Monday, December 29, 2014

is this trip necessary?

A less-good literary history than yesterday's set. I posted this on Amazon, and expect to hear from the author, who's vigilant about reading and responding to his bad reviews.

Bill Steigerwald, Dogging Steinbeck (Fourth River Press, 2012)
Retired reporter decides to re-create John Steinbeck's cross-country journey from Travels with Charley 50 years later. In the course of his pre-travel research, and then more fully when he actually takes the trip, Steigerwald determines that Steinbeck's book is - he doesn't mince words here - a "fraud."

My goodness! What did Steinbeck do to earn so stern a denunciation? Did he not actually take the trip at all? That's what "fraud" would mean to me. No, he took it, and he went where he said he did. Already the claim looks over-the-top. Are many of his conversations with locals fictionalized? Probably yes, but Steigerwald acknowledges that Steinbeck scholarship has suspected that for a long time; it's not the blinding revelation that Steigerwald claims it is.

You have to get to the end of Dogging Steinbeck to discover the answer as to what bugs Steigerwald so. The problem is that Steigerwald had this image in his head of Steinbeck driving all around the country without a break, with no-one but his dog for company, sleeping every night in his lonely camper by the side of the road.

But Steigerwald has been cruelly disillusioned. Steinbeck took breaks for visits with relatives. He also stayed over in a couple big-city hotels, and spent some nights on the road in motels. He had his wife with him for one leg of the journey, and a friend for another.

That does take away from the purity of the experience, but that also means that Steigerwald wasn't paying much attention to Travels when he formed that image, though he does make a close, accurate reading of the book here. Steinbeck actually mentions three of those breaks in Travels, though he minimized them and left some out. He mentions staying in motels. He doesn't mention his wife going along for part of the ride, but it turns out that was in his manuscript; it was his editors who took it out, so they're responsible for that bit of meddling. Steigerwald is rather indignant that Steinbeck wearied of the trip long before it was over; but, again, that's no surprise, as that's quite clear from Travels itself.

Steinbeck's trip totaled 75 days, including all the time off with relatives. For purposes of that mental image, Steigerwald doesn't count days Steinbeck had another human with him. He doesn't count nights in motels or in houses. He doesn't count nights Steinbeck slept in the camper but there were other people around - like at a truck stop. Really. That's not good enough for Steigerwald's romantic mental image of the lonely traveler. He says that leaves a maximum of 9 nights in which Steinbeck had a sufficiently rigorous traveling experience.

OK, so Travels with Charley romanticizes and oversimplifies the journey, but is that fraud, really? The way that James Frey or Margaret Seltzer were frauds? I can't see it. Steigerwald is excessively severe in his expectations. He's indignant at the way Steinbeck scholars and the mainstream media have shrugged off what he considers his bombshell revelation, but there's just not that much here.

Nor is this book really a model of a literary detective story, for all of Steigerwald's research. He wants Steinbeck lonely, but then holds it against him if he is. He declares himself entirely skeptical of any statements in Travels with Charley unless they're verified, but he considers Steinbeck's letters home from the road to be verification. He doesn't apply his skepticism to interviewees too young to remember it personally, scratching their heads trying to remember anything their deceased innkeeper parents might have said about this writer guy who stopped over for a night half a century ago. And then, when he confirms that Steinbeck spent a night at an expensive resort hotel in New Hampshire, and didn't mention it in Travels, and didn't even have any folksy conversations with locals while he was there, he thinks he's got the fraudster dead to rights!

On top of this, Steigerwald is also a whiny libertarian (Not all libertarians are whiny. He is, though) who's speechless with astonishment when a New Deal liberal like Steinbeck turns out to support civil liberties. Who'd have thought it?

However, Steigerwald is a far better writer than his level of crankiness would lead you to expect, and his book is, at least, entertaining reading, though it gets a bit muddled in distinguishing between what Travels says and what Steinbeck actually did. I had to make my own spreadsheet to figure out the allocation of days that Steigerwald presents in his final verdict, and even then I'm not sure if I got his calculations correct.

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