Travels with Charley: In Search of America

Travels with Charley: In Search of America

An intimate journey across and in search of America, as told by one of its most beloved writers, in a deluxe centennial edition In September 1960, John Steinbeck embarked on a journey across America. He felt that he might have lost touch with the country, with its speech, the smell of its grass and trees, its color and quality of light, the pulse of its people. To reassure...

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Title:Travels with Charley: In Search of America
Author:John Steinbeck
Rating:
ISBN:0142000701
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:214 pages

Travels with Charley: In Search of America Reviews

  • Diane
    Aug 14, 2007

    I first read this book in high school, and it's what made me fall in love with travelogues. In 1960, John Steinbeck drove a small camper around the United States with his dog, Charley. He wrote that he wanted to get to know his country again, to learn more about this "new America."

    "For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago, or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I disco

    I first read this book in high school, and it's what made me fall in love with travelogues. In 1960, John Steinbeck drove a small camper around the United States with his dog, Charley. He wrote that he wanted to get to know his country again, to learn more about this "new America."

    "For many years I have traveled in many parts of the world. In America I live in New York, or dip into Chicago, or San Francisco. But New York is no more America than Paris is France or London is England. Thus I discovered that I did not know my own country. I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory, and the memory is at best a faulty, warpy reservoir. I had not heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water, its color and quality of light. I knew the changes only from books and newspapers. But more than this, I had not felt the country for twenty-five years. In short, I was writing of something I did not know about, and it seems to me that in a so-called writer this is criminal. My memories were distorted by twenty-five intervening years."

    "Travels with Charley" was published in 1962, and Steinbeck, who had been in poor health, died just six years later.

    I remember

    this book. I loved Steinbeck's stories about the people he met and the places he visited, and even the details of how he organized the camper and his trip. I have recommended this book to countless friends over the years, gushing about how good it was.

    So you can imagine my UTTER HEARTBREAK because I found out that parts of the story were fabricated or fictionalized. Reporters have verified that some details in the narrative could not have been true, and that Steinbeck made up a lot of the conversations he supposedly had with people along the road. (This news first broke in 2011, but I didn't learn it until I saw it mentioned in John Waters' book about hitchhiking, "Carsick.")

    When the 50th anniversary edition of "Travels with Charley" was published in 2012, it came with a disclaimer: "Indeed, it would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist, and he added countless touches – changing the sequence of events, elaborating on scenes, inventing dialogue – that one associates more with fiction than nonfiction."

    So here is my conundrum: Knowing that parts of it have been fictionalized, should I continue to recommend it to others? If the book is as good as I remember, doesn't that outweigh its dubious origin?

    Or I could just live in denial and remember the joy I felt when I first read it.

    I was so upset to learn that Steinbeck had embellished his stories that I decided to reread the book to see how it holds up. It was great! It was glorious! I will even say that I think it's one of the best travelogues written about America, ever. "Travels with Charley" is beautifully written - it is so quotable and insightful that I had dozens of pages marked.

    "It would be pleasant to be able to say of my travels with Charley, 'I went out to find the truth about my country and I found it.' And then it would be such a simple matter to set down my findings and lean back comfortably with a fine sense of having discovered truths and taught them to my readers. I wish it were that easy... This monster of a land, this mightiest of nations, this spawn of the future, turns out to be the macrocosm of microcosm me. If an Englishman or a Frenchman or an Italian should travel my route, see what I saw, hear what I heard, their stored pictures would be not only different from mine but equally different from one another. If other Americans reading this account should feel it true, that agreement would only mean that we are alike in our Americanness... For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerns, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners... The American identity is an exact and provable thing."

    Because it had been criticized by modern reporters, on this reread I paid more attention to Steinbecks' "conversations" with folks around the country, and yes, the dialogue was so smooth and concise that it had to have been finessed. But after considering the issue, I've relaxed on this point because I bet every writer does that. Every writer is going to streamline speech so that it reads well. Steinbeck even talks about writers who can quickly take measure of a place:

    "I've always admired those reporters who can descend on an area, talk to key people, ask key questions, take samplings of opinions, and then set down an orderly report very like a road map. I envy this technique and at the same time do not trust it as a mirror of reality. I feel that there are too many realities. What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style."

    I do think Steinbeck got at the spirit of what was going on in America in 1960: it was a big election year between Kennedy and Nixon; racial tensions were high in the South because schools had been desegregated; and there was heightened anxiety about Russia and the threat of the atomic bomb. He even wrote about environmentalism and his concerns for how much waste America was producing, and he contemplated how the new cross-country interstate system would change the country. The guy was prescient, I tell you.

