And the professionals? Defending his non-fiction in terms more appropriate to fiction.
NY Times link – sorry. Excerpts below, until that becomes illegal.
The Reason article is a distillation of a blog Mr. Steigerwald wrote for The Post-Gazette for several weeks in 2010 while retracing Steinbeck’s journey in a leased Toyota Rav4. And he did sleep in the car, he pointed out in a recent phone interview. He stopped frequently in Wal-Mart parking lots, and once he parked in a car dealer’s lot, impersonating a used car. Mr. Steigerwald insisted that he began his project not intending to expose Steinbeck but to commemorate his journey and to write a book about how the United States had changed in 50 years.
“I didn’t set out to blow the whistle,” he said. “As a libertarian, I kind of like the old guy. He liked guns; he liked property rights.”
In the published version of “Travels With Charley” Steinbeck’s itinerary is often hard to follow, so Mr. Steigerwald created a timeline, drawing on newspaper accounts, biographies and Steinbeck’s letters, to determine where Steinbeck was on such and such a date. Discrepancies with the book’s account immediately popped up. Mr. Steigerwald also consulted the handwritten first draft of “Travels With Charley” — now at the Morgan Library & Museum — where Steinbeck’s wife is a much more frequent presence than she is in the final text.
“This is just grunt journalism,” Mr. Steigerwald said of his research methods. “Anyone with a library card and a skeptical gene in his body could do what I did.” What! We (well, some of us) would call that “scholarship”!
He added that he was a little surprised that his findings hadn’t made more of a ripple among Steinbeck scholars: ” ‘Travels With Charley’ for 50 years has been touted, venerated, reviewed, mythologized as a true story, a nonfiction account of John Steinbeck’s journey of discovery, driving slowly across America, camping out under the stars alone. Other than the fact that none of that is true, what can I tell you?” He added, “If scholars aren’t concerned about this, what are they scholaring about?”
Susan Shillinglaw, who teaches English at San Jose State University and is a scholar in residence at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif. [self-interest?], said in a phone interview: “Any writer has the right to shape materials, and undoubtedly Steinbeck left things out. That doesn’t make the book a lie.”
Talking about the authenticity of the characters in “Travels With Charley,” she said, “Whether or not Steinbeck met that actor where he says he did, he could have met such a figure at some point in his life. And perhaps he enhanced some of the anecdotes with the waitress. Does it really matter that much?”
Jay Parini, the author of a 1995 biography of Steinbeck who wrote the introduction to the Penguin edition of “Travels With Charley,” said he was surprised to learn that Elaine Steinbeck had accompanied her husband on so much of the trip. “I spent several hours with Elaine, and she never mentioned that,” he added. “She made a big deal about how painful it was for them to be separated and how she insisted that he take the dog along for company.” Hmmmm. Your informants are not reliable?
About the book’s accuracy he said: “I have always assumed that to some degree it’s a work of fiction. Steinbeck was a fiction writer, and here he’s shaping events, massaging them. He probably wasn’t using a tape recorder. But I still feel there’s an authenticity there.” Isn’t that beautiful!
He added, talking about Mr. Steigerwald’s discoveries: “Does this shake my faith in the book? Quite the opposite. I would say hooray for Steinbeck. If you want to get at the spirit of something, sometimes it’s important to use the techniques of a fiction writer. Why has this book stayed in the American imagination, unlike, for example, Michael Harrington’s ‘The Other America,’ which came out at the same time?”
Well, he sold it as non-fiction. If Steinbeck had tried to sell the book as a novel, would it have – um – sold?