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August 1, 2020 by William Ray Leave a Comment
Did John Steinbeck foreshadow the genre-bending literary movements now known as New Journalism and creative nonfiction when he wrote Travels with Charley , his semi-fictional account of the road trip he and his dog Charley took “In Search of America” in the fall of 1960? Published in 1962 as a book of travel, Steinbeck’s carefully crafted narrative resonated with mid-century readers who may or may not have felt differently if they had known Steinbeck was manipulating chronology and making up characters and conversations, like a novelist, to move his audience and fit his message.
When I first read Travels with Charley I had my doubts about several episodes in the book.
When I first read Travels with Charley , half a century after it was written, I had my doubts about several episodes in the book—encounters with Sunday preachers, Shakespearean actors, straight fathers and gay sons, Southerners with neatly divided views on race—that seemed uncharacteristically wooden for Steinbeck, too conveniently timed and too clearly contrived to prove the author’s point about the moral condition of America at the tail end of the Eisenhower era. By this time I was a frequent user of Jackson Benson’s magisterial biography, The Adventures of John Steinbeck, Writer , but I hadn’t read Bill Steigerwald’s exposé , Dogging Steinbeck , and I didn’t become concerned with the choices Steinbeck made in Travels with Charley until I started my own research into the choices he confronted when he undertook the subject of religion in his writing.
Having failed to find the John Knox church in Vermont that Steinbeck says he attended, I turned for help to Dogging Steinbeck.
In 2014, having failed to find the John Knox church in Vermont that Steinbeck says he attended in Travels with Charley , I turned for help to Dogging Steinbeck and learned that, like other scenes, the churchgoing episode with the fire-and-brimstone preacher was a likely fabrication designed to further the persona and purpose Steinbeck set out to advance in his book. Steigerwald, a veteran Pittsburgh journalist, had retraced Steinbeck’s 10,000-mile road trip as faithfully as possible in 2010 for an online newspaper series and discovered proof that Travels with Charley was heavily fictionalized. Though the New York Times praised Steigerwald on its editorial page for blowing the literary whistle on Steinbeck’s iconic road book, he caught grief from scholars and fans alike when Dogging Steinbeck came out in 2012. But as the journalist and author William Souder notes in Mad at the World , the new life of Steinbeck scheduled for publication in October, “Steigerwald could be forgiven for applying the rules of journalism to a work that purported to be journalism. First among those rules is that facts matter.”
Recently I caught grief of my own from a conscientious reader for appropriating the term creative nonfiction in a post about the sequel, Chasing Steinbeck’s Ghost.
Recently I caught grief of my own from a conscientious reader for appropriating the term creative nonfiction in a post about Steigerwald’s new e-book sequel , Chasing Steinbeck’s Ghost . I turned to Steigerwald and Souder for their advice on the subject, and both replied. Bill Souder and Bill Steigerwald on a Sensitive Subject
Explained Souder, a literary expert whose 2004 biography of John James Audubon was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize: “The term ‘creative nonfiction’ has been muddied up in recent years, mainly, I think, by memoirists. But being the old school stick-in-the-mud that I am, I prefer the original definition: Creative nonfiction = The truth, well told. By that light, ‘creative’ does not nullify ‘nonfiction.’ It’s not a license to invent.
Creative nonfiction has roots in the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s.
“Creative nonfiction has roots in the New Journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, when writers like Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Hunter Thompson, Norman Mailer, et al made their reporting more dynamic and engaging by using the narrative and descriptive techniques of fiction writing . . . including, in many cases, becoming their own first-person narrators. But they didn’t make up what happened. They only made it more interesting. One of the archetypes of the genre is Capote’s In Cold Blood , a true story that reads like a thriller.
Travels with Charley is an inventive, incisive essay on America that, because Steinbeck made some of it up, can’t really be called a snapshot.
“I don’t think your readers will mind the term as you deploy it here, but if it were my call I’d use something different. Travels with Charley is an inventive, incisive essay on America that, because Steinbeck made some of it up, can’t really be called a snapshot. It’s more like a painting.”
I agree about creative fiction being ‘truth, well told.’ It’s really how I used to think of newspaper/magazine journalism.
Adds Steigerwald, a contrarian reporter with a libertarian perspective on Steinbeck’s politics: “I agree about creative fiction being ‘truth, well told.’ It’s really how I used to think of newspaper/magazine journalism—presenting/deploying important or interesting facts in an entertaining, informative, fair-and-balanced narrative way without distorting the truth. The difficulty is/was that too many newspaper proles in my era—at the Los Angeles Times and two Pittsburgh dailies from 1977 to 2009—were better at gathering facts than presenting them on paper. Or the writers/reporters were too politically or culturally biased, deliberately or without even knowing it, to adhere to the ‘truth’ and balance of their story while they performed their creative tricks.”
Email your idea for a post of your own about the truth or falsity of creative nonfiction. It’s a surprisingly sensitive subject.
I can’t improve on either summary, but you’re invited to try. If you’re a protective fan of Steinbeck’s writing with something to say about the foreshadowing of New Journalism in Travels with Charley , please leave a comment on this post. Or email your idea for a post of your own about the truth or falsity of creative nonfiction. It’s a surprisingly sensitive subject. Filed Under: Books , Steinbeck's Work Tagged With: Book Reviews Speak Your Mind


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