Category Archives: travel

Was John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley a fraud?

It would appear that John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley was a fraud. Bill Steigerwald set out to follow Steinbeck’s journey in Travels with Charley and found many fiction is what was purported to be a true travelogue. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good book or that Steigerwald didn’t find interesting things by following Steinbeck’s journey through America:

Travels With Charley is almost 50 years old. It has its slow parts and silly parts and dumb parts. It contains obvious filler and fiction, but in many ways it is still a wonderful, quirky, and entertaining book. It contains flashes of Steinbeck’s great writing, humor, and cranky character, and it appeals to readers of all ages. That’s why it’s an American classic and still popular around the world.

Still, there’s no denying Steinbeck got away with writing a dishonest book. Not only did he fudge the details of his road trip, but he pulled his punches about what he really thought about the America he found. In Charley he fretted about the things he didn’t like about American society: pollution, early signs of sprawl, the rise of national chains, the increasing prevalence of plastic. But in private he complained directly about the failings of his 180 million fellow Americans: They were materialistic, morally flabby, and headed down the road to national decline.

If Steinbeck sounds like a liberal who’d been living like a prince in New York City too long, it’s because that’s what he was. Fifty-eight and in poor health when he set out on his ambitious voyage of discovery, he quickly ran aground on his own loneliness and the realization that our “monster land” was too big and too complex for one man to understand.

I toured the same sliver of America Steinbeck did, but what I saw in 27 states only affirmed what I already knew: America is big, beautiful, empty, safe, clean, and unfairly blessed with natural and human resources.America is big, beautiful, empty, safe, clean, and unfairly blessed with natural and human resources. I met only a few hundred of my fellow 309 million citizens last fall, but to a person they were friendly and helpful. And despite a depressed economy, the gauntlet of beautiful homes and shiny pickup trucks, RVs, boats, and snowmobiles I passed through day after day testified to the democratization of the material riches that the wealthy Steinbeck had decried.

From cell phone towers to Hyundai dealerships and Walmarts, I saw modern things that would have amazed, shocked, or offended Steinbeck. Yet what surprised me most was what might have surprised him most too: how little change has taken place on the Steinbeck Highway in the last 50 years. From the fishing villages of Maine to the redwoods of California to the Mississippi Delta, I drove by hundreds of towns and farms and crossroads that looked almost exactly like they did when Steinbeck passed through.