Is everything in this book true? Mostly. Truth is a slippery notion, as Steinbeck was aware. He wrote in Sea of Cortez (1941), “Let us … not be betrayed by this myth of permanent objective reality. If it exists at all, it is only available in pickled tatters or in distorted flashes.”
Neither Sea of Cortez nor Travels With Charley is “true” in the sense that some journalists demand. Indeed, both book reviewers and scholars have long recognized the fictive quality of Charley, something that Orville Prescott’s 1962 review for the Times makes clear: “Relaxed, informal and chatty, [Steinbeck] indulges in whopping exaggerations, tells tall stories, sketches odd characters he met and tosses off a series of capsule essays on scores of subjects.”
Other works of “nonfiction” also “indulge” in stretchers: Henry David Thoreau, living by Walden Pond, entertained visitors more often than he reports in his account of that year, fails to mention the tasty pies he consumed. Does knowing those “facts” undercut the power of Walden? Does being told that Steinbeck spent nights in “deluxe hotels” or met his wife more often than he admits “break the faith of readers”, as a recent Times editorial asserts? Certainly classifying Travels with Charley as nonfiction brings readers into the current debate about the ethical boundaries of creative non-fiction, and that is a critical discussion to engage in. Perhaps the “actor” Steinbeck met—based loosely on John Gielgud—was simply a scene included to make a point. No doubt Steinbeck “indulged” in some fictive moments.
As he pulled his truck out of Sag Harbor, Steinbeck himself was simply “In Search of America,” the subtitle of this admittedly highly personal, idiosyncratic, funny and playful narrative. His America. Not a “true” account, simply his own.