Join the conversation:

Out in the beautiful heart of California’s “Steinbeck Country,” the Monterey County Weekly has a Steinbeck story on its cover that includes me as a mini-bad guy.

The alternative paper's article “Travels With Steinbeck” is hooked around the 2008 cross-country trip made by Bill Barich for his new on-the-road book, “Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck’s America.”cover_r300x350

 Barich, a New Yorker magazine contributor and American writer who lives in Ireland, was inspired to take his coast-to-coast car journey on U.S. Route 50 by a chance re-reading of Steinbeck’s “Travels With Charley.”

 The Weekly's piece by Paul Wilner is mostly about Barich’s opinions about the travels, writings and dispirited psyche of Monterey County’s local hero, John Steinbeck.

 But it eventually gets around to gently discrediting me, my journalism skills and my Steinbeck World-annoying assertion that “Travels With Charley” isn’t a particularly accurate or honest account of the great author’s road trip or what he thought about America.

Wilner and Barich discuss Steinbeck’s trip interestingly and at length.

 Barich believes the reigning “’TWC’ Myth” -- that Steinbeck was alone and depressed in his booze-loaded camper all the time. But he is pretty certain, as I am, that Steinbeck made up most of the cardboard characters he says he met in "Charley" as he raced across America.

 (Scholars may believe Steinbeck encountered those human beings in the real world; or say he just made up a little bit of stuff for necessary dramatic/literary purposes; or say actual facts and truth don’t matter in a great work of nonfiction. But any drive-by journalist who makes a mega-road trip like the ones Barich and I made quickly realizes what the reality is: you have a better chance of being abducted by aliens than bumping into a pantheon of quotable American stereotypes.)

 Wilner pulls a quick quote or two from “Travels Without Charley.”

Then he brings me on stage for a brief stoning by Susan Shillinglaw, possibly the top Steinbeck scholar on the planet:

 More troublingly, questions have been raised recently about whether Steinbeck reported his travels truthfully.

In particular, his avowals of sticking to an austere regimen in his camper, rather than staying in the hotels he could surely afford, and his claims that he and the dog made the journey alone, (with the exception of a reunion in Chicago with his wife) wouldn’t pass the “Oprah Test” of accuracy applied these days to the fictionalized “memoirs” of the likes of James Frey.

Retired Pittsburgh Post-Gazette newspaperman Bill Steigerwald decided he wanted to directly repeat Steinbeck’s journey, blogging about it under the headline, “Travels Without Charley.” But the experiment turned into a mini-jihad as Steigerwald uncovered what he believed were major falsehoods.

“Steinbeck not only took his wife along, he was with her more than half of the time he was on the Charley trip,” Steigerwald writes. “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.”

By Steigerwald’s estimation, Steinbeck slept in Rocinante a maximum of three or four nights between Oct. 5, when he met his wife Elaine in Chicago, and early December, when he returned to New York City.

But putting aside the question of whether it’s appropriate to judge works of a different era by contemporary standards, there are also some questions about the documentation for Steigerwald’s “scoop.”

“None of the photos [in his blog] seem to be documented, which is peculiar for someone who prides himself as a stickler for accuracy,” says Susan Shillinglaw, scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas and director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University.

“He missed the forest for the trees – it’s like that ‘controversy’ over whether George Orwell really shot an elephant. Yes, it’s nonfiction, but [Steinbeck] really did take the trip! He doesn’t say he spent every night in the trailer.

“What’s more important are how he addresses issues like the race issue,” the attempted integration of a New Orleans school which took place despite racist heckling from a group of white mothers who called themselves the Cheerleaders. He spent a lot of time with his publisher about the importance of using the language of the Cheerleaders, not watering it down. “They took out one or two words but for the most part retained it, which was courageous at the time. That’s far more important than where he slept,” Shillinglaw adds.

 Shillinglaw knows more about Steinbeck and his life and works than I could learn in another lifetime.

