Travels with Charley, redux (the conflicted edition)

I woke up on the roadside, daydreamin’ ’bout the way things sometimes are. – Dylan

I’ve been caught up in thoughts about honesty and writing, specifically honesty in writing, after my father alerted me to the new-ish controversy surrounding my favorite read of late, Travels with Charley.  A writer set off to follow Steinbeck’s route across the country to document how America had changed over the past 50 years since Steinbeck’s trip. And what he found was that Steinbeck’s timeline didn’t match up (he couldn’t have had the conversations he claimed because certain historical events that were referenced had not yet happened when the conversation supposedly did), he didn’t sleep in the back of his truck, Rocinante, all that much (because he was mostly staying in inns and resorts along the way) and, perhaps most egregious of all, he wasn’t alone with his dog on the majority of the trip (because his wife was sitting next to him in the cab of the truck more than half the time).

Steinbeck says in the beginning of the book that he didn’t take notes on his journey, so I expected that the conversations he printed were a writer’s creative recreations. Unless you have a court reporter or a tape recorder, you can’t accurately write down exactly what you and the other person(s) said five minutes after the conversation, much less days, weeks or months later. So I forgive him any artistic flourishes as long as the sentiment of the thing was accurate. Getting your dates screwed up on a three month trip – also not a big deal. But omitting the part about your wife being along much of the time and staying at inns rather than in your home on wheels, which you had built to your specifications just for this trip? Uncool. And blatantly dishonest, because Steinbeck makes a display of talking about the loneliness of being out on the open road with no one to share the journey or talk to other than the dog. Making up people (characters) encountered along the way when the stated purpose of the book was to get in touch with America?  That’s not an omission of information or a flourish of creativity – that’s plain bullshit.

See, the power of the story is that it was a true tale of a man and his dog, seeing the country and meeting the people, checking in on humanity and the self. It’s a romantic image and an archetype that obviously resonates with a lot of us who’ve read the book. You can see Rocinante in your mind, and you wonder if maybe you could build something like that in the back of your Mazda. Doesn’t have to be fancy because you’ll mostly use it for sleeping. The rest of the time, you’ll be driving the back roads, talking to folks along the way as you stop off for coffee or Cheetos, breathing different air than that to which you are accustomed, letting your mind wander the way it can only when you’re alone and the open road is stretched out before you, beckoning…

The book stoked my extant desire to take my own trip across America while also scratching that itch to get out (just a little bit) because I felt like I was along for Steinbeck’s journey. Travel by proxy. Travels with Charley and Mrs. Steinbeck Across America, Staying at the Finest Inns Along the Way wouldn’t have been the same book. And it most likely wouldn’t have impacted me and so many others to the great degree it did, encouraging each of us to take our own journeys some day. So as a piece of art, it was very effective. And that matters. It counts. Steinbeck and/or his editor knew this, so the parts that didn’t work toward the purpose of the art were dropped. But then, so was the honesty.

I think the book could have been almost as effective if there had been a disclaimer at the front. “This book is mostly true.” You would go into it knowing that maybe he didn’t really meet a Shakespearean actor in the middle of nowhere, and maybe he bathed more than he claimed. And that would be okay. This wasn’t a travelogue or journalism. So the blurring of lines would have been acceptable had it been acknowledged up front instead of exposed half a century later.

This is what I said at the end of my initial post about the book:

After reading Travels with Charley, I’m left with this. Travel. See the countryside. Interact with the people. Take their temperature and, by extension, yours. Note the similarities and differences of place. Enjoy the beauty that the land has to offer. Spend time communing with your dog and with the earth. Take the old highways (not the interstate or the toll road) so you can actually see the countryside. Know when it’s time to go home. And return there gladly.

Those sentiments are still valid. I’m grateful for having read the book. This bit of knowledge doesn’t change the emotional journey I experienced, and it doesn’t change my desire to get out on the open road and see America. But I will make you this promise – when that day comes and I write about my experiences, I will be as honest with you as I can be. I may write myself as thinner and more witty than I am, but I will not lie to you about who else is with me, where I slept, whom I met or what I saw.

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3 thoughts on “Travels with Charley, redux (the conflicted edition)

  1. Sean Daniels

    Every single time I read something you’ve written, I learn something new. Thank you for that!

  2. Curious Genius

    Crystal, I was unaware of these claims about Travels With Charley, but it reminds me of hearing similar things about the guy who wrote The Education of Little Tree and On The Road, and probably a few others I can’t think of off the top of my head. I took several writing courses during my university stint. My favorite instructor was a man named Reed Harp. One day he spent most of the class talking about how Literature sometimes uses long range artillery to tell the truth. He stressed the difference between fiction and literature a lot, the former being passingly entertaining and the later being an artful ongoing conversation spanning centuries. That sometimes a totally fictional account can be more accurate, revealing, and informative than a purely factual report. Where this tends to be most true is the realm Faulkner said was the only thing worth writing about: matters of the human heart.
    I agree a disclaimer of some sort should have been in the introduction or afterwards. However I personally don’t see the fact that there isn’t one as necessarily dishonest on Mr. Steinbeck’s part. To the best of my knowledge the book is presented as a “travelogue”, rather than a nonfiction account of the trip. The fact that it is still being read, researched, and discussed today is testament that literally true or not, many find truth in it’s pages.

    -Happy Tuesday!

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