Community commentary: 'Travels Without Charley' takes another turn

Gail Steinbeck's Mailbag entry is full of too many mistakes, wild assumptions and misrepresentations about me, my motives and my research/reporting habits to address all of them here ("Mailbag: Steinbeck's daughter-in-law says 'Travel' is true," April 30).

But before she decided to accuse me of being a lousy journalist and some creepy sort of publicity hound who set out to debunk "Travels with Charley" to make a name for myself, she should have done a little more research.

Here's what I wrote in my Reason article:

"My initial motives for digging into Travels With Charley were totally innocent. I simply wanted to go exactly where Steinbeck went in 1960, to see what he saw on the Steinbeck Highway, and then to write a book about the way America has and has not changed in the last 50 years"....

I've consistently said the same thing on my web site and when I was interviewed by the national news media outfits she thinks I control (NPR, the CBC in Canada, the New York Times): I never set out to debunk Steinbeck, his trip or his book.

The truth is, I started doing research/reporting and merely followed the facts (which have been gathering dust in the Steinbeck archives for 35 years). Any "educated scholar" with a skeptical gene in her body could have found out what I did.

And I don't know where Steinbeck got the idea that all I did was read a few letters at "the Mercantile Library" — whatever that is (there is a library by that name in Cincinnati, but I've never been there). I think she meant the Morgan Library, which is in New York City, and which is where I went last summer to read the original handwritten manuscript of "TWC."

The specifics of my library research are scattered on my web site, but here they are in one place:

In addition to the Morgan, I went to Stanford's Green Library twice, San Jose State's Steinbeck Center twice, the National Steinbeck Center, the Mudd Library at Princeton, the Monterey Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh. Plus, I've gotten help from librarians in Austin, Butte, St. Johnsbury, Vt., Amarillo, Seattle and elsewhere.

My several attempts to interview Gail's husband Thom Steinbeck never succeeded. But I've interviewed dozens of people, including Steinbeck biographer Jackson Benson and authors Curt Gentry and Barnaby Conrad, who interviewed or socialized with John and Elaine Steinbeck in San Francisco in 1960 during the "Charley" trip. Also, last fall I retraced most of John Steinbeck's route around America, racking up 11,276 miles in 43 days.

Contrary to what Steinbeck assumes, I've read all the letters Steinbeck wrote from the road that are in libraries or books. And while Steinbeck scholar Professor Susan Shillinglaw of San Jose State has read them all as well, I believe she has yet to do what I did -- trek to Manhattan to compare the original handwritten manuscript of "Charley" with the final version.

If Shillinglaw had done that, she'd have seen a handful of scenes cut from the first draft in which Steinbeck describes leisurely traveling from Seattle down the Pacific Coast with Elaine -- in the pickup truck/camper -- to downtown San Francisco, where they "camped out" at the St. Francis Hotel for about five days.

Last fall, Gail Steinbeck apparently followed my road trip by reading the daily road blogs I posted to (She sent me two friendly and complimentary emails and said she found my articles interesting.)

Seven months later she dismisses me as "this guy." And she accuses me — without offering any proof of her own to the contrary — of "misleading the public" and of "being incorrect in the majority" of my "assumptions" about the reality of her father-in-law's iconic road trip; trouble is, they're not assumptions, they are facts.

Readers who want to judge for themselves which of us really knows what we are talking about are invited to read my web site, Travels Without Charley: On the Road With Steinbeck's Ghost.

BILL STEIGERWALD worked as a writer, editor, and columnist for the Los Angeles Times in the 1980s, the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette in the 1990s, and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in the 2000s. He lives in Eighty Four, Pa. His blog recounting his journey in Steinbeck's footsteps can be read at

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