Near the end of his life, John Steinbeck took a road trip across the country and wrote a bestselling travelogue of his adventures, Travels with Charley: In Search of America, that was released in 1962.
He encountered a diverse cast of characters — a Shakespearean actor in North Dakota and a politically-aware farmer in the White Mountains, to name a couple. He mulled over everything he saw, heard, and felt with his French poodle Charley and slept many nights beneath the stars in his Spartan camper van.
But former journalist Bill Steigerwald contends that most of Steinbeck’s famous trip never happened.
Steigerwald, 66, self-published Dogging Steinbeck as an Amazon e-book in 2012. The book details the 11,276-mile, 43-day trip he took retracing Steinbeck’s footsteps to determine exactly how much fiction made its way into the author’s nonfiction classic.
Steigerwald will speak at the Way Public Library in Perrysburg about the book on Wednesday at 7 p.m. as part of the library’s Adult Summer Reading Program. The event is free.
Based upon his travels and research, Mr. Steigerwald estimates that Steinbeck invented 90 percent of the people in Travels with Charley and spent 66 of his 75 nights on the road in lodging other than his camper van, sometimes luxurious hotels, or with his wife Elaine.
After 35 years of writing for the Los Angeles Times, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Steigerwald retired in 2009 to write books. The original idea for Dogging Steinbeck, his first book, was to complete Steinbeck’s road trip and write his own travelogue about how the country had changed in the intervening half century.
“I knew that there had been huge changes in the country,” he said by phone from his home in Pittsburgh. “I had seen a lot of the country through my journalism over the years.”
But while preparing for his journey, he learned that Steinbeck had taken no notes on the road, writing his entire book from memory after returning home. To Steigerwald, that meant that none of the dialogue he quoted could have been verbatim.
He also examined the first draft of Travels and discovered that Steinbeck’s editors had revised the book substantially.
“They made it appear that he traveled alone, which he didn’t; that he traveled rough, which he didn’t; that he traveled slowly and studied America and its people, which he didn’t, and that this book is an accurate representation of his trip and what he thought about America,” Steigerwald said.
The discovery disappointed Steigerwald. “It would have been a good exercise in journalism by one of America’s great writers,” he said. So when he started his road trip along the “Steinbeck Highway” in September of 2010, he was determined to figure out exactly how much of the book actually happened.
Along the way, he stumbled upon some good stories, all of which he details in his book. He captured the political rant of a Wisconsin Democrat in a camouflage ATV selling firewood by the road and the account of a man who remembered seeing Hitler in Frankfurt when he was 8 years old.
Steigerwald stopped at the Rouen Toyota dealership in Maumee for an oil change but, like Steinbeck, blew through the Toledo-Perrysburg area on U.S. Rt. 20.
Even so, Richard Baranowski, local history librarian for the Way Public Library, was thrilled to learn from Steigerwald’s book that Steinbeck drove past the library on Oct. 3, 1960. “It’s probably the only time he came around these parts,” Baranowski said.
He is excited about the talk, even if Steigerwald’s work has not generated entirely positive reviews.
Steigerwald posts some of the emails he receives from readers on his blog, truthaboutcharley.com. One anguished reader wrote to him, “You sad, sad man. Why couldn’t you leave it alone AND us with our reading pleasure?”
Most Steinbeck scholars, however, don’t feel the book changes their reading of Travels. “Most people in the world of Steinbeck scholars feel that he’s kind of missing the point of the book,” said Nick Taylor, director of the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies in San Jose, Calif.
Taylor has always seen Travels with Charley as the kind of story you might tell to friends in a bar: you embellish a bit here and there to make the story more compelling — something Steinbeck knew how to do as a fiction writer — but the seed of the story is still true.
Tom Barden, a University of Toledo professor and Steinbeck scholar, said the academic community already recognized the dubious accuracy of Travels with Charley. “Steinbeck was an exaggerator,” he said. “It was common knowledge that Steinbeck’s Travels was not entirely true. The difference is that [Steigerwald] made an airtight case.”
In October, 2012, Penguin Group inserted a note in the introduction to Travels with Charley informing readers that the book was not an entirely factual account of Steinbeck’s trip. Steigerwald called it his “happy ending.”
He believed passionately that readers had a right to know the facts about Travels with Charley and, over the course of three years, assembled an arsenal of evidence to support his case. In the process, he generated provocative discussions about the role of fiction in nonfictional works — a topic he hopes to cover during his talk — and has reawakened interest in Steinbeck’s book.
Contact Arielle Stambler at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6050.