As a teenager, my favorite author was John Steinbeck. My high school was near the used books stores neighborhood in Manhattan and over a few years I had collected every book of his I could find. I am still deeply moved by Grapes of Wrath and often think of the haunting movie version of Of Mice and Men.
When Steinbeck published his travelogue Travels With Charley, in 1962, I was a college student too busy to read it, and I have never gotten around to reading his last bestseller, in which he sets out from his Long Island home to travel cross-country with his dog Charley to meet the America he had chronicled so lovingly in his novels.
A recent article in the New York Times sparked a renewed interest on my part in Steinbeck. It turns out that many of the conversations and characters Steinbeck records in Travels With Charley may have been fabrications or exaggerations or, at least, something less than faithful reproductions. His son John, who had problems with alcohol and drugs and died in 1991, long contended that the book was a fraud. He said that his father never talked to many of the people in the book. “He just sat in his camper and wrote all that [expletive].”
The recent NY Times piece refers to an article in Reason magazine by Bill Steigerwald, in which the author verifies Steinbeck’s son’s claim. Steigerwald says that Steinbeck stayed at motels and hotels quite a bit, not in his camper, as he portrays himself in Travels With Charley. And while he did travel with his dog, Steinbeck wasn’t as alone as the book makes out. His wife Elaine also spent quite a bit of time with Steinbeck.
Steigerwald concludes, “Virtually nothing he wrote in ‘Charley’ about where he slept and whom he met on his dash across American can be trusted.” He says, “Travels With Charley for 50 years has been touted, venerated, reviewed, mythologized as a true story, a nonfiction account of John Steinbeck’s journey of discovery, driving slowly across America, camping out under the stars alone. Other than the fact that none of it is true, what can I tell you?”
None of this shakes the faith of Jay Parini, a Steinbeck biographer. “If you want to get to the spirit of something, sometimes it’s important to use the techniques of a fiction writer.”
Parini is right about how sometimes more truth can be found in fiction than in fact. Fiction—and poetry—may offer an emotional truth that factual reporting cannot. There is a trade-off in creative writing between emotion and accuracy.
Steinbeck said as much himself in commenting on how he came to write his 1936 novel, In Dubious Battle. “You remember that I had an idea that I was going to write the autobiography of a Communist,” he said. “There lay the trouble. I had planned to write a journalistic account of a strike. But as I thought of it as fiction the thing got bigger and bigger. It couldn’t be that. I’ve been living with this thing for some time now. I don’t know how much I have got over, but I have used a small strike in an orchard valley as the symbol of man’s eternal, bitter warfare with himself.”
To tell the emotional truth of the California strike, Steinbeck chose to write a novel.
The difference in role of truth in Travels With Charley and In Dubious Battle is significant, though. Readers of In Dubious Battle approach the book as a work of fiction. They understand what fiction is, even if the novel is rooted in historical events. Those who read Travels With Charley thought they were reading about real people speaking for themselves in their own ways.
Steinbeck may not have done better in his depiction of America at the beginning of the sixties than he did in Travels With Charley and it may have made no difference if he labeled this book as a work of fiction. The Grapes of Wrath still stands as one of the greatest pictures of the Great Depression.
Travels With Charley wouldn’t have been diminished because it couldn’t neatly fit into a literary category, just as War and Peace is the greatest depiction of a slice of Russian history even though Tolstoy said it was “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” It is an historical novel, both true and not true at the same time.
What Tolstoy didn’t say was that War and Peace was a history book. And Steinbeck should not have passed off Travels With Charley as a travelogue.
Steinbeck’s literary reputation as a writer has taken many slams over the years since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature—wooden dialogue and being overly sentimental—and his political views were questioned during the Vietnam War era by many who admired him for the well of sympathy he had shown for the marginalized farmers and factory workers of the Depression.
Despite the valid criticisms of his work, I still appreciate Steinbeck the writer. It is a pity that near the end of his life, he couldn’t trust himself any longer as a novelist. If only he had remembered what he had said about the origins of In Dubious Battle. He didn’t need to be pulled down by the lie he cast over his last significant piece of writing. Steinbeck failed us by not being true to himself.