Living with lies

Literary arguments are not my cup of tea. I’d rather read Shakespeare than dissertations about who might actually have been hiding behind the nom de plume of Shakespeare. 

But one has intrigued me lately. It centers on “Travels with Charley,” the best-seller by John Steinbeck celebrating its 50th anniversary of publication this year. 

“Travels with Charley” is a famous travelogue, a report on Steinbeck’s 75-day pilgrimage in 1960. He traveled with his dog, “Charley,” in a camper he named “Rocinante,” after Don Quixote’s horse. 

Along the way, Steinbeck met all kinds of Americans, while he discovered various truths about himself, his country and his vanished youth.

A lot of which turns out to be phony. 

Bill Steigerwald, a former newspaper editor and reporter, discovered the holes in “Travels with Charley” when he decided to retrace Steinbeck’s steps with his own pilgrimage. 

Diligently comparing the written itinerary as described by Steinbeck with the reality, Steigerwald realized that about 70 of the 75 days Steinbeck claimed to be on the road and living out of Rocinante, “he traveled with, stayed with and slept with his beloved wife, Elaine, in the finest hotels, motels and resorts in America, family homes, and at a Texas millionaire’s cattle ranch near Amarillo.” 

Most of the characters Steinbeck claimed to have encountered on the way, Steigerwald makes clear, were of his own invention. 

The anniversary edition of the book acknowledges this, somewhat. “It should be kept in mind,” a Steinbeck biographer notes in the introduction, “that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative.” 

I was in eighth grade in the fall of 1962 when my mother gave me “Travels with Charley.” I fell in love with it, reading the book three times from cover to cover. 

I don’t know — I don’t remember — what captured me as a 12-year-old. Except maybe for just the very idea of the pilgrimage: 

“I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation — a burning desire to go, to move, to get underway, anyplace, away from here.” 

Before coming on Steigerwald’s demythologizing, I had picked up “Travels with Charley” a few months back. I read it differently 50 years later, but that makes sense. As Steinbeck wrote: “So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.” 

I always try to give the artist the break. Jean Shepherd — best known for the now-perennial seasonal movie “A Christmas Story” — was my favorite writer in college. It was only after his death that the obits reported what a bum he was, virtually abandoning his first family. But I still try to cut him some slack. 

I find it hard to forgive Steinbeck. A lie is a lie, and in this day and age he would have been nailed five minutes after the book snuck off the press. 

We trusted more, and were probably lied to more, back in the day. 

His son says that Steinbeck took his trip while staring death in the face. He had serious heart trouble, and he thought this would be his last hurrah. 

It wasn’t — he lived until 1968, six years after “Travels with Charley” was published to great acclaim. 

So he had to wait six years to see if he would get caught. 

Like living with most lies, maybe that was punishment enough. 

Robert P. Lockwood writes from Pennsylvania.