Steinbeck’s story breaks into a Million Little Pieces

Pretty amazing bit of literary investigation, here. Bill Steigerwald set off to retrace the trip John Steinbeck recounted in Travels with Charley, and discovered that the trip was largely fictionalized.

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.

But when Steigerwald started cross-referencing events Steinbeck recounts in the book against other evidence — letters, hotel records, etc. — he discovered so many discrepancies that, he concludes, “virtually nothing [Steinbeck] wrote in Charley about where he slept and whom he met on his dash across America can be trusted.”

Steigerwald’s piece isn’t an attack. He personally believes that Steinbeck didn’t set out to deceive anyone. He was, at the time, 58 years old, in poor health, and had promised to produce book for which “he had taken virtually no notes.”


Still, it’s interesting that for 50 years the book was trusted as a nonfiction account of what one man discovered when he crossed our continent, when in fact it’s fiction.

Good thing Steinbeck never appeared on Oprah ;-)


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