Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Travels With Charley – Revisited

On April 8, 2012, I posted a book review of the iconic book Travels With Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck. The book recounted a trip around the U.S. that Steinbeck took in his pick-up truck and truck camper during the fall of 1960. Steinbeck was accompanied by his standard-size French (the dog was bred and born in France) poodle, Charley.

The book has been an inspiration for untold numbers of nomadic wanderers, campers, RVers, etc. for some 50 years since it’s original publication in 1962. You can read my review at this link: Travels with Charley book review.

The next day, April 9, 2012, I received a comment from Bill Steigerwald, a long time journalist. Bill informed me that he took it upon himself on the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck’s around the country excursion to retrace the journey that was the basis for the best selling book. Bill actually left from the Steinbeck driveway in Sag Harbor, New York (on Long Island, an old whaling port), 50 years to the day. He wrote and blogged about his journey as he attempted to trace John Steinbeck’s footsteps (and tire tracks) across this great continent. Steigerwald titled his version of the adventure Travels without Charley.

Bill’s comments to me included that, while the best selling book was supposed to be a non-fiction work by the award-winning author of some great American fiction, in fact, there was quite a bit of fiction in the book. Upon reading that, I was a bit off put. I’m not sure I’ve ever talked to any full-time RVer, just about all part-time RVer, van dweller or other nomad who hasn’t read this book and found it to be a major inspiration and influence in their own choice of traveling lifestyle.

Bill included links to his blog and Web site where he documented, not only the trip itself, but also his research that included reading the original, hand-written, Steinbeck manuscript for Travels with Charley. Additionally, he visited libraries where Steinbeck letters from his trip were enshrined as well as many locations where Steinbeck is memorialized. It appeared, that as any good journalist would and should do, Bill Steigerwald did his homework.

After responding to Steigerwald, I undertook a second reading of the journey, except this time it was not Steinbeck’s recollection; rather it was Steigerwald’s findings. I read his Travels Without Charley blog. And for your own personal edification, I am including the links to Steigerwald’s sites here. Here is the Web site: and here is the blog: Travels Without Charley

It is not my intention of bursting anyone’s bubble and I still feel like the book is very inspiring. However, after reading Bill Steigerwald’s research and findings from his retrace of John Steinbeck’s trip, it does change my feelings about the book.

To, perhaps, put this in perspective, back in the late 50’s when I was an impressionable 13 year old. I had discovered short wave radio and became an avid SWL (short wave listener). I went to the library and found books on short wave listening and in the process discovered amateur radio or ham radio, as it’s also commonly known. I found some books about a character named Tommy Rockford. The books were amateur radio adventure books and Tommy was an 18-year-old ham radio operator. The author, Walter Tomkins, while not up to the caliber of a John Steinbeck, had the ability to engage someone, especially a young person like I was at the time, in stories that were full of excitement and intrigue, all based around the ham radio hobby. It was my interest in short wave listening and these Tommy Rockford adventure stories that influenced me to find a local amateur radio operator (who happened to be a science teacher at the high school in one of the towns that bordered my hometown) and get started studying, taking the exams and earning my amateur radio licenses. I continue to maintain my license to this day.

What I’m saying is that I knew that Tommy Rockford was a fictional character and that the stories were fictional, yet they still inspired me to take action and follow a path that has been a part of my life for over half a century. Accordingly, while I felt some disappointment after reading Bill Steigerwald’s Web site and blog posts of his trip retracing Steinbeck’s trip, I still find Travels With Charley: In Search of America inspiring and well worth the read. In fact, Steinbeck did take a real trip. He did pass through most of the places he talked of in the book. But, there are some blocks of time that were left out of the book by his editors. Some of the people he said he met may not have actually been real or may have been embellished. And there are other details that materially change the non-fiction journey in 1960 to a more fictionalized version released to the market in 1962.

I leave it up to you. You can accept the book as it is and as you read it. There is nothing wrong with that. You can choose to accept it as a non-fiction account of his journey. Or, if you are a bit like me, I like to know the truth, the facts and the reality. When it was so easy to read Bill Steigerwald’s journalistic account of retracing the Steinbeck adventure, I had to follow through. I have no reason to doubt Steigerwald. He appears to have done his research and his homework. I can’t see where this is any great gain for him personally to defame an acknowledged, great writer like John Steinbeck. And, I have to admit that having years of experience in media, a master’s degree in TV and Radio including courses in broadcast journalism and having been a book publisher for about a dozen years, I understand the role of the editor and the editing process in the book publishing industry. Simply stated, the editor’s job is to make a book marketable.

So, you have the links that I followed. You’ve probably read the book or at least you’re familiar with it. If you’re the least bit curious, it won’t take any effort to read what I did and then draw your own conclusions.

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