 But her absurd complaint that “none” of the photos on this site “seem to be documented” is a bizarre, hyperbolic way of trying to discredit me. Perhaps it’s just Academic Quibbling 101, but she should read some more of this web site.

And when she disapprovingly – and fallaciously and unfairly -- compares my interest in where Steinbeck slept with the importance of Steinbeck bravely blasting away at the race issue, Shillinglaw proves she doesn’t always know what she’s talking about.

rubybridges_rockwell_copy_copy I may be a shoddy or silly, literal-minded journalist, in her estimation. But I’ve done some Steinbeck homework  that she and other Steinbeck scholars haven’t done.

Many more than “one or two words” of the Cheerleaders’ crude language that Steinbeck wrote so powerfully and passionately about in "Charley" were changed before the manuscript went to the printer.

 As an open stickler for facts, which I’ve always thought was what fair-and-balanced journalists were supposed to be, I’ve actually read the Cheerleaders’ words that Steinbeck put in his first draft (knowing they’d never be seen by the public).

 The excised paragraph of hate, scrawled in Steinbeck’s hand, has been patiently waiting at the Morgan Library in New York for a Steinbeck scholar to study it since 1962.

 I read the unrepeatable paragraph last summer. I can guarantee you that more than "one or two" of the Cheerleaders’ “bestial and filthy and degenerate” words were cut by the editors. Try 77. But then I’m a stickler for facts.DSC_0997_copy_copy_copy

 I know Shillinglaw – or at least I gently stalked her three times last year while on research trips to Steinbeck Country. I always wanted to include her in my crazy Steinbeck project, for obvious reasons.

 I wanted to tell her what I was learning and ask her what she thought. She was going to be the literary expert who’d explain the never-ending struggle between fiction and nonfiction; she would tell me whether it really mattered if Steinbeck fictionalized and fibbed his way around the USA.

 But she was always too busy. Though we’ve exchanged emails and quick phone calls, we never did have a formal sit-down. Shillinglaw did have a sit-down interview last summer with John Biewen, a producer/reporter for North Carolina Public Radio and a producer, teacher and director of the audio program at the Center for Documentary Studies (CDS) at Duke University.

Biewen did an inventive CDS radio series, "Travels with Mike: In Search of America 50 Years After Steinbeck," which is currently airing on PRI's Studio 360He asked Shillinglaw if she agreed with him that some of the characters in "TWC" were a little too good to be true/real.

Though Shillinglaw told Biewen she thought the book was "an honest book" and a model of participatory journalism, she acknowledged that the cast of civil rights characters he said he met in New Orleans was probably made up and that Steinbeck engaged in what today we call "creative nonfiction.'' Her full interview is here.  Decide for yourself whether she's being soft on Steinbeck.

Shillinglaw is understandably un-thrilled by the dishonest things I found out about Steinbeck’s iconic trip/book combo.

It kind of makes the whole West Coast Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex look bad when an ex-feature writer from a paper in Pittsburgh "scoops" them by using research they've had in their books and archives for half a century.


Here is the letter I wrote in response to Shillinglaw's dismissal of my journalism, which the Monterey County Weekly kindly printed on Jan. 27, 2011:

Travels with Steigerwald

It was an honor to be included in your Steinbeck cover story this week. (“Bill Barich retraced the literary icon’s famous journey,” Jan. 20-26.) I’ve sat at the counter in Pepper’s and read the Weekly several times in the last year while on my three research trips to Steinbeck country. I was always impressed.

I only wish your editors had asked writer Paul Wilner to give me a quick call before he let Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw discredit me as a journalist.

I’ll forgive Wilner for characterizing the eight months I’ve spent researching Steinbeck’s Charley trip/ book in libraries from coast to coast and on my recent 43-day, 11,000-mile drive down the Steinbeck Highway as a “mini-jihad”—whatever that means.

But a quick look at the opening page of my web site (and former blog site) “Travels Without Charley” at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette might have proved to Wilner that I wasn’t a jihadist or a goof or a Steinbeck-hater. My trip in pursuit of Steinbeck’s ghost—which did not start out as a fact-checking mission—was a serious act of journalism by me, a veteran journalist.

