Touring America in Steinbeck’s footsteps

A review of In America by Geert Mak suggests that John Steinbeck’s experiences during his famous journey across America were largely invented

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

3 January 2015

9:00 AM

In America: Travels with John Steinbeck Geert Mak

Harvill Secker, pp.498, £25, ISBN: 9781846557026

In 1960 John Steinbeck set off with his poodle Charley to drive around the United States in a truck equipped with a bed, a desk, a stove and a fridge. To renew his acquaintance with that ‘monster of a land’, he planned to cross the northern states from the east coast to the west, then drive down the Pacific and across the southern states. He was 58, and recovering from a mild stroke. Having recently abandoned his attempt to write an American Don Quixote, he called his project ‘Operation Windmills’, cast Charley as his Sancho Panza, and named his truck Rocinante. Travels with Charley was published in 1962. It was a great success, and his last major work. Four months later he won the Nobel Prize.

In 2010 Geert Mak, a Dutch journalist and historian, approximated Steinbeck’s itinerary in a rented silver Jeep. Setting off from Sag Harbor, Long Island, which when Steinbeck lived there was ‘a blue-collar place’ and is now a rich yachting resort, he was soon dismayed to learn that he was not alone: Bill Steigerwald, a journalist from Pittsburgh, was taking the same route, as were ‘a woman from the Washington Post’ and ‘someone who runs a website for dog-lovers’.

The woman from the Washington Post has left no trace that I can find. The dog-lover turns out to have been John Woestendiek, who has written Travels with Ace, a blog inaccessible to my computer. And Steigerwald of Pittsburgh has published Dogging Steinbeck, much of which may be read on the internet. He takes an ‘openly libertarian’ (i.e. stridently Republican) line against the Democrat Steinbeck, and is dismissive of his way with facts: according to him, Travels with Charley is ‘a very flawed load of fictional crap and deception’.

Mak acknowledges Steigerwald’s detective work, but is less brutal and more literary in his judgment. Steinbeck claims, for example, to have spent a night in the Badlands of North Dakota camping under the stars, listening to the barking of coyotes and the screeching of an owl, when he actually drove on to stay at an hotel. Mak concedes that ‘too many of the meetings [described in Travels with Charley] are of dubious veracity, too many facts are wrong, too many dialogues… are clearly invented’.

As a liberal European, his opinions on the current state of America are pretty much the opposite to Steigerwald’s. Where Steigerwald finds ‘few signs of real poverty’, Mak encounters ‘islands of prosperity’ amid ‘oceans of anguish and poverty’. One surmises that Steigerwald might well subscribe to the Fox News interpretation of history, while Mak certainly does not. After watching a report about how elderly people in the Netherlands are subjected to involuntary euthanasia on an industrial scale, he concludes that America’s Enlightenment quest for objectivity has been ‘replaced by hypnosis, exhibitionism and collective entertainment’.

The turning point of Steinbeck’s journey occurred at Monterey, California. He had spent much of the 1930s there, and respectable locals were outraged when he portrayed it in Cannery Row (1945) as populated by losers, drunks and whores. (Mak writes that, as an ‘ode to an aimless existence’, it is an ‘extraordinarily un-American’ novel, though the same could be said of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.) After its success the town decided to cash in, and turned itself into a sort of theme park, renaming Ocean View Avenue as Cannery Row and so on. It was this transformation that so upset Steinbeck when he revisited it, and caused him more or less to abandon his project. Monterey is the turning point of Mak’s journey, too, as he reflects that Travels with Charley is effectively the opposite of Cannery Row. The latter, based entirely on Steinbeck’s experience, was fact dressed up as fiction, while the former is best seen as a ‘road novel’.

The subtitle of Travels with Charley is ‘In Search of America’. Mak, though, puts In America ahead of ‘Travels with John Steinbeck’, indicating that for him Steinbeck is essentially a peg on which to hang a companion piece to his monumental and much praised In Europe (2007). For long sections of his narrative — his frequent historical digressions, his blizzards of statistics and his swathes of opinion — the novelist is accordingly absent. This will disappoint Steinbeck fans, but the result is not without interest or validity.

Both Roosevelt presidents figure largely in Mak’s historical analysis. He argues that the Republican ‘Teddy’ established the messianic aspect of America’s foreign policy — ‘Shall we go on conferring our civilisation upon the peoples that sit in darkness,’ asked Mark Twain in 1900, ‘or shall we give those poor things a rest?’ — and that the Democrat FDR’s New Deal continues to define the key questions of domestic politics, which concern the roles of big government and big business.

He notes that despite the extreme differences in education, income and life expectancy between, say, an American-Asian in New Jersey and a Native American in South Dakota — comparable to those between the inhabitants of a Paris suburb and rural Poland — nearly everyone hates the federal government in Washington, just as Europeans do the one in Brussels. A consequence of this is that America seems more or less to have given up on improving its infrastructure, and the nation that built the Hoover Dam is now incapable of building a railway tunnel between New York and New Jersey. If things go on this way the federal government will end up, as the economist Paul Krugman puts it, as little more than ‘an insurance company with an army’.

