Steinbeck’s Truth

Have you ever read Travels with Charley? I think I have–though it has been 20 years or more. The book details John Steinbeck’s solo journey across America via his pickup with built-in-camper and his dog, Charley. Or, maybe it doesn’t:

According to Mr. Steigerwald, Steinbeck stayed in motels a lot — when he wasn’t at luxury hotels. On a night when he supposedly camped out on a farm near Lancaster, N.H., Steinbeck was actually at the Spalding Inn, a hotel so fancy that he had to borrow a coat and tie to eat in the dining room.

Nor was Steinbeck alone that much. On more than half of his trip he was accompanied by his wife, Elaine. All told Mr. Steigerwald estimates that Steinbeck spent no more than a couple of nights in the camper itself, and says, “Virtually nothing he wrote in ‘Charley’ about where he slept and whom he met on his dash across America can be trusted.”

Well, in his defense, a hotel room is a lot like a camper. They both are intended for sleeping when one is away from home.

What really grabs me, though, are the responses to this new information:

Susan Shillinglaw, who teaches English at San Jose State University and is a scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., said in a phone interview: “Any writer has the right to shape materials, and undoubtedly Steinbeck left things out. That doesn’t make the book a lie.”

Talking about the authenticity of the characters in “Travels With Charley,” she said, “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. And perhaps he enhanced some of the anecdotes with the waitress. Does it really matter that much?”

Now, it should be obvious that she is going to address Steinbeck’s legacy favorably (based on her job description), but is not this taking things a bit too far? C’mon: “he could have met such a figure at some point in his life?” From my perspective, as a writer, while one may shape materials (it is generally called editing), one is proscribed from making things up in a work of non-fiction. People used to lose their jobs for things like this.

We then move from “does it really matter” to “hooray” for Steinbeck:

About the book’s accuracy [Jay Parini] said: “I have always assumed that to some degree it’s a work of fiction. Steinbeck was a fiction writer, and here he’s shaping events, massaging them. He probably wasn’t using a tape recorder. But I still feel there’s an authenticity there.”

He added, talking about Mr. Steigerwald’s discoveries: “Does this shake my faith in the book? Quite the opposite. I would say hooray for Steinbeck. If you want to get at the spirit of something, sometimes it’s important to use the techniques of a fiction writer. Why has this book stayed in the American imagination, unlike, for example, Michael Harrington’s ‘The Other America,’ which came out at the same time?”

Let me make sure I understand this. A book which was described, delivered and promoted as non-fiction is celebrated because the author used “the techniques of a fiction writer” (which sounds like a long way to say “wrote fiction.”) Further, Mr. Parini defends the work by saying, in essence that it was fiction–but it captured the imagination–so that makes it even better.

I would posit that the story captured the imagination because of the coupling of an author which many were disposed to like (Steinbeck) with a subject which the same people were disposed to like (themselves). Had it been sold as a work of fiction, it would not have had the same impact.

To claim that something of structural falsehood should be celebrated because of its “authenticity” and that it has “captured the imagination” is to provide support for any number of things which are not real.

Steinbeck’s truth? We will never know. I, for one, hardly think that worth celebrating.

2 thoughts on “Steinbeck’s Truth

  1. I’ve read some scholarly work on narrative that sounds similar, praising the truth that comes out of a story even if the story is not objective fact. I can see the point, even if that point still makes me nervous. But I will only grant leeway to such non-factual-yet-true narrative when it makes clear that it is fiction. I read Travels with Charley several years ago, enjoyed it, and took it as fact. I guess I’d have to look at the original marketing material to get too bent out of shape… but Mr. Steigerwald’s fact-finding will certainly decrease the value I assign to the book.

    1. I am not advocating that there is no place for fiction, or even realistic fiction. Part of the reason that excellent fiction makes the cut (one thinks of To Kill a Mockingbird, for some reason) is that it speaks truth in principle if not in detail. An ancient example of this would be the parable which Nathan told to King David.

      I have seen the book described, over the years as an account of Steinbeck’s road trip, or a travelogue or as a journey of discovery, etc. I have never seen it anywhere referenced as anything less than a true story–until now. I would be interested in seeing the publisher’s material for the first edition. Hmm. May have to do a bit of digging for that one.

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