    Some of my favorite parts were when Steinbeck tried to cross into Canada with his dog and ran into a bureaucratic snafu regarding Charley's vaccination paperwork (very amusing); a warm conversation he had with a family of immigrants while they shared a drink in his camper; and when he drove through a forest of massive Redwood trees out West.

    "The redwoods, once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always. No one has ever successfully painted or photographed a redwood tree. The feeling they produce is not transferable. From them comes silence and awe. It's not only their unbelievable stature, nor the color which seems to shift and vary under your eyes, no, they are not like any trees we know, they are ambassadors from another time. They have the mystery of ferns that disappeared a million years ago into the coal of the carboniferous era. They carry their own light and shade. The vainest, most slap-happy and irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect."

    Another theme Steinbeck returns to often is the wanderlust that seems to pervade Americans everywhere. He mentions how many families had started buying mobile homes so they can move more freely about, and how many others gazed at his camper and said they wished they could travel across the country.

    "I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation -- a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go someday, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something. I saw this look and heard this yearning everywhere in every state I visited. Nearly every American hungers to move."

    I so enjoyed rereading this book that I will definitely continue to recommend it to friends. I even upgraded my original 4-star rating to 5, because of how gorgeous Steinbeck's writing was. I just wish I could give Charley a biscuit and a belly rub for being such a good traveling companion.

  • Grip Dellabonte
    May 31, 2008

    I hadn't expected to enjoy this book as much as I did. It was my first travelogue, and I only read it because, a) I was bored and b)I figured I couldn't go wrong with Steinbeck - a writer I already enjoyed reading (still do).

    But I have a wicked streak of wanderlust in me, too, and Steinbeck really caught me at a good time. It was Summertime, and I was already in a daydream-y mood. That mood lasted all through the book.

    I managed to get through the whole trip with the cranky writer, and he was act

    I hadn't expected to enjoy this book as much as I did. It was my first travelogue, and I only read it because, a) I was bored and b)I figured I couldn't go wrong with Steinbeck - a writer I already enjoyed reading (still do).

    But I have a wicked streak of wanderlust in me, too, and Steinbeck really caught me at a good time. It was Summertime, and I was already in a daydream-y mood. That mood lasted all through the book.

    I managed to get through the whole trip with the cranky writer, and he was actually quite good company! At the end of the trip, I found I missed not being able to climb back into his pickup (aptly named Rocinante after Don Quixote's horse)with him and the noble Charley, and head out on adventures new.

    But the mood passed, and so did the Summer. Many Summers later, I had a chance to go to the Steinbeck Museum in Salinas. I honestly have to say I got a bit of a lump in my throat when I saw exhibited there, with her door opened invitingly, was Rocinante beckoning to me once again to climb in and go see the country with her.

    Quite a nice moment.

    If I had to pick one thing that I learned from the book it would be that it is a good idea not to have preconceived notions about the places you choose to visit. Chances are they will surprise you, and it is best to be flexible in those cases. This could reduce the possibility of becoming disenchanted with your travel destinations.

  • Will Byrnes
    Jan 27, 2009

    John Steinbeck put a house on a pickup, left the wife behind in their Long Island home and traveled the nation for several months. This is his tale of that experience. I found many quotables here, and I guess one should expect that when the traveler’s name is Steinbeck. In a book of about two hundred pages, one can hardly expect a detailed look at all of America. Steinbeck picks his spots. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. It was, of necessity, merely a sketch of some parts of the country. But

    John Steinbeck put a house on a pickup, left the wife behind in their Long Island home and traveled the nation for several months. This is his tale of that experience. I found many quotables here, and I guess one should expect that when the traveler’s name is Steinbeck. In a book of about two hundred pages, one can hardly expect a detailed look at all of America. Steinbeck picks his spots. Sometimes they work, sometimes not. It was, of necessity, merely a sketch of some parts of the country. But some of those sketches should hang in the Louvres. Two in particular grabbed me. His description of “The Cheerleaders,” a group of women who gathered every day at a newly integrated southern elementary school to taunt and threaten the black kids and Steinbeck’s look at the culture surrounding that was chilling, a close portrait of an incendiary place at an incendiary time, and is, alone, a reason to read this book. The other was his depiction of a redwood forest in northern California, where the massive trees alter dawn and blot out the night sky.

    - from the NY Times

    The subtitle of the book is “In Search of America.” What travel books are really about, particularly when undertaken by a literary person, is self-discovery. It works the same as in literature. The road, the quest, the journey all exist in an interior landscape and lead to an inner destination. I did not feel that this was much at work here, and was disappointed. Steinbeck kept his eyes on the external road. Sometimes his snapshots of early 1960s America were uninteresting. Sometimes they were compelling. The compelling parts made the trip one worth taking.

