Steinbeck's travel book gets fact-checked

In the fall of 1960 an ailing, out-of-sorts John Steinbeck, pretty much depleted as a novelist, decided that his problem was he had lost touch with America. He outfitted a three-quarter-ton pickup truck as a sort of land yacht and set off from his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with his French poodle, Charley, to drive cross-country.

The idea was that he would travel alone, stay at campgrounds and reconnect himself with the country by talking to the locals he met along the way.

Steinbeck's account of his journey, "Travels With Charley: In Search of America," published in 1962, was generally well reviewed and became a best-seller. It remains in print, regarded by some as a classic of American travel writing. Almost from the beginning, though, a few readers pointed out that many of the conversations in the book had a stagey, wooden quality, not unlike the dialogue in Steinbeck's fiction.

Early on in the book, for example, Steinbeck has a New England farmer talking in folksy terms about Nikita S. Khrushchev's shoe-pounding (or -brandishing, depending on whom you ask) speech at the United Nations weeks before Khrushchev actually visited the United Nations. A particularly unlikely encounter occurs at a campsite near Alice, N.D., where a Shakespearean actor, mistaking Steinbeck for a fellow thespian, greets him with a sweeping bow, saying, "I see you are of the profession," and then proceeds to talk about John Gielgud.

Even Steinbeck's son John said he was convinced that his father never talked to many of the people he wrote about and added, "He just sat in his camper and wrote all that (expletive)."

In the current issue of the libertarian monthly Reason, Bill Steigerwald, a former journalist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, writes that not only is the meeting with the actor made up, but on the evening in question, Oct. 12, Steinbeck wasn't anywhere near Alice. He was in Beach, N.D., more than 300 miles to the west, staying not in the camper but in a motel.

According to Steigerwald, Steinbeck stayed in motels a lot - when he wasn't at luxury hotels. On a night when he supposedly camped out on a farm near Lancaster, N.H., Steinbeck was actually at the Spalding Inn, a hotel so fancy that he had to borrow a coat and tie to eat in the dining room.

Nor was Steinbeck alone that much. On more than half of his trip he was accompanied by his wife, Elaine. All told, Steigerwald estimates that Steinbeck spent no more than a couple of nights in the camper itself, and says, "Virtually nothing he wrote in `Charley' about where he slept and whom he met on his dash across America can be trusted."

The Reason article is a distillation of a blog Steigerwald wrote for the Post-Gazette for several weeks in 2010 while retracing Steinbeck's journey in a leased Toyota RAV4. And he did sleep in the car, he pointed out in a recent phone interview. Steigerwald insisted that he began his project not intending to expose Steinbeck but to commemorate his journey and to write a book about how the United States had changed in 50 years.

In the published version of "Travels With Charley" Steinbeck's itinerary is often hard to follow, so Steigerwald created a timeline, drawing on newspaper accounts, biographies and Steinbeck's letters, to determine where Steinbeck was on such and such a date. Discrepancies with the book's account immediately popped up. Steigerwald also consulted the handwritten first draft of "Travels With Charley," where Steinbeck's wife is a much more frequent presence than she is in the final text.

"This is just grunt journalism," Steigerwald said of his research methods. "Anyone with a library card and a skeptical gene in his body could do what I did."

He added that he was a little surprised that his findings hadn't made more of a ripple among Steinbeck scholars.

"'Travels With Charley' for 50 years has been touted, venerated, reviewed and mythologized as a true story," Steigerwald said.

"Other than the fact that none of that is true, what can I tell you?... If scholars aren't concerned about this, what are they scholaring about?"