Bill Steigerwald, a writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, did some research and retraced the cross-country journey recounted in John Steinbeck’s popular me-and-my-dog road book, “Travels with Charley,” and came to this conclusion:
Steinbeck’s nonfiction book actually is fiction. He made it up.
The first part of Steigerwald’s critique — that Steinbeck’s meetings with vividly colorful characters in the proverbial middle of nowhere seemed too good to be true — sounds plausible until I recall bizarre and random meetings with strangers during my years of travel.
But then Steigerwald gets into the meat of his case — that Steinbeck’s own correspondence and other records contradict the details in his book.
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. […]
[…] 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 […] 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 cattle ranch 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.
Steigerwald didn’t go into the project with an axe to grind. But the more he checked the book and cross-referenced it, the more problems he found, as he also details in this article. He actually likes the writing in the book, but just don’t call Steinbeck’s travelogue nonfiction.
Steigerwald maintained a journal while tracing Steinbeck’s route, which is here.
“Travels with Charley,” incidentally, partly takes place in the Southwest on Route 66 — the road that Steinbeck described so memorably in his classic Depression novel “The Grapes of Wrath.” And unless someone else finds deep flaws in Steigerwald’s critique, I’m a little surprised it took 50 years for someone to poke holes in the tires of “Travels with Charley.”