    =============================

    Apparently, there is some thought that not all the material in this book was actually...um...real. GR friend

    sent along a link to a site by a guy named

    , who writes about Steinbeck. Looks like he did a fair bit of research and concluded that Steinbeck's journey may have been more of an internal one than we believed. check it out.

  • karen
    Sep 11, 2010

    dude, steinbeck is so much better than kerouac.

    and i know that is a totally obvious statement, but if i want to read a story about a man traveling across america and describing his findings, it is going to be a man with a varied vocabulary, a keen eye for detail, and some powers of interpreting his experiences. john, i am listening...

    this is my first nonfiction from steinbeck, and i am impressed with how conversational it reads. he has a real skill in making his experiences near-visible to the r

    dude, steinbeck is so much better than kerouac.

    and i know that is a totally obvious statement, but if i want to read a story about a man traveling across america and describing his findings, it is going to be a man with a varied vocabulary, a keen eye for detail, and some powers of interpreting his experiences. john, i am listening...

    this is my first nonfiction from steinbeck, and i am impressed with how conversational it reads. he has a real skill in making his experiences near-visible to the reader,in both his physical descriptions and his musings about what an "american" is. i feel like he would be a fantastic road-trip companion, and i envy charley.

    and that is another thing. when it comes to dogs, i am completely breed-ist. there are dogs that i love, and then there are dogs i think should be banned from breeding, so i don't have to see them ever again. poodles are among these breeds. they are the silliest of all dogs, and how a man's man like steinbeck could travel across the country with one of them baffles me.

    this is not a dog, it is an aberration:

    but, for steinbeck's sake, i can read about a poodle for a little while, and it is sweet how they bond with each other. but i still think they are ugly and not "real" dogs.

    steinbeck misses out on an investment opportunity:

    of course he is being facetious here, but i for one would kill for some vintage appliances - in another life - in a better apartment - i would have a fantastic kitchen filled with these old timey kitchen things, and i curse steinbeck for not giving a tittle.

    steinbeck does not get sucked into revisionist nostalgia:

    i am so glad my real-world book club finally chose something i can review on here instead of just a short story or an essay or a poem...and this time, i will have something to add! they are all european intellectual types, with their tales of berlin and ukraine and their war stories (as both witness and participant) and i just sit there and drink my wine and play the role of "very good young listener". thank you, steinbeck for giving america some street cred and fodder for booktalks!

  • Jason Koivu
    Sep 22, 2010

    Goddamn it! I've driven coast to coast across the U.S. fives times already and yet, thanks to

    I'm ready to go again!

    During the mid-century period, discovering America and/or oneself through the medium of the road-trip came into vogue. While other prominent authors, such as Kerouac and Thompson, were publishing their own, more heralded versions, I prefer Steinbeck's. It lacks the hedonism of the others and I love him for that. And furthermore, these journals often get offtrac

    Goddamn it! I've driven coast to coast across the U.S. fives times already and yet, thanks to

    I'm ready to go again!

    During the mid-century period, discovering America and/or oneself through the medium of the road-trip came into vogue. While other prominent authors, such as Kerouac and Thompson, were publishing their own, more heralded versions, I prefer Steinbeck's. It lacks the hedonism of the others and I love him for that. And furthermore, these journals often get offtrack, forgetting the road for some favored topic that the writer expounds upon until it becomes a journey of its own and the original path fades from memory. Steinbeck veers off now and then, but it's always for a good cause and it never lasts too long.

    Here's a few of my personal favorite highlights from his trip:

    :) Charley. Before I began I had no idea who this Charley was, but he's a lovable guy and he made the whole thing all the more enjoyable to read.

    :o I love Steinbeck's super sleuthing in the Chicago hotel room, where he adeptly pieces together a clandestine romance in a way that would impress Sherlock Holmes.

    :) The book gets extra marks for a visit, description and kind words for Deer Isle, Maine, where from my grandmother's kin hail.

    :O Discovering that what I thought were imagined characters - outrageously colorful characters - from his novel

    were actually real people.

    While

    will go down as a lasting work of genius, it carries with it the weight of moral baggage and an oppressive sadness. Maybe

    is not the same sort of classic literature masterpiece that will survive the ages, but I found it to be a pure joy to read from start to finish.

