John Steinbeck’s Disappearing Act after Travels with Charley

Image of Elaine and John Steinbeck following JFK's inaugurationAbout six weeks after John Steinbeck returned to New York following his 1960 Travels With Charley road trip, he attended John F. Kennedy’s January 20 inauguration in Washington. Steinbeck, then 58, and his wife Elaine shared a limo ride that famously bitter-cold day with Kennedy adviser John Kenneth Galbraith, the celebrated economist, and Galbraith’s wife Catherine. The photo and video are from a documentary produced for an ABC Close Up TV program called Adventures on the New Frontier. In it the Steinbecks and the Galbraiths are seen praising Kennedy’s inauguration speech and making jokes. Although the Galbraiths went to the inaugural ball in Washington that night, the Steinbecks decided to stay warm and watch the affair on TV.

The Missing Last Chapter of Travels with Charley

John Steinbeck describes his and Elaine’s adventures in DC (although he fails to mention John Kenneth Galbraith) in “L’Envoi,” the short chapter he intended to be the ending of Travels with Charley. When the book was released, however, the last chapter—like the Steinbecks at the ball—was missing. It was finally published in 2002 by John Steinbeck’s biographer Jackson Benson and John Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw in America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction, more than 40 years after Travels with Charley.

How I Discovered the Truth about Travels with Charley

In 2012 I carefully compared Steinbeck’s travel narrative with his actual road trip in my own book, Dogging Steinbeck. Subtitled “How I went in search of John Steinbeck’s America, found my own America, and exposed the truth about Travels with Charley,” Dogging Steinbeck tells how I learned by reading Steinbeck’s own correspondence and his original “Charley” manuscript that his published account contains so many dramatizations, elaborations, and fabrications that it should no longer be considered a work of nonfiction, but fiction. For the latest edition of Travels With Charley, Penguin Group had Jay Parini amend his introduction to warn readers that the book was the work of a novelist and should not be taken literally.



Bill Steigerwald About Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, a newspaper and magazine writer who worked at the Los Angeles Times and two Pittsburgh newspapers before turning to book-length investigative journalism, is the author of Dogging Steinbeck, a radical re-mapping of Steinbeck's Travels with Charley. 30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story That Exposed the Jim Crow South, his most recent book, was released on April 1, 2017. Bill and his wife Trudi live in the woods south of Pittsburgh.

Comments

  1. Fred Schumacher says:

    Bill,

    I’m a retired farmer from Kindred, North Dakota. Yesterday, I spent the day along the Maple River between Alice and Buffalo looking for where Steinbeck might have camped. My analysis is that you were wrong in concluding that Steinbeck never camped along the Maple River or that he did not have a conversation with an itinerant actor. I found what Steinbeck described. To understand that, you have to know old Highway 10 and the changes caused by I-94.

    The Maple River is in the bottom of a glacial channel. For most of its way north of ND 46, there are no trees, until you get close to I-94. Two miles south is a grove of ash trees. But Steinbeck says “… I drew into a little copse, of sycamores I think, that overhung the stream…” Now, if you’re not familiar with Northern Plains trees, as was the case with Steinbeck, there are two species that could be confused for sycamores: cottonwood and quacking aspen. One mile south of I-94 on a gravel road where the bridge is gone, there is a stand of old cottonwood trees overhanging the river. But that is not where he stopped, since there is a farmstead on the east side. Charley waded in the water, says Steinbeck, and became dirty again. Yes, that would be the case. The Maple is a muddy stream.

    One mile north of I-94 is a stand of aspen in what appears to be a borrow pit for building I-94. The trees are about 50 years old. But this is also not the right place, since it is on the ridge at the edge of the glacial channel. These are the only aspen I came across once leaving the Sheyenne Sandhills that ND 46 goes through west of Kindred. Where did Steinbeck stop? Exactly between the these two sites, the only ones along the Maple River with trees having a similarity to sycamores, and that place was eradicated in the building of I-94.