I also would have asked Wilner to be a teeny bit skeptical about the dismissive reaction of a Steinbeck scholar when she is faced with evidence that much of what Americans have thought about the truth and accuracy of Steinbeck’s iconic “nonfiction” book has been a myth bordering on fraud.

Shillinglaw pooh-poohs what I did with my research, which shows in numbing detail that Steinbeck’s actual trip is not accurately or honestly represented in Charley.

She also makes silly/fallacious points to try to make me seem like I cared more about where Steinbeck slept than what he wrote about the issue of racism.

I understand Steinbeck is your local hero. And Shillinglaw, whom I’ve met and exchanged emails with, is your local Steinbeck expert. But you unfairly let her do a disservice to me and my hard, honest work.    Bill Steigerwald | Pittsburgh

Join the conversation:

'Charley's' 'lost' last chapter

Wednesday, 12 January 2011 05:52 PM Written by
John Steinbeck struggled hard to turn his bum trip into a readable book.

As I’ve pointed out ad nauseam, he made a lot of  stuff up.

And as you can tell from the edits made to the first draft of “Travels With Charley,” he and his editors also took a lot of stuff out – mainly politics and the omnipresence of his wife Elaine on the West Coast.

travels_cove_copy_copy_copy_copy_copyA major edit in the first draft of “Charley” – one I haven’t mentioned -- was the original final chapter, which is a description of Steinbeck and Elaine’s attendance at John Kennedy’s snow-snarled inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20, 1961.

The final chapter – which had nothing to do with Steinbeck’s “Charley” trip -- shows how desperate Steinbeck was to pad out the book.

The inauguration occurred in Washington six weeks after Rocinante’s wheels stopped turning. And the final chapter, while nicely written, didn’t add anything important or profound or very interesting – just that the Steinbecks were invited to the outdoor swearing-in ceremony and enjoyed it but opted to skip the inauguration ball and watch it on TV.

Writing the final chapter, Steinbeck stretched hard to connect the inauguration to his road journey. Early on, he mentions his “Charley” trip:

"My travels with Charley were a simple, almost humble undertaking. They caused no flurry and piled up a limited heap of information. Thinking back, I don’t know what, if anything, I learned.”

And his final lines, which came at the end of a long paragraph about watching the inauguration ball on TV, made for an abrupt, clunky two-paragraph ending to a book about an ambitious road trip in search of America:

“And in the morning the snow was past and so was the journey.”

“And I do know this – the big and mysterious America is bigger than I thought. And more mysterious.”

The end.

That’s it.

It’s a fizzle that didn't/wouldn’t work – which no doubt is why Steinbeck’s agent, Elizabeth Otis, talked him into not including it in the final version.

This original final chapter, about 1,000 words long,  remained unpublished until 2002, when Steinbeck biographer Jackson Benson and Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw of San Jose State included it in "America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction,” the collection of Steinbeck's nonfiction and journalism they edited.51JSNECWNPL._BO2204203200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-clickTopRight35-76_AA300_SH20_OU01_

Steinbeck titled the chapter “L’Envoi” (envoi being the name for concluding remarks to a poem, essay or book), and it can be read in its entirety in Benson and Shillinglaw’s collection. (You can read “L’Envoi” courtesy of's book-search feature.)

The Steinbecks shared a limo to the ceremony with his pal and JFK-insider John Kenneth Galbraith and his wife, who were being followed around by an ABC network TV film crew for a broadcast that was aired two nights later.

You won’t find Steinbeck mentioning anything about that superstar tag-team of witty liberals in “L’Envoi,” though Jackson Benson talks about it in his huge bio of Steinbeck, “John Steinbeck, Writer.”

“Charley,” as published and read in the millions, ends with Steinbeck staggering into Manhattan at the end of his long, failed journey.

It makes a strangely unsatisfying end to the book, yet it looks masterful by comparison with the quick ending of “L'Envoi.”