  • K.D. Absolutely
    Oct 27, 2010

    Six years before he died, John Steinbeck (1902-1968) had a lonesome trip aboard a camper named Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse) around the USA. He said that he would like to see this country on a personal level before he died as he made a good living writing about it. Considering his heart condition, such trip alone could have been disastrous to his health but he insisted. The main question that he would like to be answered was

    and after travelling with his

    Six years before he died, John Steinbeck (1902-1968) had a lonesome trip aboard a camper named Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse) around the USA. He said that he would like to see this country on a personal level before he died as he made a good living writing about it. Considering his heart condition, such trip alone could have been disastrous to his health but he insisted. The main question that he would like to be answered was

    and after travelling with his poodle

    for around 10,000 miles for 3 months, he did not like the answer that he got.

    He saw the wastefulness of the people. He got worried about excessive packaging that consumers liked. He noticed the ambiguity of culture brought about my mass media technologies. Advancement in technologies, though giving people instant gratification, could alienate members of the families from each other. He met people who could not be trusted even by giving the right direction. He met poor migrant potato pickers from Canada (that reminded me of the Joads family in his opus,

    ). He finally saw Niagara Falls that made him happy because finally we could say we saw it already. He met unreasonable and illogical border authorities. He saw how people in different states differ on how they talk to one another and treat other people. For example, in New England people spoke very little and waited for him to come over while in Midwestern cities, people were more outgoing and did not hesitate approaching him. He got amazed on how fast the population grew in those states that he had visited before. When he visited Sauk Centre because he would like to see the birthplace of his favorite writer,

    he got disheartened. A waitress in the restaurant did not know who Lewis was. In fact, ignorance, according to him, was prevalent in most people he encountered particularly in politics, economics and culture. In Texas, he despised the so-called “Cheerleaders” who were protesting the integration of black children in a school in New Orleans. In New Orleans, he learned that racism of the South was not confined with those towards blacks but also towards Jews. The trip ended with Steinbeck missing a U-turn and telling the policeman: “Officer, I’ve driven this thing all over the country – mountains, plains, deserts. And now I’m back in my own town, where I live – and I’m lost.”

    This is my 3rd book by Steinbeck and for me this is the most down-to-earth. Although I have only been to California, Philadelphia, Texas and Ohio, visualizing those places he visited and conversations that he had with the people he met was not a problem. I used to enjoy watching American movies in the 50’s and 60’s and I was able to picture those scenes in my mind. Also, I think Steinbeck wanted to have a last hand long look with the people he wrote about in his novels that made him who he was – one of the greatest American authors (and certainly one of my favorite novelists of all times). So what if he had a heart problem? So what if he was alone with just a dog to talk to? So what if there was a raging snow storm outside? So what if he might be killed by dangerous mad men in the forests and highways? The thought of Steinbeck risking his life to be able to see the country for the last time and talk to the people who patronized his novels was a marked of a good artist or, simply, a good humble man.

    And oh yes, if you love reading about dogs, read this because Charley could even talk. Steinbeck imagined words being said by his dog in one of the scenes and their dialogues were so clever and amusing. Steinbeck could write anything. He could make any scenario believable. Enough for me to gasp for air as his words were always outrageously breathtaking.

  • Kim
    Feb 25, 2012

    In 1960, when John Steinbeck was 58 years old, ill with the heart disease which was to kill him eight years later and rather discontented with life, he decided to embark on a road trip around the United States in a fitted-out pick-up truck, accompanied by his standard French poodle, Charley. Steinbeck’s plan was to re-connect with the America which had informed his fiction and to assess how much it had changed over the years.

    This book is the result of that trip: part memoir, part travelogue, pa

    In 1960, when John Steinbeck was 58 years old, ill with the heart disease which was to kill him eight years later and rather discontented with life, he decided to embark on a road trip around the United States in a fitted-out pick-up truck, accompanied by his standard French poodle, Charley. Steinbeck’s plan was to re-connect with the America which had informed his fiction and to assess how much it had changed over the years.

    This book is the result of that trip: part memoir, part travelogue, part philosophical treatise … and part fiction. Just how much of the narrative is fiction rather than fact has been the subject of investigation and discussion in recent years, much of it instigated by the work of journalist Bill Steigerwald, who recreated Steinbeck’s trip and exposed what he argues to be the fallacies in the narrative. This article in the

    summarises Steigerwald’s findings and typing Steigerwald’s name into any reliable search engine will locate a range of Steigerwald’s writings on the issue, as well as some responses to his position on the book.

    While I've read Steigerwald’s conclusions about Steinbeck’s journey with interest, it matters little to me that the work has been edited in such a way as to make it look like Steinbeck and Charley were travelling alone almost all the time, whereas Steinbeck’s original manuscript (held at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City) shows that Steinbeck’s wife Elaine was with him for much of the time and that he probably spent more than half the nights he was away sleeping in hotels rather than in the truck. Likewise, it matters little to me that Steinbeck’s reported conversations with people he meets on the way are fiction rather than reportage.

