'Travels With Charley': now officially mostly fiction
October 14, 2012 4:00 AM
"Travels with Charley" by John Steinbeck (50th anniversary edition).
By Bill Steigerwald
There were no puffy press releases from John Steinbeck's publisher. No stories in The New York Times culture pages or news flashes on feisty book industry blogs such as GalleyCat.
But after half a century of masquerading as a work of nonfiction, and after almost 1.5 million copies sold, John Steinbeck's iconic road book "Travels With Charley" has quietly come clean with its readers.
Penguin Group, which owns the rights to Steinbeck's works, didn't quite come out and call "Travels With Charley" a literary fraud, as I did first in the Post-Gazette in December 2010 and five months later in Reason magazine.
But the company has been forced to admit that the beloved book about a great American writer traveling around the country in a camper with his poodle is so heavily fictionalized it should not be taken literally.
Before I detail Penguin's confession, some background is in order. For the past two years I've caused trouble for a lot of the "Travels With Charley" fans, scholars and publishers who live on Steinbeck World.
"TRAVELS WITH CHARLEY"
By John Steinbeck Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition ($16, paperback).
It started innocently. In the fall 2010, as part of a book project to show how much America has changed in the past 50 years, I wanted to retrace faithfully Steinbeck's 10,000-mile road trip. The Post-Gazette granted me a blog, "Travels Without Charley," to chronicle the journey, and published a series of my pieces in the Sunday Magazine.
While doing research in libraries and reading the original manuscript of the book, however, I stumbled onto a 50-year-old literary "scoop."
Though it had always been marketed, sold, reviewed and taught as the true account of Steinbeck's circumnavigation of the USA in the fall of 1960, "Charley" was not very true or accurate or honest at all.
It was not nonfiction. It was mostly fiction -- plus a few lies and deliberate distortions thrown in by Steinbeck and his sly editors at the Viking Press to create the myth that he traveled alone, roughed it and spent a lot of time studying and thinking about America and its people.
It took a while for my charges against Steinbeck to escape the gravitational field of Pittsburgh. But in April 2011, five months after my article for the PG, The New York Times "discovered" me and made my accusations globally famous -- for the usual 15 minutes.
Most of my fellow journalists praised me for my discovery. But I was cursed by Steinbeck groupies around the world for spoiling their fun with my fierce fetish for facts. It was hard to persuade them I didn't hate Steinbeck or "Charley," which, despite its lapses in the truth department, flashes with his great nature writing, wisdom and humor.
And some college English professors who believe the use of creative fictional techniques in nonfiction is a good and common thing dismissed me for wasting so much energy proving what they claimed was irrelevant or always obvious.
Penguin's recent admission of the fictional genetic makeup of "Charley" was subtle -- so subtle no one noticed it but professional-Steinbeck-watchdog me. It had been quietly slipped into the introduction of a new edition of "Charley," which was released on Oct. 2 to co-celebrate the book's 50th birthday and the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck's Nobel Prize for Literature.
The lengthy introduction was first written for a 1997 paperback edition by esteemed Middlebury College English professor, author and Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini.
In his original introduction, Mr. Parini had pointed out Steinbeck's heavy use of fictional elements, especially dialogue. Otherwise he treated "Charley" just as 2.5 generations of Steinbeck scholars had always treated it -- as if it was the true and honest account of the author's road trip and what he thought about America and Americans.
Into the latest edition, however, Mr. Parini inserted the cold truth:
"Indeed, it would be a mistake to take this travelogue too literally, as Steinbeck was at heart a novelist, and he added countless touches -- changing the sequence of events, elaborating on scenes, inventing dialogue -- that one associates more with fiction than nonfiction. (A mild controversy erupted, in the spring of 2011, when a former reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did some fact-checking and noticed that Steinbeck's itinerary didn't exactly fit that described in the book, and that some of the people he supposedly interviewed, such as an actor at a campsite in North Dakota, never existed.)
"It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative."
Naturally I was pleased to see that the truth had come out because of my efforts. Naturally I was not pleased to see that my name was not mentioned.
I sent a sarcastic email to Mr. Parini for making a mistake no rookie journalist would have made. Ignoring my serial insults, Mr. Parini took the classy, professorial road. He apologized profusely, near abjectly. I forgave him, though I really don't know why.
It took half a century, and it cost me a lot of time and work and money, but at least the truth had triumphed. At least from now on anyone who buys a new copy of "Travels With Charley" will not be fooled.