Steinbeck was himself a bit of a doom-monger, but he has nothing on Mak, who finds cause for lamentation everywhere he looks: the systematic corruption of Congress; the interdependence of Goldman Sachs and the US Treasury (which he compares to that between the KGB/FSB and the Kremlin); the death of the small-town heartland; the grotesque prison system; the hordes of jumbo flabsters waddling to early graves (one in three Americans weighs as much as the other two); the ‘prosperity gospel’, which sees congregations of tens of thousands praying for new cars; the way an egalitarian society is ‘turning into the kind of class-based system the Founding Fathers rebelled against’.

In America reminded me of last year’s jeremiad, George Packer’s The Unwinding. I dare say their gloom is fully justified by the facts, but there is more to the truth than facts, and I doubt if either will be read half a century from now, when Travels with Charley still will be. ‘I am happy to report,’ wrote the quixotic Steinbeck, ‘that in the war between reality and romance, reality is not the stronger.’

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  • billsteigerwald

    Thanks much to Lewis Jones for mentioning me, my book ‘Dogging Steinbeck’ and my role in exposing the fictions and fibs in Steinbeck’s iconic work of non-nonfiction, ‘Travels With Charley’.

    As my new friend Geert Mak knows, for 50 years ‘Travels’ was marketed, reviewed and taught as work of nonfiction — until I came along, did some basic snooping in libraries and on the road, got lucky, proved it was mostly made up and occasionally outright deceptive and declared it a ‘literary fraud’.

    (Not that I haven’t said it somewhere in a blog or interview, but the phrase ‘a very flawed load of fictional crap and deception’ does not appear in my book, which, while full of jokes, void of footnotes and liberally sprinkled with my libertarian politics, is a serious work of journalism that has changed the way ‘Travels’ will be read forever. Anyone interested in learning more is urged to buy my ‘literary expose’ at or go to

    I especially urge Mr. Lewis to read my book — or at least skim it — before jumping to any more conclusions or launching any more of his ‘surmises’ (i.e., wild and uninformed guesses) about my politics, my affection for the Republican Party or my adherence to Fox News’ historical interpretations.

    He’d find evidence in ‘Dogging Steinbeck’ that I dislike (i.e., hate) both major parties for their bipartisan plundering and wrecking of our land, which is still great in spite of them:

    “It was Nov. 2 – Election Day. The historic date the Tea Party was going
    to seize America from the Democrats and give it back to the Republicans,
    the party that had taken us to a foolish war in Iraq, copiloted the
    economy into a mountainside and squandered federal money it didn’t have
    like drunken Democrats.”

    And the morning after the election, I write:

    “Overnight America supposedly underwent a historic political change. Republican Tea Partiers had seized the U.S. House and a new Golden Age of limited government, lower taxes and personal freedom was allegedly on the way. It was the usual hype and hysteria. Nothing would be changing on the U.S.S. Big Government except a few deck chairs.”

    Based on his review, I surmise Lewis won’t like my politics. Nor will he appreciate what I say about the political biases and cultural snobbery of liberal New Yorkers like Steinbeck (that’s what he was in 1960) who’ve made it a habit to sneer at the politics, culture and values of the Americans they encounter in Flyover Country when they dare to travel by car between Manhattan and the Hollywood Sign.

    When Lewis wrote that I take “an ‘openly libertarian’ (i.e. stridently Republican) line against the Democrat Steinbeck” he demonstrated that he has absolutely no idea what a libertarian is. (A primer: it’s someone who favors, stridently, maximum individual freedom, a weak and limited state, a system of free market — not crony — capitalism and a non-interventionist foreign policy; Brits should think John Stuart Mill, Manchester Liberalism, Bright & Cobden, Lord Acton, Hayek, etc.).

    Libertarians — especially this one — wouldn’t be caught dead being ‘stridently Republican’. And while Fox News does have good libertarians like John Stossel and Andrew Napolitano, its prime-time all-stars — O’Reilly, Kelly and Hannity — are awful conservatives and/or partisan Republicans.

    The America I found along the Old Steinbeck Highway in 2010 was opposite from the gloomy one my esteemed Euro-socialist colleague Mak found. I described 11,276 miles of it as well as I could, as a veteran newspaper journalist, albeit through libertarian eyes, not socialist ones.

    Where Mak saw islands of prosperity in a sea of poverty and anguish, I saw the opposite. Where Mak saw the failure of the federal government to make things right in the hinterland and cities, I saw evidence of the federal government’s century-old habit of doing things wrong. Etc. Etc. From a libertarian, not Republican, point of view.