    In relation to this, the fact that Steinbeck preserved and then donated his manuscript indicates that he was not concerned that readers might discover that there was more (or possibly less) to the journey than appears in the book. Further, the narrative itself is full of disclaimers. Steinbeck does not claim that the book is a day-by-day, diary-style account of his journey. Rather, what he conveys is a range of impressions on a number of topics, some insights into issues he considered important and some at times painful self-reflection, all conveyed in Steinbeck’s powerful yet accessible prose. On some matters Steinbeck was ahead of his time. For example, what he wrote about the destruction of the environment and the overuse of packaging products (“The mountain of things we throw away are much greater than the things we use.”), expressed what I doubt was a matter of widespread public concern as early as 1960.

    Other parts of the narrative are much more personal. Steinbeck’s encounter with old Latino drinking buddies in a bar in Monterey is particularly poignant. As Steinbeck’s friend tries to persuade the New York resident to come “home”, Steinbeck names all of their friends who have died and concludes that

    was right: “You can't go home again because home has ceased to exist except in the mothballs of memory."

    Possibly the most powerful incident in the book is Steinbeck’s witnessing of the “cheerleaders” in New Orleans – a group of women who stood across the street from William Frantz Elementary school and yelled obscenities at Ruby Bridges - the first black child to attend the all-white school - and at the few white parents who did not comply with the white boycott of the school. Ruby, who had started at the school only a week or two before Steinbeck was in New Orleans, was escorted to school by federal marshalls. Her ordeal is recorded in

    by Norman Rockwell.

    Shortly after witnessing the behaviour of the cheerleaders, Steinbeck decided to cut his journey short and head straight back to New York City. The narrative gives the strong impression that the incident left him heart-sick and distressed.

    Overall, whatever may be this book’s shortcomings as a piece of travel reportage, it's a moving and engaging piece of writing. Steinbeck had become rather a cranky old man by the time he embarked on the journey, and was an even crankier old man by time he finished it. He was certainly no longer the novelist at the peak of his powers. But there’s still passion, warmth and humour in his words and plenty for the reader who loves Steinbeck’s writing to engage with. And there's Charley. Charley is wonderful.

  • Maciek
    Feb 28, 2013

    Eight years before a lifelong smoking habit finally killed his heart, John Steinbeck embarked on one last road trip across the United States. Steinbeck desired to see the country he described all his life with his own eyes - "to look again, rediscover this monster land", become reacquainted with its people. His sole companion would be Charley, a French standard poodle. Together they would board the Rocinante - Steinbeck's truck named after the horse of Don Quixote - and go and try to understand

    Eight years before a lifelong smoking habit finally killed his heart, John Steinbeck embarked on one last road trip across the United States. Steinbeck desired to see the country he described all his life with his own eyes - "to look again, rediscover this monster land", become reacquainted with its people. His sole companion would be Charley, a French standard poodle. Together they would board the Rocinante - Steinbeck's truck named after the horse of Don Quixote - and go and try to understand what America and Americans are like now.

    In 1960 John Steinbeck was 58 years old, and has already published all of his best known works -

    (1937),

    (1939),

    (1945),

    (1952). Thom Steinbeck, John's oldest son, believes that his father was aware that he was dying from his heart condition, and that he took the trip to say goodbye to his country. "The whole book is a big goodbye", he says, "he just wanted to go and see it all one last time. I don't know how my stepmother let him go, because she knew his condition. He could have died at any time. But he just went out, he just wanted to see it, be a kid again, one more time. Go out and say goodbye. And I tought that's a fascinating aspect of the book - if you go back and read it and realize that Steinbeck knows he's never going to see any of this again".

    was a a significant success - published in the 27th of July in 1962, it reached the number one slot on the New York Times Best Seller list on the 21st of October, swinging the Nobel judges in his favor - Steinbeck would be awarded the prize just four days later. After 50 years the Nobel Academy made its record public, revealing that Steinbeck was in fact a compromise choice; it was felt that he had his best work behind him, and Steinbeck himself felt that he had not deserved the Nobel -

    .

    Steinbeck's trip took him from his home in Sag Harbor north to Maine, where he attempted to cross into Canada - where the kind Canadian custom guards inform him that they can let him in, but the U.S. won't take him back as his dog is not sterilized. After a short rant about the opressive government (wonder what he would have to say now?) Steinbeck went west. He stuck to the outer border of the country and marveled at the beauty and tranquility of the state of Montanta ( declaring it his favorite of all), before going all the way to the Pacific Northwest and down to his home state of California.

