Not too long ago I was having an email conversation with a fellow writer on the subject of the “New Journalists.” My colleague held some strong opinions. “I was grossed out by (Norman) Mailer’s Armies of the Night,” he wrote, “which, like a few of Tom Wolfe’s books, employed ‘creative nonfiction,’ which was a fancy way of saying you get to make up facts and present it as nonfiction.”
This caused my blood pressure to surge momentarily. Not only were the New Journalists — Mailer, Wolfe, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, and Hunter S. Thompson — my literary heroes, I had actually spent over three years earning a Master’s degree in creative nonfiction: the very genre my friend had so blithely maligned. I began typing what I intended would be a stinging rebuttal.
But then I took a few deep breaths and thought about what he had said. Ultimately, instead of my planned defensive rant, I sent an honest response: “My MFA is in creative nonfiction. Your summary is apt. I am, of course, an avid practitioner of the form.”
It’s all true. We creative nonfiction authors do make stuff up. We routinely get away with embellishments that would get just about any newspaper reporter fired. These embellishments, or, as we like to call them, techniques, include: consolidation of multiple events into one, rearranging the chronological sequence of events, crafting interior monologues for characters other than the writer/narrator, and, most controversially, creating “composite” characters — merging several actual people into one made-up person.
It is probably not surprising that there has always been some tension between traditional journalists and those writers of creative nonfiction, such as myself, who come from English Lit or fiction writing backgrounds. I watched this dynamic play out firsthand in my MFA program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. My classmate Matt Tullis, now an accomplished sportswriter and tenured journalism professor at Ashland University in Ohio, stood firmly on the “no embellishments” side of the argument. At one point during our time in the program, Matt nearly came to blows (or at least it felt like it) with a visiting writer named Daniel Robb over Robb’s use of a composite character in his memoir Crossing the Water. The book detailed Robb’s experiences teaching high-risk teenagers, and Matt had grown rather attached to the character in question — a hard-luck kid who harbored a yearning for redemption — and felt violated upon learning that this character wasn’t actually real.
Me, I didn’t care so much. In my brief stint as a high school teacher I had taught similar kids to the ones Robb was describing, and to my way of thinking the book succeeded admirably in conveying that experience. The use of composite characters furthered that aim — better, perhaps, than a large and messy menagerie of competing voices might have done, even thought the latter scenario would have hewed closer to the literal truth.
Ultimately, journalists and creative nonfiction authors have competing goals. It is the journalist’s imperative to report events as accurately as possible. With the exception of the works of the New Journalists, that imperative takes primacy over any concurrent desire to shape an artistically pleasing narrative. Had Henry David Thoreau been a journalist, he would have reported the truth about his stay at Walden Pond: he would have admitted that he actually stayed on and off for two years (rather than the one continuous year depicted in his famous memoir Walden), and that he had his mother do his laundry, spent many nights in town, and often popped in on his friends Ralph Waldo and Lidian Emerson (the actual owners of the Walden property) for food and companionship. He enjoyed quite a few of Mrs. Emerson’s casseroles during those two years.
In other words, he was hardly roughing it.
And yet, if we dismiss Walden for these transgressions, we miss out on the book’s more important truths: Thoreau’s trenchant observations on the dark side of rapid technological advancement, his musings on the value of solitude, his reverence for the natural world, and his decisive stand against conformity. These are the real concerns of Walden. Descriptions of his off-topic indulgences — such as the casseroles — might have satisfied a journalist’s desire for factual accuracy, but such details would also have, in my view, seriously blunted the powerful messages of the book.
He did actually build that shack though.
I can just about picture my dear friend Matt Tullis’s brow furrowing as he reads this. But I must be honest about my own stance on this issue. My feelings go beyond a mere philosophy of writing; this is how I orient myself to the world, and to stories. Had I been formally trained as a journalist rather than a creative writer, I might feel differently.
