Letters of Mass Construction

John Steinbeck: Liar, Liar,….Maybe

I love John Steinbeck. It was a love formed at a very early age. I read Of Mice And Men in 8th grade. This led quickly to Cannery Row and the eventual devouring of all of his other works. He is part of my classic writer group who I find myself constantly rereading their works (Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, O’Henry, & Arthur Conan Doyle).

Like most things artistic I know there are people who don’t like John Steinbeck. I get that but there was always something about the way he wrote which just sucked me into his world of characters. I even dragged my wife to the Steinbeck Museum one year. Over the last couple of days I have been reading quite a few articles discussing the very real possibility that Steinbeck’s book Travels With Charley (a book where he crossed the U.S. to try and reconnect with people) is in fact mostly a work of fiction.

At the time it was written it was fairly well reviewed and since then has been held up as one of the better travel books ever written. Where does its place in history stand if it turns out he made all that shit up? That he, in fact, barely met with any people at all but was in fact holed up in motels and hotels inventing a glorious vacation.

Let’s be honest here. James Frey got ripped a new one by Oprah for faking most if not all of his memoir. At the same time another writer I loved, David Sedaris, openly admitted to embellishing his nonfiction books on his family (for which he got a total pass in the media). Now Steinbeck has a couple of things going for him here. One, he is dead. Two, he’s frakking John Steinbeck! It does make me wonder how this argument would play out in the modern press if he was alive and had just written this book.

From what I have read people are pretty much giving him a pass. Acting like it isn’t really a big deal because what he was trying to do was give voices to the average American. I don’t know if I buy that argument though. He sold the book as a piece of nonfiction. If some or most of the stories are made up than he has lied to his readers.

For me the argument gets really interesting when you examine the merits of the work. I loved Travels With Charley but part of my love was built upon the premise that it was real. Even as a work of fiction I would have liked it. There were many people who argued James Frey’s book still was powerful even as fiction (I must admit I tried to read it but it was not my cup of tea). Those people were generally shouted down by a chorus of, “how dare he lie to us!”

Would Steinbeck have gotten a pass today? Other writers do. Did Sedaris get a pass because he writes humor? I don’t really have the answer here. I guess the best I can do is say it shouldn’t be labeled as nonfiction if it isn’t. I don’t think this is going to tarnish Steinbeck’s legacy even a little bit. I know I am going to have to go back and read the book now. See if I feel differently knowing it might be a piece of fiction.

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2 Responses to “John Steinbeck: Liar, Liar,….Maybe”

  1. Matt Blanc says:

    Why do contemporary English departments in high school across the US hold up their noses at the name, John Steinbeck? His books have many young adult characters, he addresses big issues of inequality, hopelessness, nature, beauty, etc. And as you say, he writes, darned well! But he seems to have been dumped into the “Dead White Men” file and is forgotten in favor of the latest trendy set of authors. One local school required young 12-13 year old girls to read “The Lovely Bones.” About the sexual assault and killing of a similar-aged girl. If the book had even stood the test of a couple of years of time, I might have overlooked the content, but this just smacks of pandering.

    • csdaley says:

      I think it is important to mix up curriculum. New books with classics. Having said that I don’t think Lovely Bones is an appropriate choice for 12-13 year old students to read in school. At home, yes but schools should have to be a little more careful with what they pick. The only way this book should have been taught is with parental permission. I have quite a few parents that would freak about teaching that book in jr. high. It was a great book though.

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