Chicanery Row

In the fall of 2010 Bill Steigerwald retraced John Steinbeck’s trip around the United States as recounted in Travels With Charley. He set up a blog — Travels Without Charley — to tell the “story of the long trip [he’s] been taking with John Steinbeck and his ghost.” He concluded that Steinbeck’s “book is not just full of fiction; it’s also a dishonest account of his iconic journey and what he really thought about America.”

Steigerwald summarized his findings in the Reason article “Sorry, Charley.” I took Steigerwald’s findings regarding Steinbeck’s book to be the bad news he had to report. Here was the good news:

America is big, beautiful, empty, safe, clean, and unfairly blessed with natural and human resources. I met only a few hundred of my fellow 309 million citizens last fall, but to a person they were friendly and helpful. And despite a depressed economy, the gauntlet of beautiful homes and shiny pickup trucks, RVs, boats, and snowmobiles I passed through day after day testified to the democratization of the material riches that the wealthy Steinbeck had decried.

From cell phone towers to Hyundai dealerships and Walmarts, I saw modern things that would have amazed, shocked, or offended Steinbeck. Yet what surprised me most was what might have surprised him most too: how little change has taken place on the Steinbeck Highway in the last 50 years. From the fishing villages of Maine to the redwoods of California to the Mississippi Delta, I drove by hundreds of towns and farms and crossroads that looked almost exactly like they did when Steinbeck passed through.

When I wrote about Steigerwald’s article back in 2011, I guessed that Steigerwald’s travels had the makings of a good book. The book — Dogging Steinbeck: How I went in search of John Steinbeck’s America, found my own America, and exposed the truth about ‘Travels With Charley’ — is now out. The Weekly Standard takes note in Shawn Macomber’s entertaining review under a heading I wish I would have thought of: “Chicanery Row.”