In 1960, an ailing 60-year-old John Steinbeck
had a specially constructed camper built onto the back of a pickup truck (one of the first RVs of its kind), dubbed it Rocinante after the nag in Don Quixote
, and took to the road. His French poodle Charley rode shotgun and Steinbeck's working editorial mantra was: "An American writer has to know his land and the people if he is going to write about America."
The literary result was Travels with Charley, the greatest dog book of all time and a fascinating glimpse at America, which was then beginning a rapid descent into cultural homogeneity brought about by the super-slabbed Interstate Highway System and the concomitant rise of super-generic chain stores.
The book became a huge bestseller, a staple of high school English classes, a definitive model for travel writing, and Steinbeck's final contribution to American literature.
I've read the book at least a half dozen times and worship it for many reasons. Chief among them is Steinbeck's anguished description of blowing out a tire on the Oregon Coast and how an elderly and laconic garage owner improbably rescued him on a rainy Sunday and set him up with new tires. Steinbeck never mentions the name of the town with three or four service stations, "[W]e came to a damp little shut-up town whose name escapes me because I never learned it." Initially, I thought it was Lincoln City, but after my last reading, I believe Steinbeck broke down in Tillamook.
As I said, I worship Travels with Charley and thus it shocked and saddened me to learn this spring that Steinbeck apparently fabricated many of the scenes in the book. According to Bill Steigerwald, a journalist who retraced much of Rocinante's route and consulted an earlier draft of the book, and Bill Barach, author of Long Way Home: On the Trail of Steinbeck's America, Steinbeck spent most nights not in the camper, but in motels, even luxury hotels! He failed to mention that his wife accompanied him for many stretches. And there was also the little matter of inventing characters and making up dialogue to impart his political views of American life. I mean, did Steinbeck even bring along Charley?
A month ago, I read a provocative biography of Bruce Chatwin, the English author who died of AIDS in the late 1980s. His specialty was writing about the exotic in the distant places he traveled. I read his most popular book, In Patagonia, three years ago and it utterly blew my mind and inspired me as a writer of nonfiction like no other book in recent memory. It made me want to go to Patagonia ? immediately. Drop everything and walk to one of the remotest places on Earth. It made me want to get on the road and see something else besides Oregon. Perhaps even write about something other than Oregon.
Imagine my disappointment on reading in the biography that Chatwin fabricated a lot of episodes and details in the book, made egregious errors of fact, changed chronologies, practically plagiarized a relative's diary, and generally did not feel a duty to treat the people he interviewed with any sort of respect or integrity. He never even bothered to inform these people, many of them family members who provided him hospitality in Patagonia, that he was writing a book. They told him secrets and shared anxieties and he used them for their stories to bolster his larger ambition to become a writer.
Joan Didion once wrote, "Writers are always selling out someone somewhere." From time to time, such a temptation has arisen in me, but I can also honestly say that I never sold out or used anyone for a story. The temptation obviously arose for Steinbeck on his road trip and he succumbed to it. I wonder if he sold out anyone he met who shared a confidence with him not knowing he was a world famous writer? Steinbeck does say toward the end of the book that he was never recognized on the trip.
Learning the truth about Travels with Charley and reading Chatwin's biography truly depressed me. I don't like discovering I've been duped by something I've read. The experience prompted me to think about how I approach my nonfiction subjects. Let's take my most recent one, the Yaquina Bay Bridge in Newport on the Oregon Coast where I live. I could have easily made up all kinds of untraceable fantastic stories about the bridge and got an even wilder book than the one I produced.
That's called lying, and the result is the self-aggrandizement of a writer who couldn't get the real goods and the perpetration of intellectual and emotional fraud against the reader. I find fabrication or embellishment in nonfiction unseemly, desperate, and ultimately dispiriting and crippling to the writer. The fraud may never come out, but I like to believe it will burrow its way into a phony writer like a pathogen and inflict damage in one way or another. It certainly did to Chatwin. If he had come to grips with his penchant for fakery, lack of authenticity, and hustling in his nonfiction, he might still be alive (read the book, and you'll see what I mean).
Why do so many writers of nonfiction flagrantly lie? I can honestly say I have never consciously fabricated anything in my nonfiction. I know of prominent nonfiction writers and Professors of Creative Writing (and attended their workshops) who causally change this fact and that detail or add composite characters to produce a more "literary" work of supposed truth and claim it is perfectly acceptable to do so.
What really happened to Steinbeck on the Oregon Coast? Did he get drunk with a young Ken Kesey in a Florence bar full of loggers? Did he marvel at the sinuous green steel of the Yaquina Bay Bridge? Did he check out the beach at Oswald West State Park? Did he even get a flat tire in Tillamook? I want to know and I'll never know.
I guess I'll forgive Steinbeck for his transgressions because I still love his fiction, especially Cannery Row, for the discussion of progressive ideals and the working class people he gave voices too ? something practically vanished from American fiction these days. And I guess I still love Travels with Charley because of the dog and the camper and hitting the road to discover something about one's self. And, well, years ago, as a direct result of reading Travels with Charley at a critical juncture in my life, I bought a camper, rigged it up, drove the Alaska Highway with my trusty shepherd Ray by my side, all in an attempt to become a writer. Things didn't work out so well.
By the way, I didn't make up a single thing.