Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth About ‘Travels With Charley’
Bill Steigerwald had a brilliant plan for showing how much America has changed in the last half century — or so he thought. He’d simply retrace the 10,000-mile route John Steinbeck took around the USA in 1960 for his beloved bestseller “Travels With Charley.” Then he’d compare the America he saw with the country Steinbeck described in his classic road book.
But when the ex-newspaperman from Pittsburgh started researching Steinbeck’s trip he uncovered a shocking literary scoop. Steinbeck’s iconic nonfiction book was a fraud. “Travels With Charley” was not just full of fiction. It was a deceptive and dishonest account of the great novelist’s actual road trip.
As he details in Dogging Steinbeck, Steigerwald made his own road trip exactly 50 years after Steinbeck did. Chasing and fact-checking Steinbeck’s ghost for 11,276 miles and 43 days, meeting hundreds of ordinary Americans, often sleeping in the back of his car in WalMart parking lots, he drove from Maine to California to Texas.
Despite the Great Recession and national headlines dripping with gloom and doom, Steigerwald discovered an America along the Steinbeck Highway that was big, empty, rich, safe, clean, prosperous and friendly. He didn’t just reaffirm his faith in America to withstand the long train of abuse from Washington and Wall Street, however. He also exposed the half-century-old myths of “Travels With Charley,” ruffled the PhDs of the country’s top Steinbeck scholars and forced “Charley’s” publisher to finally tell the truth.
Steigerwald is a well-traveled journalist and veteran libertarian columnist. With the spirit of a teenage driver, a dogged pursuit of the facts and a refreshing point of view about America proudly located in the heart of Flyover Country not Manhattan, he turns the story of his ride with Steinbeck’s ghost into a provocative, news-making and entertaining American road book.
by Bill Steigerwald
In the fall of 2010 I wrote a daily road blog for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as I retraced the 10,000-mile trip around the USA that John Steinbeck took in 1960 and turned into his best-seller Travels with Charley. It is republished here.
Chasing John Steinbeck’s Ghost in words, photos and video
September 23, 2020
Sixty years ago this morning, on Sept. 23, 1960, John Steinbeck and his poodle Charley set out from Sag Harbor on the iconic road trip around the United States that would become Travels with Charley in Search of America.
Ten years ago this morning I set out from Steinbeck’s seaside house on the eastern end of Long Island and followed his 10,000-mile trail as faithfully as possible. I posted each day to my TravelsWithoutCharley blog at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
I admit I had my suspicions that Steinbeck had embellished Charley and had invented some of the colorful Americans he said he met at random. (I couldn’t help it – I was a veteran drive-by print journalist who knew how hard it was on the road to bump into the right people you need for a story.)
But my original intention was not to discredit Steinbeck, show him up or prove that his 1962 New York Times nonfiction bestseller was a heavily fictionalized and disappointingly dishonest account of his actual journey.
My main goal simply was to turn my solo adventure along the Steinbeck Highway into a book that would compare the America of Barack Obama that I saw in 2010 with the America of JFK and Nixon that Steinbeck saw in the historic fall of 1960.
Some of what I saw out my windshield on my mad 11,276-mile dash around the country can be seen in these 17 videos on YouTube.
Here’s the first one of Steinbeck’s seaside house at the eastern end of Long Island:
I’m no documentary maker, as you will see. The videos are largely unedited and the wind is a recurring character. But I visit Steinbeck’s houses, the top of Fremont Peak and many other places he stopped on his journey.
What I learned about the facts and fictions of Travels with Charley, the character of John Steinbeck and the nature of America’s Flyover People are documented in my Amazon book Dogging Steinbeck. And my new e-book Chasing Steinbeck’s Ghost is a guide to where Steinbeck really was on each day of a nearly 11-week search for the country he admitted he did not find.