    If you go to googlemaps satellite view and zoom in on the ND 38 interchange on I-94, you will see a narrow paved road on the south side of I-94 ending at ND 38. That is old US 10. At that point there would have been a sign, pointing south to Alice and north to Buffalo. On I-94 the exit sign reads Buffalo Alice, a pleasant combination of names that motivated my friend Rodney Nelson to write a novella by that name. Steinbeck, for whatever reason, remembered the name Alice. “I found a pleasant place to stop on the Maple River not far from Alice — what a wonderful name for a town, Alice.” Alice is on the “Female Line,” railroad towns given women’s names. Steinbeck did not go to Alice. He only remembered the name.

    South Dakota writer Kathleen Norris, author of Dakota: a Spiritual Geography, relates being given directions by a nun to a convent she was to visit. The nun said, when you get to the place in the road where you have to go left or right, go straight ahead. That is exactly what Steinbeck did. When US 10 jogged north to Buffalo before continuing west to Tower City, Steinbeck went straight ahead on a gravel road to the Maple River, which formed an oxbow there and would have had a pleasant copse of cottonwood and aspen trees there. On googlemaps, a trace of that road is still visible south of I-94 and east of the now channelized Maple. I’m going to go to the archives at North Dakota State University in Fargo and see if I can find a photo of the construction of I-94 in that area. If I can find one, I bet it will show a copse of trees.

    As regards the itinerant actor, Fargo-Moorhead has had and continues to have a very active local theater culture. In fact, my farmer father-in-law acted in The Boyfriend at the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theater back in the early 60s. That an actor could be found camping in a pleasant place off what back then was a very busy two-lane US 10 with wall to wall truck traffic is highly likely. And after Steinbeck’s description of the truck traffic through Fargo and his panic at navigating that, his need to find a quiet place was high. My wife remembers what Front Street (US 10 back then) was like. It was a chaos of noise and diesel fumes.

    Steinbeck does his laundry and spreads it over some bushes. “I don’t know what kind of bushes they were, but the leaves had a rich smell like sandalwood…” Those would have been russian olive, small trees planted all over North Dakota during the Dirty Thirties. They are aromatic. We have some in our farm shelterbelt.

    As for your claim that you saw wheat being combined. I find that hard to believe. Not in October. What you probably saw was soybeans. By October any uncombined wheat field would have been garbage. The area is now planted almost entirely to soybeans and corn. I found only one wheat field. Alice’s only business today is a large soybean seed processing plant, NuTech, which advertises itself as the largest producer of Roundup-Ready soybean seed. They’re using the old elementary school as offices.

    You were looking for Steinbeck in the wrong place. I think I found his ghost. The photos are on my Facebook page.

    Thank you,

    Sincerely,

    Fred Schumacher

    • Hi Fred — Glad to see you’re taking an interest in my Steinbeck chasing.

      I’m not sure what you looked at, but I suspect it was my original blog item — the one I wrote that day in 2010 when I was buzzing through Alice.

      I know someone — you? — who knew a lot more about farming than I do said that whatever crop I said was being combined/plowed/planted? was wrong. I fixed that in my book “Dogging Steinbeck.”

      I was traveling at Steinbeck speed (300 or 400 miles a day) and I was obviously a stranger in the area. I knew Steinbeck got the trees wrong but don’t remember how I came to know that.

      Your research is helpful and perhaps Steinbeck did stop where you say, and perhaps there was an actor there from Fargo. But Steinbeck drove from Frazee, Minn., to Beach, ND, that day, 400-plus non-interstate miles, so he didn’t have too much time to do his laundry and muse and play with Charley or chat up the actor.

      Steinbeck makes it sound like he was by his little copse of trees by the Maple River for hours. Again, maybe. But doubtful. He slept in Frazee one night and in Beach the next. We know that from his letters to his wife Elaine.

      He says he camped overnight near Alice and then he says, in the book, that he camped overnight the next night in the Badlands (which is true only if Beach is in the Badlands and sleeping in the Westgate motel is the same as camping out and listening to the coyotes bark).

      As I like to say, unless North Dakota had nine days in a week in 1960, Steinbeck’s two ND campouts were total BS. He was a good BS artist — “Charley” is full of it.

      If you find out more, please tell me.

      Thanks

      Bill Steigerwald

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