At least the ending we got made some literary/symbolic/metaphoric sense: The great author’s quixotic search for America’s soul ends with him weary, confused and lost in his own hometown – and with a nonfiction book to make up.

Join the conversation:

Steinbeck & I Travel to NPR

Friday, 24 December 2010 09:33 AM Written by

John Steinbeck's ghost and I will be on 200 NPR stations across the USA this Christmas weekend.

My fact-checking of "Travels With Charley" and Steinbeck's fictionalized road trip attracted the attention of the nice folks at "On the Media."charleylogo

The hourlong weekly National Public Radio program, which I listen to regularly, is devoted to explaining "how the media 'sausage' is made" and criticizing the media from a liberal point-of-view.

Hey, it's NPR, not

Host Bob Garfield interviewed me about my conclusion that "Travels With Charley in Search of America" is mostly fiction -- not nonfiction -- and is, as I wrote in the Dec. 5 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "something of a fraud." staff_bob_sm

I talked to Garfield for almost an hour. My babbling was deftly boiled down to about 5 minutes of semi-cogency.

I'm not sure how well I articulated my case that Steinbeck's actual road trip was nothing like the powerful cultural myth he created with "Charley."

As I've said repeatedly, Steinbeck made a lot of stuff up, misled the country about the cushy nature of his road trip for 48 years and didn't tell readers how bummed out he really was about the America and the Americans he saw. Otherwise, "Charley'' was great nonfiction.

The guy who followed me, "celebrated author of narrative nonfiction" Lawrence Weschler, didn't critique me specifically for fact-checking Steinbeck. But he had some very scary ideas about how much fictionalizing and reality-fudging a journalist or nonfiction writer can do without being arrested for fraud.

"On the Media" did a great job all around.

Co-star/host Bob Garfield, producer P.J. Vogt and co-star/host/managing editor and segment editor Brooke Gladstone teamed up to make me sound like I knew what I'm talking about and was not totally insane.

The set-up to my interview was excellent. And somebody also wrote this perfect synopisis of where I'm coming from on the "On the Media" Web site:

Fact Checking John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley

December 24, 2010

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.

I truly appreciate "On the Media's" attention and competence. I couldn't have had a better  experience at the hands of one of the liberal Mainstream Media's tributaries, but I still think NPR should not be subsidized by taxpayers.

I agree with's Jack Shafer that NPR -- like everything else in the universe -- would be better off in the long run without government funding, which NPR says is only 2 percent of its annual $162 million budget but is really much higher (closer to 30 precent).

Shafer's advice to NPR: Untether itself from government money (and end the political troubles it gets every time Republicans get a majority in Congress or it fires someone like Juan Williams); quit pretending that those underwriter announcements aren't ads and sell commercials; and have its radio stations go to work building "an endowment on the back of the only real asset they have: their spectrum, a scarce and valuable resource that they are rich with."

While NPR's bosses get busy cutting their strings of government dependency, I'll keep listening to "On the Media." Someday I hope to hear a fellow libertarian.

"On the Media" is on in Pittsburgh on Saturdays at 7 a.m. on WDUQ, 90.5 FM. Around the country it's aired once or twice on Saturday or Sunday. Check "On the Media's" fine Web site for your local listings.

Join the conversation:

The Fabulism of John Steinbeck

Wednesday, 15 December 2010 09:58 AM Written by

This article about what I learned about John Steinbeck's 1960 trip on my "Travels Without Charley" this fall appeared on the Next Page in the Post-Gazette's Forum section Sunday, Dec. 5.

'Sorry, Charley'

'After criss-crossing America in the tracks of John Steinbeck's 'Travels With Charley,' Bill Steigerwald came to a conclusion: The esteemed work is something of a fraud.'



"Hah!" I blurted out as a million North Dakota cornstalks rattled in the pushy October wind.

"Who were you trying to kid, John? Who'd you think would ever believe you met a Shakespearean actor out here?"