This brings us to Bill Steigerwald’s recent takedown of John Steinbeck in his book Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth about ‘Travels With Charley. Steigerwald, an accomplished journalist of a decidedly libertarian bent, set out a few years ago to retrace the cross-country trip Steinbeck had made famous in his beloved memoir Travels With Charley. But a funny thing happened on the way to Bill’s fluffy travel piece: he discovered that the celebrated author had fabricated large chunks of his trip, creating events, people, and sometimes even places out of whole cloth.
The premise of Travels With Charley is as follows: aging author Steinbeck sets out “in search of America,” traveling back roads in a custom-built truck/camper van called Rocinante with only his French poodle Charley for company. He spends many nights roughing it under the stars, meets lots of interesting characters, and takes the measure of his native land.
As noted, that’s not quite how it played out in real life.
One might think, given my stated positions above, that I would be fundamentally opposed to Steigerwald’s assertion that Travels With Charley is a “literary fraud.” And, indeed, I fought that premise tooth and nail throughout much of the book, even while falling in love with Steigerwald’s jocular style, his unvarnished political opinions, and, yes, his honesty. But the wily devil wore me down in the end. The mountain of damning evidence is just too massive to ignore. Consider the following revelations, which Steigerwald lays out succinctly in his chapter “Debunking ‘Charley’”:
Based on basic TV-detective logic and clues I found in his book, his road letters, Jackson Benson’s biography and several newspaper articles, Steinbeck traveled with and slept with his beloved wife on about 43 days of his 75-day trip. They stayed together in hotels, motels, resorts, family homes, Adlai Stevenson’s house and a fancy Texas cattle ranch. The handful of times Steinbeck did sleep in Rocinante, it was usually near other people. He slept in the camper for two nights on a dairy farm near his son’s Massachusetts school and two nights at Eleanor Brace’s house on Deer Isle, Maine. He slept in it at two busy truck stops in the Midwest and at trailer courts in New Hampshire, Upstate New York, and Montana. That’s nine more un-lonely nights, for a total of 52. In “Charley” or in his road letters, Steinbeck said he stayed by himself at 10 motels. […] He also had another pal he forgot to mention in the book. His boyhood pal Toby Street joined him aboard Rocinante for four days from Monterey to Flagstaff, Arizona. That adds up to roughly 66 of 75 nights when Steinbeck was definitely not parked alone in the starry outback.
Even more damaging to Travels With Charley‘s reputation as a nonfiction book is Steigerwald’s estimation, based on meticulous research (which included reading the unpublished original draft of Charley and all of Steinbeck’s known correspondence from this period, as well as interviewing any potential eyewitnesses or descendants of eyewitnesses) that “90 percent of the humans in Travels With Charley were made up in whole or in part.”
Now, I may have a greater tolerance for creative license than some of my journalistic peers, but I still recognize that there is a dividing line between fiction and nonfiction. Travels With Charley, thanks to Bill Steigerwald’s reporting, has crossed that line.
Why Charley and not Walden, you may wonder. I feel that a lot of it comes down to the author’s intent. It can be argued that the majority of Thoreau’s omissions were made in the service of bringing sharper focus to his intended themes. Steinbeck did a bit of that too, but mostly his changes appear to have been made in order to mask the fact that his trip was a failure. Steinbeck had set out on the road with the honest intention of spending most of his nights camped out in his trailer, alone save for the company of his dog. He intended to forgo the creature comforts he had grown accustomed to in order to reconnect with the common man. But he was hardly out of New England when he started making expensive “booty calls” to his wife, flying her out for several long rendezvous in a number of locations across the country. And Elaine Steinbeck had a significantly lower tolerance for “roughing it” than her husband, which meant that all of their time together (over half of the trip, as noted) was spent in luxury or near-luxury accommodations. Furthermore, the introverted John Steinbeck generally had a hard time approaching strangers, hence his need to invent characters out of whole cloth.
Say what you will about Henry David Thoreau, he really did build his shack. And he spent a helluva lot of time sitting alone next to that pond. Steigerwald concedes that Steinbeck “earned his miles,” but beyond that, the trip detailed in Travels With Charley bears very little resemblance to the trip its author actually took.
