Telling the Truth About ‘Charley’
by Bill Steigerwald
My expose of the fibs and fictions of the great John Steinbeck started innocently more than two years ago.
As part of a crazy book project to show how much America has changed in the past 50 years, in the fall of 2010 I set out to faithfully retrace the cross-country road trip Steinbeck made in 1960 and turned into his iconic road book “Travels With Charley in Search of America.”
While doing research for what would become my own 11,276-mile drive along the Old Steinbeck Highway, however, I realized Steinbeck’s last major work was a 50-year-old literary fraud.
Though “Charley” had always been marketed, sold, reviewed and taught as a true account of Steinbeck’s journey of discovery, it was not nonfiction — not even close.
It was a highly fictionalized parade of invented wooden characters and made up events, plus a few lies and deliberate distortions thrown in by Steinbeck and his sly editors at the Viking Press to create the myth that the great author traveled alone, roughed it and spent a lot of time studying and thinking about America and its people.
In fact, the novelist who gave us “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Of Mice and Men” did virtually none of the above on his 10,000-mile tour with his faithful French poodle Charley.
“Travels With Charley” was all a big, cynical, deceitful marketing myth by a major publishing company, Viking Press.
In truth, Steinbeck was rarely alone. He traveled with his wife on 43 of the 75 days he was gone from New York. He mostly stayed at luxury hotels, resorts and with friends and family. And he rarely, if ever, slept in his camper alone and under the stars in the American outback.
My discoveries and my charges of literary fraud, first made in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and later Reason magazine, eventually made it into the New York Times, which then sent the news around the world.
Steinbeckians were not pleased. I was cursed by many “Charley” fans for spoiling their fun with my fetish for facts.
I acknowledged that the book flashes with Steinbeck’s great nature writing, wisdom and humor. I also said that despite its literary and ethical flaws it still should be read by anyone interested in Steinbeck or 1960 America.
But it was hard to persuade the Steinbeckies I didn’t hate their hero because of his New Deal politics, which, despite the disparaging things he said about capitalism in “The Grapes of Wrath,” were never as leftist as conservatives thought and socialists hoped.
My fellow journalists generally approved of my “scoop.” But scholars mostly dismissed my discoveries, saying the discrepancies between what Steinbeck really did and what he said he did in his nonfiction book didn’t matter because “truth” was relative and, anyway, he used his fictional skills to tell “greater truths” (i.e., largely liberal truths that they agreed with).
Some of those same Steinbeck scholars — who failed to notice their hero’s blatant fictionalizing in “Charley” for 50 years — said “So what if he fudged?” All great writers use fictional techniques in their nonfiction. So did he.
Others who pooh-poohed my discovery said there were no victims of Steinbeck’s fraud. But 2Â½ generations of trusting readers of all ages were duped by his pretend nonfiction book, which has earned its publishers tens of millions of dollars in 2012 money.
My story has a happy ending, however. Because of the trouble I caused, Penguin Group, which owns the rights to Steinbeck’s works, was forced to slip a major disclaimer into the introduction of the latest edition of “Charley.”
The disclaimer clearly warns readers that the book they are about to enjoy is so heavily fictionalized it shouldn’t be taken literally.
Penguin didn’t credit me by name. But naturally, as a journalist, I was pleased. After half a century and almost 1.5 million copies sold, the truth had triumphed. From now on, readers of “Travels With Charley” will not be fooled into thinking they’re reading a true story.
Bill Steigerwald is the author of “Dogging Steinbeck,” a new Amazon.com e-book that tells the real story of Steinbeck’s journey, the Americans he met and what he really thought about the country he saw. His web site is truthaboutcharley.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.