Magazine article The Spectator

'In America: Travels with John Steinbeck', by Geert Mak - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'In America: Travels with John Steinbeck', by Geert Mak - Review

Article excerpt

In America: Travels with John Steinbeck Geert Mak

Harvill Secker, pp.498, £25, ISBN: 9781846557026

In 1960 John Steinbeck set off with his poodle Charley to drive around the United States in a truck equipped with a bed, a desk, a stove and a fridge. To renew his acquaintance with that 'monster of a land', he planned to cross the northern states from the east coast to the west, then drive down the Pacific and across the southern states. He was 58, and recovering from a mild stroke. Having recently abandoned his attempt to write an American Don Quixote , he called his project 'Operation Windmills', cast Charley as his Sancho Panza, and named his truck Rocinante. Travels with Charley was published in 1962. It was a great success, and his last major work. Four months later he won the Nobel Prize.

In 2010 Geert Mak, a Dutch journalist and historian, approximated Steinbeck's itinerary in a rented silver Jeep. Setting off from Sag Harbor, Long Island, which when Steinbeck lived there was 'a blue-collar place' and is now a rich yachting resort, he was soon dismayed to learn that he was not alone: Bill Steigerwald, a journalist from Pittsburgh, was taking the same route, as were 'a woman from the Washington Post ' and 'someone who runs a website for dog-lovers'.

The woman from the Washington Post has left no trace that I can find. The dog-lover turns out to have been John Woestendiek, who has written Travels with Ace , a blog inaccessible to my computer. And Steigerwald of Pittsburgh has published Dogging Steinbeck , much of which may be read on the internet. He takes an 'openly libertarian' (i.e. stridently Republican) line against the Democrat Steinbeck, and is dismissive of his way with facts: according to him, Travels with Charley is 'a very flawed load of fictional crap and deception'.

Mak acknowledges Steigerwald's detective work, but is less brutal and more literary in his judgment. Steinbeck claims, for example, to have spent a night in the Badlands of North Dakota camping under the stars, listening to the barking of coyotes and the screeching of an owl, when he actually drove on to stay at an hotel. Mak concedes that 'too many of the meetings [described in Travels with Charley ] are of dubious veracity, too many facts are wrong, too many dialogues... are clearly invented'.

As a liberal European, his opinions on the current state of America are pretty much the opposite to Steigerwald's. Where Steigerwald finds 'few signs of real poverty', Mak encounters 'islands of prosperity' amid 'oceans of anguish and poverty'. One surmises that Steigerwald might well subscribe to the Fox News interpretation of history, while Mak certainly does not. After watching a report about how elderly people in the Netherlands are subjected to involuntary euthanasia on an industrial scale, he concludes that America's Enlightenment quest for objectivity has been 'replaced by hypnosis, exhibitionism and collective entertainment'.

The turning point of Steinbeck's journey occurred at Monterey, California. He had spent much of the 1930s there, and respectable locals were outraged when he portrayed it in Cannery Row (1945) as populated by losers, drunks and whores. (Mak writes that, as an 'ode to an aimless existence', it is an 'extraordinarily un-American' novel, though the same could be said of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer .) After its success the town decided to cash in, and turned itself into a sort of theme park, renaming Ocean View Avenue as Cannery Row and so on. …

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