For three weeks I had been retracing the 10,000-mile road trip Steinbeck made around America for his nonfiction bestseller "Travels With Charley," and chronicling it for the Post-Gazette.

I wasn't in the habit of speaking directly to the ghost of John Steinbeck. But I couldn't stop from laughing at the joke that Steinbeck played on everyone in the pages of "Travels With Charley," released in 1962 to national acclaim and still revered as a document of the American soul.

No one could hear me talking to Steinbeck's ghost that Oct. 12 afternoon. I was parked on an unpaved farm road in the earthly equivalent of outer space -- the cornfields of North Dakota, 47 miles southwest of Fargo.

The closest "town" was Alice, N.D., a 51-person dot on the map of a state famous for its emptiness, badlands and Lawrence Welk. The closest person, a woman, was more than a mile away, hidden in the cloud of dust her combine made as it shaved the stubble of the family wheat crop down to the dirt.

Alice is the scene of one of the most egregious fictions in "Travels With Charley." Steinbeck wrote that he camped overnight somewhere "near Alice" by the Maple River, where he just happened to meet an itinerant Shakespearean actor who also just happened to be camping in the middle of the middle of nowhere.

According to Steinbeck's account in "Charley," the two hit if off and had a long, five-page discussion about the joys of the theater and the acting talents of John Gielgud.

Bumping into a sophisticated actor in the boondocks near Alice would have been an amazing bit of good luck for writer Steinbeck. It could have really happened on Oct. 12, 1960.

But like a dozen other improbable/unbelievable meetings with interesting characters Steinbeck says he had on his 11-week road trip from Long Island to Maine to Chicago to Seattle to California to Texas to New Orleans to New York City, it almost certainly never did.

Steinbeck, the master American novelist and storyteller, was making stuff up in Alice. It's possible he and Charley stopped to have lunch by the Maple River on Oct. 12, 1960, as they raced across North Dakota.DSC_2004_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy_copy

But unless the author of "The Grapes of Wrath" was able to be at both ends of the state at the same time or push his pickup truck Rocinante to supersonic speeds, Steinbeck didn't camp overnight anywhere near Alice 50 years ago.

In the real world, the nonfiction world, on the night of Oct. 12 Steinbeck was 326 miles farther west of Alice.

He was in the Badlands, staying in a motel in the town of Beach, taking a hot bath. We know this is true nonfiction because Steinbeck wrote about the motel in a letter dated Oct. 12 that he sent from Beach to his wife Elaine in New York.

Steinbeck's non-meeting with the actor near Alice is not an honest slip up or a one-off case of poetic license being too liberally employed in the pursuit of making an otherwise true story seem truer or more interesting. "Travels With Charley" is loaded with such creative "fictions."

Long before I arrived
in the lonely aglands of Alice, long before I left on my own 43-day 11,276- mile pursuit of Steinbeck's ghost, I knew "Charley" was full of it -- fiction, that is.

I already knew Steinbeck's beloved account of his travels was not really a nonfiction book, which is how it has been classified since the day it became an instant bestseller in 1962.images-2_copy

I already knew "Charley" was deliberately vague and fuzzy about time and place. Steinbeck -- 58 and in poor health -- took virtually no notes and discovered no great truths about the country as he sped across it, so he had to hide the truth about his actual trip and make up a lot of stuff.

And I already knew -- OK, let's say, "I already seriously suspected" -- that most members of the perfect cast of characters he described meeting on his trip from New England to New Orleans were not real people but creations of a novelist's imagination.

I didn't learn these things because I'm a literary Woodward or Bernstein. I didn't set out to get the goods on the great John Steinbeck or fact-check "Travels With Charley."

And I never intended to show that the basic storyline of "Travels With Charley" -- world-famous author travels across the country alone, roughing it and camping out as he searches for the soul of America and its people -- is a 48-year-old cultural myth.

My initial motives for digging into "Travels With Charley" were totally innocent. I simply wanted to go exactly where Steinbeck went in 1960, see what he saw on the Steinbeck Highway and then write a book about the way America has and has not changed in the last 50 years.


