He kept Rocinante rolling another 40 miles until he stumbled upon a more idyllic setting — yet another riverside camping spot, this one along the Maple River, near the sleepy little farming town of Alice. There, he just so happened to run into what would turn out to be one of the book’s more colorful characters, an itinerant Shakespearean actor.
Steinbeck would break out the coffee, and the whiskey, and listen as his flamboyant fellow camper explained that he performed Shakespeare around the country, in tents, in high schools … “wherever two or three are gathered together … With me there’s no question of doing something else. It’s all I know — all I ever have known.”
Steinbeck recounted the meeting in great detail — including how the actor unfolded a packet of aluminum foil to reveal a note he once received from John Gielgud. After that, explaining the importance of a good exit, the actor makes one.
Was the Shakesperean actor a dramatic invention in Steinbeck’s classic work of non-fiction? We’ll probably never know. But indications are, just maybe, something is rotten in the state of North Dakota.
From all existing clues, it appears Steinbeck didn’t actually sleep in the town of Alice on the night of Oct. 12, which can only lead one to wonder if the actor was real, or if, like Tom Joad in ”The Grapes of Wrath,” he was artfully concocted by the author, most of whose works were fiction.
If so, it wouldn’t be the first discrepancy between Steinbeck’s account in “Travels with Charley” and what his papers and other sources reveal about his 1960 trip.
Many of those are now being brought to light by blogger Bill Stiegerwald as he retraces Steinbeck’s route. (Bill, who we met at the begining of our trip is a good two weeks ahead of me.)
“Contrary to what he wrote so nicely and in such detail in ‘Charley,’ Steinbeck didn’t camp overnight near Alice on the Maple River or anywhere else on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 1960,” Stiegerwald concluded on his blog, Travels Without Charley. “He stayed at… in Beach, N.D., some 300-plus miles to the west.”
This, along with some of the recent stops on our own retracing of Steinbeck’s travels with Charley, brings us back to our discussion of the truth in fiction, and the fiction in truth.
We’re all for the former, but have some problems with the latter. We have nothing against using the techniques of fiction writing in non-fiction – in portraying the innate suspense of a situation, or the turmoil raging inside characters; or in skipping over the boring stuff. (Otherwise, a writer might end up boring readers with something as mundane as tossing french fries to his dog.)
But we’d argue that a reader of books, even a reader of blogs, deserves — like an eater of food — to know what he’s consuming. What sort of liberties an author of non-fiction has taken in processing the facts is information to which a reader should have access, much like a diner should be able to find out what sort of oil a fast food restaurant uses to cook its french fries.
Earlier this week, our “Travels with Ace” took us to Sauk Centre, or as Sinclair Lewis called it in his 1920 novel “Main Street,” Gopher Prairie. “Main Street,” while labeled fiction, exposed many truths about small town life — more, at least initially, than some Sauk Centre residents cared to be exposed, proving that not only does the truth hurt, but fiction can as well.
Our next, and latest, stop was Fargo, which most people know through the Coen brothers movie of same name. The movie starts off with the words: “This is a true story … At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.”
But “Fargo” — whose characters were mostly portrayed as dull-witted sorts, living in a frozen wasteland — wasn’t a true story at all; rather it was a concoction of the wonderfully degenerate minds of two brothers from neighboring Minnesota.
Both the movie “Fargo” and the book “Main Street” brought some unflattering notoriety to the towns they were depicting — much like Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath,” offended some Oklahomans.
In addition to criticism that “The Grapes of Wrath” was too political, didn’t accurately describe the migration of farm families from the dust bowl to California, and some nitpicking that Sallisaw, the town it opens in, was not actually part of the Dust Bowl (a fairly major nit), there were those who thought the novel portrayed “Okies” as illiterate hicks.
(Possibly, that’s why when he was traveling with Charley, Steinbeck sidestepped the state of Oklahoma.)
In each case, though, once the dust settled, there was something close to a happily-ever-after ending – some acknowledgement of the truth beneath the fiction, or at least some evidence that any perceived slights were forgiven.
Sauk Centre, where Main Street now intersects with Sinclair Lewis Boulevard, has embraced Lewis, its most famous son, with an annual festival.
In Fargo, chamber of commerce types proclaim there has been “a renaissance” — not so much due to the movie itself, maybe, as to the efforts to show the world there was more to Fargo than the movie portrayed. In 2006, on the movie’s 10th anniversary, it was projected on the side of the Radisson Hotel, the city’s tallest building as part of the Fargo Film Festival.
And even Sallisaw, on the 100th anniversary of Steinbeck’s birth, started a “Grapes of Wrath” festival, though it was short-lived. It has since been replaced with the annual Diamond Daze Festival, which isn’t Steinbeck-related at all.
All of which, in addition to just being interesting, serves as proof that — as the maybe real, maybe not Shakespearean actor in “Travels with Charley” might have said — all the world really is a stage.
Posted by jwoestendiek October 29th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: ace, actor, alice, all the world's a stage, books, charley, coen brothers, fargo, fiction, john steinbeck, liberties, license, literature, main street, minnesota, movies, non-fiction, north dakota, novels, rocinante, sauk centre, shakespeare, sinclair lewis, steinbeck, the grapes of wrath, travels with ace, travels with charley, truth
What weary motorist couldn’t use a jolting cup of Joe, a $5 footlong and a peek into the life, times and works of a long dead novelist?
Exit 127 in Sauk Centre spills you onto Main Street — and it’s not just any Main Street. It’s THE Main Street.
The Sinclair Lewis book of that name, published in 1920, was — though labeled fiction — based on small town life in Sauk Centre, renamed, to protect the not so innocent, ”Gopher Prairie” in the book.
