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Does it matter that ‘Travels with Charley’ might not be true?

I read “Travels with Charley” the summer after my senior year of high school. I was 18, ready to leave home, and I liked the book a lot.

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.

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35 thoughts on “Does it matter that ‘Travels with Charley’ might not be true?

  1. That had to be disappointing to learn when you’ve held it in your heart for so long. I will refrain from giving my opinion about Steinbeck cos there’s no need to heap misery…

    Being let down by a hero, even if it wasn’t the writer but the characters (supposedly real at the time) has to hurt — but if they moved you, I don’t think it’s necessary to chuck them out. What you felt was real.

  2. Thanks, madtante, but, really, it’s not like I’m angry or even sad, but I am very, very disappointed. (Spoken like a true parent!)

    It’s like that supposed documentary, Catfish, about the guy who goes to meet the girl he met online and finds that she’s not who she claims to be. If that story is presented as true, you think about it one way. If you find out it’s really fiction, then it affects you in a different way. That’s all I’m saying.

  3. Hippie Cahier says:

    It is disappointing if Steinbeck presented it as truth.I wonder if there’s more to the story than that, though. It just feels like there might be.

    • I don’t know, Hipster. The story was based on research by a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer who tried to copy Steinbeck’s route. He checked Steinbeck’s letters and manuscripts and came to the conclusion that Steinbeck tweaked some of the details of his story.

      • Hippie Cahier says:

        I suppose the best we can hope for is that the writer of the article is being less than honest (kidding).

        I really appreciate this post because it’s given me food for thought this afternoon. I was going to joke about second-thinking Chaucer in light of this, but I also recall the controversy over Carlos Castaneda’s experiences.

        I also wonder about Steinbeck’s illness coming into play…or what his intentions might have actually been and how they may have been derailed. Not defending, just wondering.

        This is also probably a good time to remind you that I’m not really a hippie, despite the fact that I just referenced Castaneda. :-)

        Thanks for a thought-provoking piece. I really appreciate the distraction, although my employer probably doesn’t.

      • Oh, sure, lots of non-hippies reference Carlos Castaneda. (Trying to come up with a little emoticon that means, “Yeah, right.”)

        I’d be more disappointed if I found out that Thoreau didn’t really live in a cabin by Walden Pond.

  4. I haven’t read the book, but I too would be sorely disapointed to find out that a book I loved and admired was not true. How many people in their coming of age years dreamed of or planned a similiar escapade based on Steinbeck’s book?

    • I’m a sucker for these kinds of books, too. Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. Lost Continent by Bill Bryson. I’ve also got a collection of Ernie Pyle’s newspaper travel columns from the 1930s. Good stuff, if you can find a copy.

  5. I like to know what is fact and what is fantasy. I have found a few bloggers who dance off into fiction without giving notice. Very confusing…

  6. Michelle W says:

    Journalistic integrity is everything if you claim to be telling the truth. If I were to discover that a writer or journalist or photographer lied when they had claimed the truth, they would never have my trust again and they should be forced out of the business. Not much gray for me in this area, only in my hair. :-)

    • You know what bugs me? When you find out about stuff like this, it just erodes people’s trust in journalism and non-fiction in general. People just start to assume you’re making it up.

    • Well, I guess there is. Sometimes, you’ll pick up a book, and there’ll be a disclaimer. It’ll say, “I’ve changed people’s names, and I’ve combined some events and shifted some things around to make the story clearer,” and as long as you admit that up front, I’m usually OK with that.

  7. I don’t mind people who dramatize the truth a bit(David Sedaris is one of my favorites), but I think that the reader should know the author’s intent before reading. If it is a true memoir and is labled as such the reader has certain expectations. If it is labled “based on true events” then the book may be just as enjoyable, but the reader will know better than to spout out quotes from the book as absolute fact (or they should know better at least). No one likes being lied to.

  8. I can see why you’re frustrated–John made the reader a promise about True America, and then he broke it. But, I can also see where John was coming from. As one of the greatest fiction writers of his age, he was used to telling big stories with big story arcs and conflict and character development and resolution. When you get out on the road, you may track down some of those elements. But do you see enough to fill a book? Probably not the sort of book John was used to writing. Some writers can’t help but dream up what goes on around them. That might not be such a bad thing.

    As for his wife…whoa. I wonder what she thought of being left out of that manuscript?

    • I think you’re right. I don’t think Steinbeck thought he was pulling one over on the reader. I think he was probably aiming for “truth” rather than simple facts, which is fine. It certainly worked for Steinbeck. I mean, the book’s been in print for almost 50 years!

  9. Wow! Steinbeck is by far my favorite author. Yeah, it changes how I view the book, but I don’t think it changes how I changed because of the book. I named my VW bus after this book. And I took a number of cross country trips spurred by Steinbeck’s thoughts.

  10. I used to work in newspapers, too, and we were always taught that truth is stranger than fiction. When we look up to the “masters,” it’s so disappointing to learn they fudged on the truth (something we’d have gotten “into trouble” for). I think, if he’d presented his work as a mixture of fact and fiction, it wouldn’t affect us to learn it wasn’t all true.

  11. It is disappointing when you realise you’ve been deceived, isn’t it? I wonder why Steinbeck didn’t frame it as fiction, once he realised it wasn’t going to be what he set it out to be. I can understand your disappointment. I felt a bit that way when I realised Shantaram wasn’t fact…
    Sunshine

  12. OMG!! This is the worst thing that’s happened to me since the Milli Vanilli lip synch scandal. Now you’ve got me wondering if “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” might not be a real story :(

    • See, that’s another example of something that just erodes people faith and makes us cynical. A few years ago, we expected singers to actually sing. Now, we just assume they’re lip-synching and that studio engineers made it sound like they’re on pitch.

      P.S. Me and you were fictional, but Boo was real.

  13. I know that feeling when you have something so close to perfect in mind and you just wish one part of the reality were different. I guess some people might go from that thought into the direction of make it work regardless of the facts. I never do that. But I haven’t read this particular book so there’s no power there for me in the revelation. I enjoyed learning this though.

    • I went back and reread the parts of the book where he’s laying out the purpose of his trip and why he’s writing the book, and I didn’t see anything like you find in most modern nonfiction books, where the author bends over backward to say, “This is mostly true, but I was working from memory in a few places, and I changed a few things to make the narrative clearer and avoid lawsuits.”

  14. I read that book at about the same age you did, Todd…I love Steinbeck, and read absolutely everything of his that I could get my hands on at the library. It’s been more than 30 years since I read it, but I think at the time, I thought it was fiction (but I really don’t remember!). Steinbeck continues to be one of my favourite “modern” writers…

    From a journalistic standpoint, I think that presenting a story as fact when it’s not is wrong.

    Wendy

  15. Patti says:

    Wow – that is disappointing. I never read that particular book, but have enjoyed Steinbeck. I did help my sister write a book report on Travels with Charley, however, just with her telling me the details of it. Now I’m wondering if I was able to help her do it because I was picking up on fictional elements that I was more accustomed to writing about. (I probably wasn’t that astute, but it’s my only contact with the book, so it’s what I thought of :-))

  16. As the bringer of bad news to the “Travels With Charley” lovers of the world, I read these thoughtful comments with interest and they will help me with my future book; I only just found this site because my name is not mentioned and Google didn’t alert me. It may too late to matter, but here is the direct link to my web site, TravelsWithoutCharley2010.com.

    bill steigerwald

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