    The first sections of the memoir are humorous in tone, full of witty interactions with quirky characters that Steinbeck encounters on the road - among them a family of French-Canadians in Maine, who worked the season as potato pickers; a travelling Shakespearean actor in the small town of Alice, in North Dakota badlands; friends from his youth in San Francisco.

    The tone shifts significantly after Steinbeck reaches Seattle, and is amazed at how much it has changed - he muses how progress looks like destruction, as the little town he remembered became a bustling metropolis, killing a great deal of natural beauty. He goes back east, wanting to go down and grab a bite of the Deep South. He is shocked at the racism that he encounters in New Orleans - and a share of anti-semitism as well, as he is accused of being a New York Jew, one of those "who cause all the trouble" and "stirs up the Negroes". He sees a group of "cheerleaders" - women protesting the school desegregation act, and witnesses Ruby Bridges entering the William Frantz Elementary School to their "bestial and filthy" insults. The applause that the women receive left Steinbeck depressed that the beautiful city of New Orleans was "misrepresented to the world". His enthusiasm for travel evaporates, faced with harsh reality, and he leaves for home - feeling tired of travel and wanting it to be over.

    Steinbeck's travelogue entered the canon of classic American travel writing, and while his position as an American man of letters remains unchallenged, dark clouds have set over this particular entry in his canon. In 2010, a Pennsylvanian named Bill Steigerwald followed the route described by Steinbeck, and traveled for over 10,000 miles. He found a number of significant inaccuracies between reality and Steinbeck's account, and wrote an article titled

    which appeared in the April issue of

    magazine in 2011 and which he later expanded into a book titled

    . By following the route and checking places which Steinbeck wrote about, Steigerwald discovered that Steinbeck's actual journey was vastly different than the one he described in

    . Steigerwald states that Steinbeck's wife, Elaine, accompanied him on 45 days out of the 75 that the trip took; that he didn't camp in the open as he described, but instead stayed in luxurious motels, hotels and resorts, including an exclusive Spalding Inn where he had to borrow a tie and jacket to be allowed to eat in the dining room.

    "From what I can gather, Steinbeck didn’t fictionalize in the guise of nonfiction because he wanted to mislead readers or grind some political point. He was desperate", says Steigerwald. "He had a book to make up about a failed road trip, and he had taken virtually no notes. The finely drawn characters he created in

    are believable; it’s just not believable that he met them under anything like the conditions he describes. At crunch time, as he struggled to write

    , his journalistic failures forced him to be a novelist again. Then his publisher, The Viking Press, marketed the book as nonfiction, and the gullible reviewers of the day—from

    to

    —bought every word."

    Bill Barich, an American writer who also took the Steinbeck trip and published his account as

    came to a similar conclusion. "I’m fairly certain that Steinbeck made up most of the book", he says. "The dialogue is so wooden". He goes on to add:

    "Steinbeck was extremely depressed, in really bad health, and was discouraged by everyone from making the trip. He was trying to recapture his youth, the spirit of the knight-errant. But at that point he was probably incapable of interviewing ordinary people. He’d become a celebrity and was more interested in talking to Dag Hammarskjold and Adlai Stevenson."

    Even Jay Parini, the author of a biography of Steinbeck and the man who wrote the introduction to

    admits that he doesn't consider it to be an accurate travelogue: "I have always assumed that to some degree it’s a work of fiction. Steinbeck was a fiction writer, and here he’s shaping events, massaging them". But for him the discovery of the book's inaccuracy doesn't diminish its value: "Does this shake my faith in the book? Quite the opposite. I would say hooray for Steinbeck. If you want to get at the spirit of something, sometimes it’s important to use the techniques of a fiction writer." Parini has updated his introduction for the latest printing of the book, openly stating its romance with fiction: "It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative."

    This explains the more adventurous and picturesque scenes of the book and its cast of interesting and quirky personalities that Steinbeck meets on the road, like the Shakespearian actor or the romanticized potato pickers from Quebec who resemble a bit the Okies from

    . The conversations he has with them do often feel scripted, as if the characters were given cue cards to respond in an appropriate way, such as a farmer not failing to mention that Kruschev was visiting the United Nations in New York (the day of the famous Shoe-banging incident) weeks before it actually happened, and why Steinbeck happened to be in New Orleans to witness Ruby Ridge entering the desegregated school. Steinbeck's own son John is even more blunt than both Steigerwald and Barich in doubting his father: "Thom and I are convinced that he never talked to any of those people....He just sat in his camper and wrote all that shit."

