Two journalists, each independently seeking to chart the course John Steinbeck took 50 years ago with his poodle Charley — including figuring out where he slept when — have come to the conclusion that the highly respected author may have taken some liberties with the facts in his classic work of non-fiction.
It’s not stop-the-presses stuff, especially these days, when fuzzily defined terms like “creative non-fiction” and “literary journalism” have taken on enough heft to become college courses.
Like it or not composite characters, re-created dialogue and tampering with timelines have become fairly common practices (though not in my book) in non-fiction. But 50 years ago, when “Travels With Charley” was written — five years before Truman Capote’s groundbreaking “non-fiction novel” (his term), “In Cold Blood” — the practice probably would have been given the far less literary label of “making shit up.”
If Steinbeck borrowed from his fiction writing toolbox — and he was primarily a novelist — to craft “Travels With Charley,” he could, on one hand, be viewed as a pioneer. In reality, though, storytellers, even those bound by the tighter confines of non-fiction, have been leaving out the boring stuff and juicing up the truth for centuries.
To Jeff Woodburn, though, who counts Steinbeck among his literary heroes, his discovery that Steinbeck might have made stuff up — and definitely left stuff out — was disheartening.
Woodburn, a New Hampshire-based freelance writer, pitched the idea of writing about Steinbeck’s travels through the state — from Shelburn, west to Lancaster — to the editor of New Hampshire magazine. The editor, being a Steinbeck fan too, liked it. Woodburn set out to retrace the 30-mile route and learn more about the places, and maybe even some of the people, Steinbeck encountered in New Hamsphire.
As Steinbeck recounts it in “Travels With Charley,” on his way to the top of Maine, he drove up a farm road in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, bought some eggs from a farmer and asked permission of him to camp beside the stream on his farm. Later, the farmer visited his camper and they drank coffee, laced with “a good dollop of twenty-one year old applejack.” They talked about Kruschev, and how, that week, he had used his shoe to pound a table during a UN meeting, and whether we should attack the Russians before they attacked us.
When the farmer eventually took his leave, Steinbeck and Charley went to sleep in the camper, parked alongside the stream, according to the book.
Woodburn couldn’t find the farmer, or even the farm. He came up with three possibilities, but none of them panned out. “I really wanted to find him, because he seemed so wise,” he said. When all his research led nowhere, Woodburn began to think that the farmer didn’t actually exist, or that he was a composite of different people Steinbeck met in New England.
Later Woodburn learned that, in reality, on the night in question — Sept. 25, 1960 — Steinbeck apparently slept here:
That’s the Spalding Inn, a luxurious spot in its day, and still moderately fancy, with white tableclothes, well-manicured gardens, orchards and magnificent mountain views. In 1960, it was popular with well-heeled New Yorkers seeking country getaways.
The inn is never mentioned in “Travels With Charley.” Then again Steinbeck admittedly glossed over some of his other stops — Deerfield, Mass., to visit his son in school, and Chicago, where he reunited with his wife at the Ambassador Hotel. “In my travels it was pleasant and good,” he wrote of the latter stop, “in writing, it would contribute only a disunity.”
Woodburn, though his initial retracing of Steinbeck’s route didn’t merit enough for a story, continued to keep a file on Steinbeck, and check out leads when they arose. When he came across a Facebook page about growing up in Lancaster, he put out a query, seeking anyone who remembered meeting Steinbeck 50 years ago.
A local woman responded, saying her mother had met Steinbeck when he stayed at the Spalding Inn, in Whitefield. Woodburn, who worked washing dishes at the inn as a teenager, went to the family that owned it, and they confirmed that Steinbeck was a guest around the time in question.
“It seems as this is where he spend the night,” Woodburn told me over the weekend when Ace and I met him at the inn. “Enough people have said it, that I feel comfortable saying he spent the night here.”
Woodburn, whose piece on Steinbeck’s travels through the state will appear in New Hampshire magazine’s November issue, said he was told Steinbeck went to dinner at the inn, but was refused service because he wasn’t wearing the required jacket and tie. Upon learning who he was, they supplied him with proper attire.
Other than having dinner, Steinbeck did little socializing while at the inn, and it’s doubtful that Charley, his poodle, actually slept inside. More likely, he spent the night alone in the camper.
To Woodburn, who is a third generation New Hampshirite, finding that Steinbeck might have been less that totally honest was disturbing.
“I’m a big fan of Steinbeck. I’m very troubled that he didn’t tell the truth,” he said.
To blogger Bill Steigerwald, who is retracing Steinbeck’s route for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, discrepancies between the book and reality — and he’s found a few — don’t diminish the esteem he holds for the writer.
Steigerwald, who we met on a ferry boat as we crossed the Long Island Sound the same day Steinbeck did — 50 years later — tried a couple of weeks ago to find the “ghost cabins” along the Connecticut River that Steinbeck slept outside of on his way back through New Hampshire
Steinbeck wrote that, although its signs said “open” and “vacancy,” no one was around when he walked into the office 50 years ago. So he and Charley, according to the book, slept in the camper on the lot.
As it turns out, and as both Woodburn and Steigerwald have confirmed, the “ghost cabins” did exist, and were known as Whip O’Will. Today, they’ve been replaced by the Beaver Trails RV Park, and Munce’s Convenience store. Next to that is the Happy Star Chinese restaurant. And across the street live Mike and Sallie Beattie, whose family once owned the Whip O’Will property.
During its conversion to an RV park, the new owners took down the six cabins and offered one (that’s it above) to the Beattie’s, who had it moved across the street so they could use it for storage.
Steigerwald buys the ghost cabin account, but he has serious doubts about the New Hampshire farmer — since that’s apparently the same night Steinbeck apparently stayed at the Spalding Inn.
“It’s clear evidence — and further proof, considering what I and others already know and anyone who reads ‘Travels With Charley’ with a critical eye should suspect — that the book is not nonfiction but a creative mix of fiction and nonfiction,” Steigerwald wrote on his blog, Travels Without Charley.
Woodburn, while less forgiving, also notes that Steinbeck gave some hints that the book wasn’t a straighforward account of the journey. “It’s easy to confuse reality with romance,” he said. “I think he gave signs that he was making stuff up.”
As Steinbeck himself noted, reality is in the eye of the beholder:
“What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style,” Steinbeck wrote. “In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself.”
I bounced the issue of a professor-friend, a teacher of creative non-fiction writing, who pointed out that the term didn’t exist until around the 1980’s, when the National Endowment for the Arts saw it as a way to give non-fiction writers a chance to win literature fellowships.
Though the term is fairly modern, the practice is not, he agreed.
“There’s been a long and wondrous and centuries-long tradition of made-up non-fiction in literature (the Victorians were particularly good at it), and not even just a few changes of detail.
“Steinbeck was a novelist, not a journalist. If his fibs were limited to whether he stayed in a hotel or not, that’s pretty remarkable restraint,” he added. “It’s not my personal standard for writing nonfiction, but many writers have had worst standards (paging Mr. Capote). It seems a silly thing to lie about, really.”