I liked the idea of John Steinbeck driving across the country in a pickup truck with a dog named Charley, and I liked seeing what America was like a few years before I was born, when things already were becoming less local and more generic, more modern.
That’s why it hurt a little to learn that “Travels with Charley,” like too many other supposedly nonfiction books, might not be entirely true.
In the book, Steinbeck, by then successful and rich and apparently quite ill, writes that he decided to drive around the country because had lost sight of the real America.
“I live in New York … but New York is no more American than Paris is France or London is England,” he writes. “I, an American writer, writing about America, was working from memory….”
“So it was that I determined to look again, to try to rediscover this monster land.”
However, according to a New York Times story last weekend, Charley wasn’t Steinbeck’s only companion on the road. Most of the time, Steinbeck’s wife was riding shotgun. Steinbeck slept in motels more nights than he slept in the camper on the back of his truck, and, according to the story in the Times, he very likely made up some of the people and encounters he describes in the book.
The paper even quotes Steinbeck’s son, John, as saying, “He just sat in his camper and wrote all that [expletive].”
One example of Steinbeck’s supposed creative writing concerns a campsite conversation with a Shakespearean actor near Alice, N.C. When a reporter did a little digging, he discovered that on the night of that supposed encounter, Steinbeck was really staying 300 miles away in a motel in Beach, N.D.
The Times quotes an English professor who defends Steinbeck. “Whether or not Steinbeck met that actor where he says he did, he could have met such a figure at some point in his life,” she tells the paper. “And perhaps he enhanced some of the anecdotes…. Does it really matter that much?”
Well, yes. I think it does.
If the book isn’t true, if Steinbeck didn’t meet all those people on this one trip around America, then the book loses its power. It becomes just another book about American written from memory.
It falls into the same murky territory of “truthiness” as “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” the former Oprah’s Book Club selection “A Million Little Pieces,” and “Dutch,” a supposed biography of President Reagan that includes fictional characters and scenes and is told from the point of view of a made-up narrator.
I used to work in newspapers, and I know it’s frustrating to sit down and try to tell a story only to realize the pieces don’t fall neatly into place, to realize you have something that feels incomplete, that isn’t black and white, that is contradictory and open-ended.
Sometimes in the newsroom, someone would say, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story,” only they were being ironic. They were joking. We all knew that the facts, as messy as they might be, are what would make the story good.