Letters From The Editor: Somewhat let down by a boyhood hero

This may sound strange coming from a newspaper editor, but I had a hard time learning to read.

A teacher sent me to my elementary school's reading specialist, and after some individual instruction, I began reading well above grade level. In fact, I fell in love with reading and, more specifically, the work of John Steinbeck.

And of all of Steinbeck's books, the one that has remained the dearest is "Travels with Charley." It's not his best, but it remains my favorite, sort of like a deep album cut that's more personal than a hit single.

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.

"Any writer has the right to shape materials, and undoubtedly Steinbeck left things out," San Jose State English Professor Susan Shillinglaw told The Times. "That doesn't make the book a lie."

It does and it doesn't. Steinbeck embellished to reveal a larger truth — the goal of serious fiction writers. The New Journalism common in the middle of the last century sought to combine the storytelling approach of fiction and the reportage of journalism, so composite characters and the like would have been accepted by the reading audience.

But Steinbeck, a Nobel Prize winner, insisted that "Travels with Charley" was true, according to The Times.

In this day in age, when fact checking has become an online blood sport, exaggerating or making up dialogue would put a period on your career.

Had Steinbeck admitted to the embellishments, I might view this all differently, particularly since such practices were tolerated in his era. But because he stood by his words, I feel let down by a boyhood hero.

I went to lunch with a friend Friday. I told him how I felt. He said he was surprised that anyone even had literary heroes anymore.

The concept seems passé today when a writer's critics are a Tweet away. Steinbeck would have been called to the carpet if "Travels with Charley" was published in this era, which is why I am glad that he belongs to another.

JOHN CANALIS is editor of the Daily Pilot, Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot, the Huntington Beach Independent and OCNow. He can be reached at (714) 966-4607 and john.canalis@latimes.com.

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