I had a lot of Steinbeck homework to do, and I did it. I read "Travels With Charley" -- and immediately became suspicious about the credibility of almost every character Steinbeck said he met, from the New England farmers who sound like crosses between Adlai Stevenson and Descartes to the archetypal white Southern racist in New Orleans.

Using clues from the "Charley" book, biographies of Steinbeck, letters Steinbeck wrote from the road, newspaper articles and the first draft of the "Charley" manuscript, I built a time-and-place line for Steinbeck's trip from Sept. 23, 1960 to Dec. 5, 1960.

The more I learned about Steinbeck's actual journey, however, the less it resembled the one he described in "Travels With Charley." Some really smart people, not just high school kids with road fever in their blood, believe parts of the prevailing "Travels With Charley" myth without questioning.

One is writer Bill Barich, author of "Long Way Home," a new Steinbeck-themed book about his six-week road trip up the gut of middle American on U.S. Route 50 in 2008. He told the Los Angeles Times recently that he thought Steinbeck's pessimistic view of the America he found in 1960 (but didn't put into "Charley") was partly a result of spending so much time alone on the road with only a dog and a cache of booze to keep him company.

That's the prevailing "Charley" myth, but it's totally wrong.

Based on my research, my drive-by journalism and my best TV-detective logic, during his entire trip Steinbeck was almost never alone and rarely camped in the American outback.
Steinbeck was gone from New York for a total of about 75 days.

On about 45 days he traveled with, stayed with and slept with his beloved wife Elaine in the finest hotels, motels and resorts in America, in family homes, and at a Texas millionaire's cattleranch near Amarillo.


Adding up all the other nights we know Steinbeck stayed in motels, slept in his camper at busy truck stops or stayed with friends, etc., there were roughly 70 nights in which Steinbeck wasn't alone in his camper in the middle of nowhere or alone anywhere else.

Since he also socialized for weeks with his pals and family while he was on the West Coast and in Texas, the real question is, "Was Steinbeck ever alone in the fall of 1960?"

Even when he was driving cross-country by himself, he wasn't alone for long. He was constantly stopping for gas, stopping to talk to locals in coffee shops and bars and visiting places like the Custer Monument and Yellowstone Park.

So let's see: 75 minus 70. That leaves about five nights of Steinbeck's "Travels With Charley" trip unaccounted for. In the book, which is rarely reliable, he tells us he camped overnight alone on a farm in New Hampshire, in Alice, N.D., and in the Badlands of North Dakota. But he really didn't; he almost certainly made up or heavily embellished those campouts under the stars.

Did Steinbeck actually camp out on a second farm in New England or near the Continental Divide along Route 66 in New Mexico? Did he sleep in his camper in the rain under that bridge in Maine? Did he really camp out on private land in Ohio and Montana?

Only his ghost knows for sure -- but so what?

"Travels With Charley" has always been classified as a work of nonfiction, but no one ever claimed it was a "Frontline" documentary.

Does it really matter if Steinbeck made up a lot of stuff he didn't do on his trip or left out a lot of stuff he did do? Should we care that "Charley" could never be certified as "nonfiction" today or pass Oprah's Truth Test? All nonfiction is part fiction, and vice versa. It's not like Steinbeck wrote a phony Holocaust memoir that sullies the memories and souls of millions of victims.

"Travels With Charley" is almost 50 years old. It's got its slow parts and silly parts and dumb parts. It contains obvious filler, but in many ways it is a wonderful, quirky and entertaining book.DSC_0107_copy

It contains flashes of Steinbeck's great writing, humor and cranky character and appeals to readers of all ages. That's why it's an American classic and still popular around the world.

It doesn't matter if it's not the true or full or honest story of Steinbeck's quixotic road trip. It was never meant to be. It's a metaphor, a work of art, not a AAA travelogue.

Steinbeck himself insisted in "Charley" -- a little defensively -- that he wasn't trying to write a travelogue or do real journalism. And he points out more than once that his trip was subjective and uniquely his, and so was its retelling.