    The shift in tone - from enthusiastic, humorous and sarcastic to melancholic and even grim - could be explained by Steinbeck reliving his trip as he was writing it, employing his wit and talent, wanting to recapture the idealism he sought but did not find and put it on paper, but failing to do so, with his enthusiasm evaporating near the end. "There’s no denying Steinbeck got away with writing a dishonest book", says Steigerwald. "Not only did he fudge the details of his road trip, but he pulled his punches about what he really thought about the America he found. In

    he fretted about the things he didn’t like about American society: pollution, early signs of sprawl, the rise of national chains, the increasing prevalence of plastic. But in private he complained directly about the failings of his 180 million fellow Americans: They were materialistic, morally flabby, and headed down the road to national decline."

    Perhaps the failure of reality to meet his memories and idea of America depressed Steinbeck, and made him tinker with his account of the journey to fit his vision; the fact that he kept the original manuscript of the book - now kept at the Morgan Library & Museum and available for scrutiny - shows that he wasn't overly concerned with being exposed as a fraud. Perhaps at that point of his life he simply did not care - which would also explain his shrugging of the Nobel. Steinbeck did take a trip through the country, but it's not the one he described here - it doesn't invalidate his insights and concern about the destruction of environment and observations on American society in the mid 20th-century. Steinbeck was not using a tape recorder and a camera to record his trip, and was retelling it subjectively; from memory, and being an estabilished writer he could not help but improve it when he saw fit. His purpose was less to write actual journalism and more to see his country for one last time, as his son claimed; as he admits in the book it didn't meet his expectations. There is a sense of disappointment hanging over the book, as if the the entire trip was too bitter an experience to be put on paper; Parini notices that Steinbeck seemed to be "never quite able to bring himself to say that he was often disgusted by what he saw". And indeed it seems that he was not. One might imagine Steinbeck writing an account of all that bothered him. Who would have thought that a book written by a man who went on a trip with his poodle could have been so bleak?

  • Jeffrey Keeten
    Aug 10, 2014

    John Steinbeck was not feeling very well before he decide

    John Steinbeck was not feeling very well before he decided to take a trip across country. It wasn’t only physical, but also a general malaise about the condition of the country and his own place in it. Early in the book he makes a statement that reveals exactly his state of mind. The words betray a clairvoyance of a near future that would catch up with him in 1968.

    Okay, that is the life philosophy that he has tried to live by, but it is what he says next that shows that he is feeling the tight grip of his impending demise.

    So he is on a heroic quest. He even found the loyal steed to carry him from place to place. He named her Rocinante after the horse in

    as if he’d already decided before starting that for most of the journey he was going to be tilting at windmills. Bill Steigerwald, former journalist, in 2010 decided to unravel the murky, twisting road of Steinbeck’s trip by following in his tire tracks. Instead of a GMC pickup, specially made with a deluxe cabin, Steigerwald took his Toyota Rav4 and slept in Walmart parking lots and used car lots. His goal was to try to part the curtain of pure mythology and actually determine where and what Steinbeck did.

    There are discrepancies. There are holes in Steinbeck’s...lets call it a tale...so large that you could have driven Rocinante pulling the Empire State building through these gaps and still had clearance on both sides.

    Bill Barich wrote in his book

    .

    So the thinking is, that instead of this solo trip where he has cut all ties to the comforts of his life and is out among the people pressing the flesh and writing down his observations of real America, that Travels with Charley is actually a tall tale. The truth is, for most of the trip, he was in luxury hotels, motels, and only camping in Rocinante occasionally. The writing, well crap, he is a novelist. He was not spinning most of it out of whole cloth, but pretty close. The original manuscript, I’m told, has his wife Elaine as a companion through much more of the trip than what he admits in the book. In the story he has her flying out to Chicago as an emergency care package dropping in to give solace to the weary traveler.

    I do find it sweet how attached to his wife he is. He had a hard time leaving her and I’m sure at some point the decision was made that if this trip is going to be any kind of success at all that he needed the care and comfort of his wife along the way. The book doesn’t have the same ring to it as Travels with Charley and Elaine.

    We learn that Charley has crooked front teeth that he makes a Ptth sound through whenever he requires Steinbeck’s attention or as a form of general commentary on the state of affairs. He mutters to himself when agitated and he does have a prostate issue on the trip that required emergency veterinarian help. Unexpected he turns into a demon dog when he catches a whiff of bear in Yellowstone. As Steinbeck refers to him as his suddenly

    . He proves to be a source of comfort to Steinbeck when the blues, which were never far away, would descend upon him.

