A Reality Check for Steinbeck and Charley

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In the fall of 1960 an ailing, out-of-sorts John Steinbeck, pretty much depleted as a novelist, decided that his problem was he had lost touch with America. He outfitted a three-quarter-ton pickup truck as a sort of land yacht and set off from his home in Sag Harbor, N.Y., with his French poodle, Charley, to drive cross-country. The idea was that he would travel alone, stay at campgrounds and reconnect himself with the country by talking to the locals he met along the way.

Steinbeck’s book-length account of his journey, “Travels With Charley: In Search of America,” published in 1962, was generally well reviewed and became a best-seller. It remains in print, regarded by some as a classic of American travel writing. Almost from the beginning, though, a few readers pointed out that many of the conversations in the book had a stagey, wooden quality, not unlike the dialogue in Steinbeck’s fiction....

In the current issue of the libertarian monthly Reason, Bill Steigerwald, a former journalist for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, writes that not only is the meeting with [an] actor made up, but on the evening in question, Oct. 12, Steinbeck wasn’t anywhere near Alice. He was in Beach, N.D., more than 300 miles to the west, staying not in the camper but in a motel.

According to Mr. Steigerwald, Steinbeck stayed in motels a lot — when he wasn’t at luxury hotels. On a night when he supposedly camped out on a farm near Lancaster, N.H., Steinbeck was actually at the Spalding Inn, a hotel so fancy that he had to borrow a coat and tie to eat in the dining room.

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