Which is not to say that Charley is a bad book. Steinbeck was at the height of his powers when he wrote it, and while it may not be a true portrait of America at the dawn of the 1960s, it does give the reader a remarkably intimate view of its normally reticent author’s inner life. In Charley, Steinbeck comes off as an endearing curmudgeon, and his many rants against technological progress and crass consumerism are not unlike Thoreau’s. Perhaps due to the thinness of his road material, Steinbeck fills his book with cranky digressions and reminiscences of his earlier years, and these asides — whether they’re tall tales or factual, I can’t tell — are often more entertaining and illuminating than the material concerning his trip.
So yes, Charley is worth reading. But I’m with Bill Steigerwald in his recommendation that the book ought to have clear disclaimers in the introduction and possibly on the cover concerning its dubious fact-to-fiction ratio.
Of course, the actual Steinbeck takedown is only one half of Dogging Steinbeck. The other half details Steigerwald’s own attempt to do the trip correctly, as per Steinbeck’s original specifications. He wisely decides to forgo the French Poodle, but in all other respects he meets the challenge. Unlike Steinbeck, Steigerwald does sleep in his car most nights, typically in Wal-Mart parking lots (he says enough good things about that often-maligned chain that he ought to have picked up an endorsement fee). And while he has plenty of nice things to say about his wife, Steigerwald is able to spend time away from her without turning into a blubbering mess.
Bill Steigerwald does his legwork. He interviews real people from all walks of life: waitresses, construction workers, fishermen, small business owners, a couple of politically opinionated folks of, ah, uncertain employment status, and even actor Michael Keaton, who he tracks down in Montana. Unlike Steinbeck’s characters, who conveniently play into the author’s pet themes at every turn, Steigerwald’s interviewees say things that actual human beings, in all their messy, distracted glory, would actually say.
Steigerwald is just as sunny and optimistic about the country’s future as Steinbeck is not, which makes for an interesting contrast. It also makes Bill a pretty enjoyable traveling companion. I wouldn’t mind clocking some actual miles with the guy. His book is an accurate portrait of America, or at least those portions of America to be found along the Old Steinbeck Highway, which, Steigerwald acknowledges, are mostly white and Republican-leaning. Dogging Steinbeck tells us quite a bit about how people in flyover country serenely navigated their way through the “Great Recession” — an event that Steigerwald feels has been vastly overblown, certainly in proportion to earlier cataclysms such as the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and the two world wars.
So, Dogging Steinbeck is a more honest and accurate book than Travels With Charley. But is it a better book? Not really. Steigerwald’s writing, while precise, lacks the poetry and expansiveness of Steinbeck’s. He is also hemmed in by his journalistic scrupulosity, always making sure he documents every wrong turn or instance of backtracking during his trip. In a section entitled “A Digital Disaster,” he reveals that he had to return to the towns of Mauston and Merrillan, Wisconsin to re-take a bunch of pictures after he accidentally erased the memory card on his digital camera. He tells us all this, I suppose, so we will know that the various photos accompanying the Wisconsin section of his book were not taken during the first go round. Similarly, he wants us to know that his visit to the Merrillan cafe and his chat with waitress Beverly and owner Kathleen occurred on his return trip to the town. God forbid he combine the two visits into one, which is what Steinbeck or just about any writer of creative nonfiction would have done. I admire Steigerwald’s constant striving for accuracy, but it can make for a clunky narrative in places.
Ideally the two books should be read together, starting with Steigerwald’s. Dogging Stenbeck effectively serves as the disclaimer that is so needed — but is largely absent — in the various editions of Travels With Charley.
Honestly, I find it charming that Steigerwald cared enough to even embark on this investigation. As he notes, few of the people he encountered on his trip (apart from Keaton and one or two others) had ever heard of Steinbeck, let alone read him. Substitute the name of any canonical author, apart from Shakespeare, and you’d probably get the same answer. That depresses me immensely, more so than Steinbeck’s serial fudging or his “decline and fall of America” rants. Yet Steigerwald remains upbeat, even while acknowledging that his own profession — newspaper reporting — is facing extinction (he took this epic trip after accepting a buyout from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, his longtime employer). He’s one of those people that thrives on disruption and change. I would be a healthier person if I could adopt his attitude.