The Magazine

Chicanery Row

Even John Steinbeck’s ‘nonfiction’ was fictional.

Jan 21, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 18 • By SHAWN MACOMBER
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In 1956, the celebrated novelist John Steinbeck declared journalism to be “the mother of literature and the perpetrator of crap.” To the non-Nobel ear, this might sound like denigration or enmity. But Bill Steigerwald’s idol-slaying travelogue of truth suggests the bon mot may have been more aspirational than previously believed. 

John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck and Charley, 1962

bettmann / corbis / ap images

First, a bit of background. After 30 years toiling in journalism, Steigerwald accepted a buyout package from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2009—or, as he puts it, “I dove from the deck of the Daily Titanic and swam off to look for books to write till I die.” For his first pre-mortem project Steigerwald decided to retrace the route John Steinbeck traveled for his 1962 bestseller Travels with Charley, minus the half-Wellington rubber boots, blue serge British naval hat, and standard French poodle. Though an ardent libertarian such as Steigerwald would typically look askance at the faux proletarian musings of a wealthy, New Deal-worshipping friend of Adlai Stevenson, it is easy to see why Steigerwald presumed an exploration of how the country had changed “since Ike was president, Elvis was king and everything worth buying was still Made in America and sold at Sears” would prove neither “complicated
[n]or controversial.” 

Alas, during his newspaper days, Steigerwald developed a nasty research habit, which he continued to indulge after his liberation from the dread deadline. Thus did he visit the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York to compare the original handwritten Travels with Charley manuscript with the edition sold in stores, and discovered that the Charley edit encompassed more than misplaced semicolons and who/whom usage. 

“A writer must rearrange reality so it will seem reasonably real to the reader,” Steinbeck writes in the manuscript. Accordingly, it turns out, Steinbeck had not always been where he said he had gone, he likely invented many of Charley’s conveniently archetypal characters, and he serially exaggerated the Spartan nature of the trip—unless one considers Adlai Stevenson’s country estate and the Fatty Arbuckle suite at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco to be austere lodgings. 

Most galling, the foundational conceit of the book—man and dog on a lonely quest “in search of America”—is utter deception: Steinbeck’s wife Elaine rode along for a goodly portion of the trip, costarring in the first draft until a Viking editor chose to play angel Clarence to Elaine’s George Bailey, giving readers the great gift of a chance to see how the book would appear without her—much better, apparently, came the answer from on high—and consequently (and, no doubt, from the dog’s view, belatedly) promoting the frequently kenneled poodle to a perch on the front seat. 

Perhaps when Steinbeck got his Nobel Prize his editor got her wings; but out on the cold trail, hardscrabble romantic mythology provided Steigerwald with little warmth:

As I crossed into Washington I wasn’t too happy with my man Steinbeck. His creative nonfictions in Charley had caused me to go driving in circles and knocking on people’s doors in an under-populated, over-armed part of the country I’d never been to before and would never see again. Thank God the natives were friendly.

Apart from some surprised indignation at the brazenness of Steinbeck’s fabulism, this friendliness is the primary motif of Dogging Steinbeck, offering a corrective to the original sin by beautifully detailing Steigerwald’s own journey hopscotching across a nation which “despite the Great Recession and national headlines dripping with gloom and doom” remained “a big, beautiful, empty, healthy, rich, safe, clean, prosperous, and friendly country.”

In the aftermath of his preliminary debunking (first revealed in an excellent 2011 Reason article), Steigerwald finds some unexpected sources and allies: Helter Skelter coauthor Curt Gentry, Paul Theroux, and the New York Times editorial board rallying alongside more predictable supporters. But, overall, the rationalizations of what Steigerwald dubs the “Steinbeck Studies Industrial Complex” are disheartening. Biographer Jay Parini defiantly tells the Times, “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.” Of course, one need not possess Steinbeck’s imagination to envision instances where Jay Parini might be less enthusiastic about greater truth through fabrication: For example, if such “techniques” were employed in a book for which Parini had not written the Penguin Classics introduction. 

“Scholars who liked Steinbeck apparently were too busy looking for deeper meaning in the conversations with a French poodle or a prescient environmentalist” to wrangle with basic questions of veracity, Steigerwald writes. “If they had been more critical, more skeptical, more scholarly, they might have saved me a lot of work.”

True enough. But then again, as Dogging Steinbeck ably proves, the longer the Golden Calf has to fatten, the sweeter the feast after the slaughter.

Shawn Macomber is a writer in Philadelphia.