Fact Checking John Steinbeck's Travels With Charley

Friday, 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.

Comments [9]


Sorry Bill. Your "scoop" is old news. According to the 2001 book "The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck," his sons have long believed the characters in TWC were fictionalized. John Steinbeck IV called it "a great novel." Which it is.

Jan. 01 2012 12:54 PM
bill steigerwald from Pittsburgh

Mr. Neubauer -- You have it backwards. I'm not sure where you think I said that the "lack of people" I saw on my trip was "proof" that "Steinbeck made up some characters." I met hundreds of nice, hospitable, helpful, interesting, smart people on my trip from Maine to Texas. I interviewed many of them every day for 43 days as I did my drive-by journalism and they are found throughout my road blog/web site Travels Without Charley (there are even two bicyclists). It's precisely because I met so many people -- and met not one person that came anywhere close to the pantheon of all-America stereotypes Steinbeck pretended to meet -- that I believe Steinbeck made up most of the major characters in "Travels With Charley."

bill steigerwald

Feb. 07 2011 03:23 PM
bob neubauer from Phila. PA

Having taken many cycling trips into remote parts of the country, and met many kind, hospitable people in these sparsely populated areas, I found it a little absurd that Steigerwald uses the lack of people he saw on his followup visit as "proof" that Steinbeck made up some characters. I wrote a book about my travels too, and I recounted conversations I had was some of these rural people. Like Steinbeck, I had no tape recorder, so I remembered these conversations as best I could. I didn't make these people up.

Jan. 09 2011 12:47 PM
D. Douglas

1. Who cares?

2. Almost all editors of newspapers & magazines & even radio programs like OTM ("edited by Brook") clean up the speech else we'd be subjected to endless lines of ums, ahs, likes, you knows, etc. (Indeed, I discovered some months back while listening to a radio interview that one of my favorite NPR radio personalities is nowhere near as fluent live as he is on his program.)

How much editing went into Kuralt's wonderful CBS "on the road" series? Tons, I suspect. Lots of complete interviews left on the cutting room floor; lots of editing (maybe even some re-arranging) of the bits that ended up on the air. Does that make them fiction?

3. Biographies are routinely classifed as non-fiction but come on. The writers are always characterizing how the subject felt, looked, acted (angry, sober, etc.), thought, etc. I think the only issue is just how much fiction is in a particular bio.

4. Expecting America in 2010 to be anything like America in 1960 (people-wise or physically) is absurd. That's the equivalent of thinking, in 1960, that nothing had changed since the America of 1910. (I consider it to be an essential exercise when talking about the past to think back to the year one was 20 and subtract the appropriate number of years/decades to match whatever past period is being discussed relative to the current year.) Decades one has lived through don't seem near as far in the past as decades that preceded one's birth.

One simple ex. In Steinbeck's intro, he says the following:
"There was some genuine worry about my traveling alone open to attack, robbery, assault. It is well known that our roads are dangerous."

Is that the first thought that comes to mind today to somebody planning a cross-country trip on the Interstate? I submit that even for a lone woman making that journey today on the interstae, "attack, robbery & assault" wouldn't rank at the top of the list of worries.

Dec. 28 2010 11:02 PM
Larry Bowman from Fairbanks, AK

I believe part of Steinbeck's purpose was finding parts of America while they still existed. That is, the nascent interstate highway system was a sort of death knell for life in small town and rural America as it then existed. Even if some, perhaps many, of the incidents were pure fiction. I trust Steinbeck found inspiration nearly every time he stopped. He also got to see parts of the country nearly free of air pollution. It was called smog back then.

Dec. 28 2010 01:39 AM
David from Fargo ND

I may be nitpickng here, but I looked up the location of Alice ND and its near my home town. If you want to see a "desolate" part of our state get further west. espically near Thedore Roosevelt National park. I have been to Dunn county perssonlay, I must remark the area is very pretty, and the population is very space. A good place to be alone and find yourself.

Dec. 28 2010 12:28 AM
MWnyc from NYC

Scott Biscobing wrote:
--- I would even go so far as to say that by avoiding the interstates and staying out of the cities [Steinbeck] skipped the empty parts of the country and [included in his book] only the richest, most diverse parts of our land. ---


The idea that the authentic essence of America resides solely among the plain, honest people of the countryside is a romantic conceit that goes back at least to Thomas Jefferson. That idea was misguided in Jefferson's time, and it is even more misguided now. For more than 300 years, our cities have been every bit as essential and authentic a part of our nation as our small towns, farming areas and wilderness; America could never have been the country it is without its cities.

In any case, this topic is beside the point of the segment - that point being that Steinbeck's Travels with Charley is about as non-fictional as James Frey's A Million Little Pieces.

Dec. 26 2010 09:16 PM
Scott Biscobing from WI

Did I hear Bill Steigerwald correctly? Did he imply that, since Steinbeck didn't get on the interstate and enter any big cities, he only saw the "empty" parts of America? No. he did not imply; he actually said that. Although I don't recall the exact words he used, he said that. I have to disagree. I would even go so far as to say that by avoiding the interstates and staying out of the cities he skipped the empty parts of the country and only the richest, most diverse parts of our land. Bill Steigerwald needs to listen to a little Guthrie, read a little Twain and pull his head out from the dark place it is so firmly wedged into.

Dec. 26 2010 05:21 PM
bob hilliard from NYC

On telling the truth:

The Mother superior spoke. "No, dear friend, it cannot be. It is not that we don't believe that your renunciation of the world is real. We believe it is real. But you look like the kind who is overly susceptible to Nun's Melancholy, which is one of our big problems here. Therefore, full membership is impossible. We will send the monks to you, at the end. The monks sing well, too. We will send the monks to you for your final agony." I turned away. That wasn't what I wanted to hear. I went out into the garage and told Bill and interesting story which wasn't true. Some people feel you should tell the truth, but those people are impious and wrong, and if you listen to what they say, you will be tragically unhappy all you life.

From 'Brain Damage', by Donald Barthelme, who was probably tragically unhappy.

Dec. 26 2010 11:48 AM

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