    Same country, same roads, same time; two people, two very different sets of opinions and conclusions. Steinbeck knew it would work that way and said in ‘Travels’ that the country he found would not be the same one others coming behind him would find 10 minutes later. He wasn’t lying about that, at least.

    For the record: The missing Washington Post woman was/is Rachel Dry, who wrote a nice piece about her pursuit of Steinbeck’s ghost and her accidental encounter with me. And your photo of Steinbeck is not what he looked like in 1960, but more like 20 years earlier.

    Finally, I stridently apologize to all proper Brits who might be offended by my use of the slang term ‘dogging’ in my title. I had no idea.

    • Hegelman

      Is there really no factual basis at all to “Travels with Charley”?

      What about those amiably shiversome descriptions of driving along endless deserted Maine and Vermont roads in the gathering dusk while the rain never stopped dripping and “the forests wept”?

      What about his seizures of terror and loneliness on the road?

      What about the families of French-speakng Canucks coming into New England for the potato harvest?

      What about the breakfasts in transport cafes alongside morose, monosyllabic truck drivers?

      What about all the crazy varieties of cheese in that Mid-West farming state?

      What about the spooky feel of the Badlands?

      What about the dog Charley himself and all his moods?

      Come on, of course he made up a lot. Who can write a sustained narrative using only the bald, unvarnished facts?

      • billsteigerwald

        Never said there was no factual basis. Steinbeck made the 10,000 mile road trip, spending more than half the time (75 days or so) with his wife (43 days). Of course things happened to him along the way; of course he saw the deserts and mountains and dumb cheese signs in the Midwest. But he didn’t met most of the people he said he met. When he drove he drove hard and fast. As I found out on my trip, you can see a lot of America out your windscreen at 60 mph. But when you write a travel book and pass it off as a true nonfiction account, it’s not fair play (for the reader) to make a lot of stuff up. That’s called fiction. Also, fiction or non-, Travels With Charley is such a disheveled mess it hardly qualifies as a “sustained narrative.”

        • Hegelman

          I reckon all readable travel writing is at least half fiction, and has to be. Real life retold without fancy no man wants to hear. It’s like film without music. That’s the beauty of travel writing : the lies.



    • Hegelman

      Cobden thought capitalism would collapse without child labour, so it couldn’t be abolished.

      Without the Big State you will be helpless against the Big Boss. You would be in Pottersville, as described in the Great American Movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, so ironically an anti-capitalist movie.

      Thanks to the Big State we have a more or less human society. Steinbeck knew that, having seen the Depression. Ever read ”The Grapes of Wrath” or ”In Dubious Battle”?

      You are indeed not a Tea Partier…You are far more extremely rightwing.

      • billsteigerwald

        Hilarious. British comedy and Socialism are not dead. Does no one in the UK who reads the Spectator know the difference between a libertarian and an American right-winger? And that Big State vs. Big Boss stuff sounds like something straight from 1933. Russia had a Big State for 70 years. I hear that was a real humane society. More or less, as long as you didn’t want to read Steinbeck, own a gas station or need toilet paper. Steinbeck — never as leftwing or rightwing as his friends and allies thought/hoped — was a wealthy Cold War liberal by 1960 who had a soft spot for labor unions and top-down government social engineering. He knew there was a vast difference between a Big State (whatever that means: the USSR?) and the rinky-dink socialism of the New Deal. He was an individualist who understood the importance of personal freedom and property rights. He was no cheerleader for the Big State. No one with a brain, a conscience or a heart ever was.

        • Hegelman

          I don’t think either Steinbeck or I had Russia in mind when defending the role of the state in giving a hand to the poor and keeping the wealthy in check. If one suggests putting on the light one is not necessarily asking for the house to be burned down.

          I am no fan of the later Steinbeck. He became a kind of namby pamby “Reader’s Digest” anti-communist by the 1960s and was a supporter of the Vietnam War.

          He underwent that strange cowardly transformaton of 1920s and 1930s leftists in the US who became bellering patriots due to terror of McCarthy. They started writing books with titles like “The Men Who Made this Nation”, “The Head and Heart of George Washington”, “The Soul and Jaw of Abraham Lincoln, the Man Who Saved this Nation Under God”, and similar plodding solemn rubbish. (John Dos Passos actually published books with the first two titles.)

          Someone should just have done one general McCarthy appeasing patriotic volume called “The Head, Heart and Slimy Backside of George Jefferson Lincoln, the Twerp Who Messed up This Nation”, and have done with it.

  • polistra24

    “Ode to an aimless existence?” Exactly precisely bizarrely wrong. The WHOLE POINT of Cannery Row was to examine the PURPOSE of each life, and to show how each of those people was efficiently accomplishing his purpose. Perhaps those purposes weren’t the same aims that Geert Mak or Lewis Jones would choose, but Mak and Jones were not among the people Steinbeck described. I doubt he would have found them interesting enough to write about.