My work is done. I'll let the scholars sort out whether Steinbeck's ghost deserves to be hauled on to Oprah's stage to defend himself for his 50-year-old crimes against nonfiction. I don't know where John Steinbeck will take me next.

But I'm glad I got to take my own strange trip down his highway -- and got to laugh out loud in Alice.

Join the conversation:

John Steinbeck Gets Home Again

Tuesday, 07 December 2010 10:32 AM Written by
FINAL STEINBECK UPDATE: According to my best guess, it was 50 years ago Dec. 5th or Dec. 6th that Steinbeck staggered into New York City and ended his 75-day, 10,000-mile circumnavigation of the USA.

Steinbeck, who in "Charley" says he sprinted to the finish line in a road-bleary blur, was out of gas physically and spiritually and he knew his search for America had been mostly a bust.images_copy_copy_copy

While he was away from his homes in Manhattan and Sag Harbor Nikita Khrushchev had made a fool of himself at the United Nations, the Pirates had shocked the Yankees in the World Series and JFK had out-debated Nixon to become boss of the Free World.

For reasons that should be obvious to anyone who’s read this blog, it took Steinbeck more than a year of struggling to finish “Travels With Charley,” which didn’t come out until the summer of 1962. Of his 16 novels, six nonfiction books and five collections of shortstories, it was his last major work and reportedly his best-selling.

Six weeks after Steinbeck returned to New York he would attend JFK’s inauguration day festivities and share a limo with JFK insider/advisor John Kenneth Galbraith.

In less than two years he’d win the Nobel Prize for Literature and be reminded by a creepy New York Times editorial the next day that he hadn’t written anything important for 30 years.

In less than four years he’d be writing speeches for his new buddy President Lyndon Johnson.

In six years he’d be supporting the war in Viet Nam in public and doubting it in private.

In eight years, on Dec. 20, 1968, at age 66, the author of some of the most popular books ever written by an American would be dead.

And in 50 years I would drive 11,276 miles chasing and fact-checking his ghost.


Join the conversation:

John Steinbeck Heads for Home

Thursday, 02 December 2010 01:35 PM Written by

EIGHTY FOUR, P.A.  -- My house

It's time to bring poor
John Steinbeck in out of the cold and put an end to his punishing 75-day, 10,000-mile circumnavigation of America's finest hotels, motels and resorts.

That's mean, but not inaccurate.

Fifty years ago right now Steinbeck was pushing hard for home in Rocinante. He was probably crossing Mississippi or already in Alabama. Because we have no choice, we have to believe, as he says in "Travels With Charley," that Charley was still riding with him.

Fifty years ago yesterday morning, Thursday, Dec. 1, 1960, I figure Steinbeck was in New Orleans' Upper Ninth Ward watching the racist circus in front of the William Frantz Elementary school. DSC_0998_copy

The grade school, then in an all-white neighborhood, became the first New Orleans public school to be integrated when six-year-old Ruby Bridges showed up Nov. 14, 1960.

The scene was ugly and nuts, as CBS showed us last month in its good 50-year retrospective about Bridges.

Steinbeck was sickened by the sights and sounds of white mothers shouting crude things at any white parent who defied their boycott by bringing their kids to the newly integrated school.

But his angry description of the "Cheerleaders" protests and his attempt to convey the nastiness of their foul-mouthed harrangues became the most powerful part of his book and gave it the  strong ending it needed.

Steinbeck says in "Charley" that he got out of New Orleans as fast as possible, stayed at a motel somewhere and drove north into Mississippi.DSC_1069_2_copy

The last credible word we ever hear from him on the Steinbeck Highway is the post-card he mailed to his agent on Dec. 3, 1960, from the Pelahatchie, Miss., post office on US 80.

At the end of his note he scrawls,  "Darned if I know whether I'm getting anything. At least I'll know what is not so."

Then he signs off with, "See you. It's been a long haul."

Join the conversation:

Page 5 of 16