I found this 1962 piece of travel journalism ahead of its time when it came to issues of class, race and politics. I also enjoyed the idea of an author who wrote about the common man lost himself in fame and then tried to rediscover himself by hiding in plain view. A first edition of this book remains the great trophy of my bookshelf.
Unable to convince anyone to come along — and having no Charley, a standard poodle, of my own — I traveled alone to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas shortly after it opened in the late 1990s. The highlight was standing before the "Travels with Charley" camper that Steinbeck drove from New York to California in his effort to shun his celebrity — yes, they had celebrity authors then — and get reacquainted with real Americans. My eyes watered as I stood in front of this literary symbol rescued from the page.
So this should give you a sense of the agony I felt when a former colleague who knows how much I loved the book, and had read it at my insistence, emailed me a story from the New York Times, "A Reality Check for Steinbeck and Charley."
It turns out that a journalist, writing in Reason magazine, had discovered that much of the work in Steinbeck's famed work of non-fiction was, in fact, fiction. Bill Steigerwald wanted to retrace Steinbeck's journey and, in doing research, stumbled on its inconsistencies.
Turns out, Steinbeck likely did not always stay where he said he did. He probably exaggerated some of the dialogue. Though he said he slept in the camper, he may have stayed in hotels and motels. And not only did he travel with Charley, a standard poodle, his wife came along for much of the trip. I guess "Travels with Charley and Elaine" just wouldn't have had the same ring to it.
Some of the academics interviewed by The Times defended Steinbeck's approach.