    The most depressing moment in the trip is when Steinbeck stops in New Orleans to go see “the cheerleaders” and to experience first hand the hatred that was blooming over desegregation of schools.

    These were young, white working mothers who every day stood in front of the schools and screamed the most

    words at little black girls trying to go to school.

    Most white parents pulled their kids out of the schools, but those brave souls that tried to take their kids to school were met with the same vile language and threats. Soon the black girls were the only ones in the two schools.

    It makes me nauseous every time I see footage from this event.

    One of my favorite parts of the book was Steinbeck’s time among the Redwoods.

    If you have never seen them make sure that on any trip to California that you take the time to go walk among giants. These trees are over a thousand years old and over 95% of the original old growth have been logged for their excellent timber. They are the oldest living things on the planet. How baffling it must be to entities, that are time capsules of the activities of the planet, to find themselves being destroyed by these ants on the surface of the earth who with bits of sharp steel can wipe out a 1,000 years of life within moments.

    It shakes the soul to contemplate.

    So let us believe that most of this book is fabrication, that Steinbeck poured himself a cup of coffee liberally laced with Applejack and typed up a series of events that never quite happened. He could throw in a few observations about an America that he didn’t have to stray far from home to determine.

    He could disguise his guile with such pithy remarks as:

    I’ve taken trips with people that when we arrive back home you would think from comparing their memories to mine that we went to the same place, but possibly in a parallel universe. I feel the same way sometimes when I read a review of a person who read a book I liked. I feel as if we had read two different books.

    It is because we did.

    My view of life is different from everyone else’s and so is yours. We have different experiences. We bring those experiences to traveling, to reading, to conversations, and the whole kaleidoscope of it all colors our memories.

    Regardless of the level of truth that this book represents I was able to spend 246 pages with the man John Steinbeck. No biographer can ignore the personal philosophies that sprinkle the pages of this book. This is a weary soul that still occasionally finds moments of brightness. He is not a note taker, because he confessed he generally loses them anyway. He lets what he sees percolate through the stratosphere to the core of his brain until the purest of thoughts lands on his tongue. Some of his “observations” were gems, some feel wooden and maybe needed the deft touch of a healthier man. I took his journey, maybe not the physical one he presents, but the journey of the mind of a writer trying to share a few last thoughts with the readers he felt destined to lose.

  • Jenny (Reading Envy)
    Nov 18, 2016

    I read the Steinbeck trifecta in junior high and highschool - The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. Since that time, graduating 20 years ago, I have not read Steinbeck again. I bought this book to read on a train trip I had planned in California, since I knew that Steinbeck's father was a train man and that he grew up in California. Since that trip was cancelled the book has lingered on my shelf at home, long enough for me to forget I had it. So when the audio version of the bo

    I read the Steinbeck trifecta in junior high and highschool - The Red Pony, Of Mice and Men, and The Grapes of Wrath. Since that time, graduating 20 years ago, I have not read Steinbeck again. I bought this book to read on a train trip I had planned in California, since I knew that Steinbeck's father was a train man and that he grew up in California. Since that trip was cancelled the book has lingered on my shelf at home, long enough for me to forget I had it. So when the audio version of the book came up on a BOGO sale in Audible, narrated by Gary Sinise, I bought it without checking. Ah well, the audio was great. The book will be nice to refer back to. Win/win.

    Steinbeck reminds me of Orwell in his non-fiction writing. Talking to individuals and writing about their experiences, focusing on people in rural areas living their everyday lives. He is traveling the country with his dog Charley in 1960, from Maine to Wisconsin to Oregon to California to Texas to the south. The world is getting ready to change and there is this feeling of the "last times" of whatever we can call the years before the president and MLK Jr are assassinated, before the Civil Rights Movement. The chapters in the south are particularly insightful and painful to read.

    A few broad comments on travel that I liked:

    "I felt at last that my journey had started; I think I hadn't really believed in it before."

    "We know so little of our own geography." (Maine)

    "It is possible, even probable, to be told a truth about a place, to accept it, to know it, and at the same time, to not know anything about it... Why then was I unprepared for the beauty of this region?" (Wisconsin)

    "For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism... we are a nation."

    I need to read more Steinbeck. Between his literature classics everyone studies in school and his non-fiction works like this one, he wrote several novels that I have never read. The main one I think of is

    , which I also have bought and left on a shelf. I used to think I disliked him, but what I disliked as a child are traits that make me appreciate him now. His descriptiveness, his straightforward nature, his tone. I was jarred by it at age 12. I didn't realize that was a sign of growth.