Monday, March 04, 2013

Hitting the highway, if only in my dreams

I am reading a book that has rekindled a long-held desire.

"Dogging Steinbeck," Bill Steigerwald's charming new travelogue, re-creates the famous 1960 trip John Steinbeck took around the country to get back in touch with America in its people. Steinbeck felt he'd lived in Manhattan and abroad for too long. Critics said he was out of touch with his homeland. He agreed and decided to hit the road. The trip was the impetus for Steinbeck's popular 1962 book, "Travels with Charley."

Steigerwald, a longtime journalist, embarked on the trip after leaving newspapers behind just in time for the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck's sojourn. At first he thought it would be a fun way to see what was out there, discover how Americans were dealing with the Great Recession and drum up some publicity along the way in the hopes of publishing a book.

And he stumbled onto a literary shocker: "Travels with Charley" turns out not to be the nonfiction classic Steinbeck claimed and scholars have accepted. In other words, like his best-loved works "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Of Mice and Men," "Charley" is, largely, a work of fiction.

The author didn't set out to debunk or dethrone Steinbeck. He's not an obsessed fan or a legend killer. But, he's a good journalist. He was observant. He noticed dates didn't mesh. He discovered, for example, while in the middle of nowhere North Dakota, that there's no way Steinbeck ran into a Shakespearean actor. He read the original manuscript, housed in a museum in midtown Manhattan, and discovered some colorful and creative editing.

I confess I haven't read "Travels with Charley," although it has moved to the top of my list. But, frankly, I don't think this discovery is too shocking. Truman Capote, who is credited for "inventing" the nonfiction novel with "In Cold Blood," fabricated that book's ending and fudged a few other facts along the way. Once learning that, it didn't take anything away from what I consider to be a  masterpiece. And, I suspect the same is the case with "Charley."

This is probably a bad thing for a journalist to say, but I've always liked the quote from "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" --

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

In other words, a good story is a good story. One wonders, though, why Steinbeck made the claim that "Charley" was nonfiction. It seems unnecessary. Course, he did win the Nobel Prize for Literature...

I mentioned earlier that reading this book rekindled a long-held dream. For more than a decade, I've wanted to hit the road, loaded with pads and pencils and passion and pursue people and places. Charles Kuralt is a hero; "Route 66" is a favorite TV series. Plus, I guess I have a decent dose of the great American trait of wanderlust.

 I love to drive, particularly along the backroads and byways. Often, when I travel to Atlanta or to see friends in Macon, Ga., I take Highway 411 and take my time, perking up when I pass small towns with local diners and main street theaters.

Alas, that dream is largely gone with the wind. No newspaper would pay for it now. I had just such a trip planned before gas prices and the Great Recession destroyed that dream.

I've been fortunate to visit 47 of 50 states. Sadly, most of those trips has been seen by interstate or by air. One of these days, maybe when the mortgage is a memory, I can afford to hit the "Blue Highways," flip a coin, pick a direction and scribble about what I see.

Steigerwald liked what he saw. People were friendly. Folks were making it (and then some) despite the sluggish 2010 economy. Despite its faults, America thrives.

Fiction or nonfiction aside, something tells me John Steinbeck would be pleased to hear that.


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