A biting satire that exposed the hypocrisy of small town life — showed that, in fact, it was not as carefree, pure and idyllic as it was often portrayed and perceived — the book was denounced by the town, many of whose residents saw themselves and their indiscretions show up within its pages.
With time, though, and in light of the phenomenal success of “Main Street,” not to mention the Nobel Prize for literature Lewis won in 1930, Sauk Centre decided to make the most of its newfound fame.
Since 1930, its population has tripled — it’s up to about 4,000 now — but much of it is unchanged since 1960, when John Steinbeck, a fan and acquaintance of Lewis’, stopped by while crossing the country with his poodle for the book, “Travels with Charley.”
- Steinbeck read “Main Street” in high school and, late in Lewis’ life, Steinbeck would meet him. They’d get together for coffee at the Algonquin in New York. Lewis, an alcoholic, died in 1951 in Rome, at age 65, and his cremated remains were shipped back to Sauk Centre and buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
By 1960, Steinbeck noted, Sauk Centre had realized that, whatever embarassment Lewis had caused, he was their claim to fame.
“I don’t know whether or not it’s true, but I’ve heard he died alone. And now he’s good for the town. Brings in some tourists. He’s a good writer now,” Steinbeck wrote in “Travels with Charley.”
Another 40 years after that, parks, streets, campgrounds and more in Sauk Centre bear his name. His boyhood home is a tourist attraction (though closed in the winter). There’s an annual Sinclair Lewis festival, and it seems like every other business uses ”Main Street” in its name.
The 21 white pages in the Sauk Centre phone book list a Main Street Real Estate, Main Street Theater, Main Street Cafe, Main Street Chiropractic Center, Main Street Coffee Company, Main Street Photo and more.
Ace and I checked into the Gopher Prairie Motel, operated by Wayne and JoAnn Thorson. They’ve had the motel since 1976, and in 1979 renamed it after the fictional town in “Main Street.”
It was part homage to the book — no one perturbed by its original publication is alive anymore, Thorson noted.
Originally, when he and his wife took it over in 1976, it was the Starlight Motel, one of many Starlight — or Star-Lite — motels in the 1970s, none of which were connected to each other in any way. But when a guest told Thorson she almost didn’t stop there because of a bad experience at another “Starlight,” he decided it was time to change names. So he grabbed one out of fiction.
We willingly coughed up the $5 pet fee and, as directed, refrained from relieving ourselves in the grassy front lawn. The next morning I stopped for breakfast at the Ding Dong Cafe on Elm Street (using a two dollars off coupon from the motel).
There, the world’s most attentive waitress filled my coffee cup nearly every time I took a sip. The only other customers were seven men sat at a long table, alternating between talking politics and playing Yahtzee. The quintessential small town, judging from the quick glance we had, remains one.
We cruised by the high school, and saw that, as we’d heard, the football team is called the “Mainstreeters.” Supposedly, opposing teams gave them that nickname, and they later officially adopted it as their own.
Then I popped into the Sinclair Lewis Interpretive Center, located at the end of the I-94 exit ramp. There, in addition to restrooms and the Chamber of Commerce, there’s an exhibit on Lewis in the back room, featuring old photos and handwritten outlines, maps and character lists.
Because of its valuable, close-to-the-interstate location, there has been talk of closing or relocating the Interpretive Center. The City Council has voted to sell the property, but no buyers have come forward.
At Greenwood Cemetery, Lewis’ cremated remains are buried next to the graves of his father and mother. His gravestone says:
1885 — 1951
Author of “Main Street”
Posted by jwoestendiek October 27th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: america, animals, author, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, fiction, gopher prairie, john steinbeck, legacy, literature, main street, mainstreeters, memory, minnesota, non-ficition, novels, pets, reputation, road trip, sauk centre, sinclair lewis, small town, tourism, travel, travels with ace, travels with charley
My original plan for the drive from Madison, Wisconsin to the quiet little town of Sauk Centre, Minnesota — where Sinclair Lewis grew up and which he mercilessly skewered in his book “Main Street” — was to listen to an audio version of the book on the six hour drive.
Sauk Centre was one of the stops John Steinbeck — a fan and acquaintance of Lewis’ — made with his poodle in “Travels with Charley,” though they didn’t seem to spend much time there.
When I told my sister and her husband of my plan, they both got online to find me an audio version of the 1920 book, and managed to turn one up at the library branch in Stoughton, about 30 miles from their home in DeForest.
I drove there to pick it up, planning to mail it back when I was finished. What the Stoughton branch of the library had, though, were cassettes, and I needed a CD. As we all know, this is the American way – to get us all hooked on one form of technology, and then, when we’re not looking it, switch it, leaving us lost, even if we have GPS, which I don’t.
A friendly library staff member checked her computer and rerouted me to the main branch in Madison, printing out directions to help me find my way.
Downtown Madison was easy to find, but somehow I managed to get lost. The state Capitol serves as a nice huge landmark, but because it looks the same from all sides, and because I’d accidentally strayed from the directions, I circled around for about 30 minutes — crossing Madison’s Main Street about six times — before I accidentally pulled up next to the library.
I parked and ran in, only to find what they had wasn’t the book on CD, but a group discussion of the book on CD. Back at the car, where Ace waited patiently, I had a $20 parking ticket.
So when I set off in the pouring down rain from Madison the next day, Sunday, it was, thanks to my sister, with three sandwiches, three apples, two bananas and a Thermos full of coffee — but no “Main Street.”
That segued into “Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” which featured Dick Van Dyke as a guest. He revealed something I didn’t know. The theme to the old Dick Van Dyke Show, which went on the air the same year “Travels with Charley” was published, actually had lyrics, though they weren’t written until after the show went off the air.
The lyrics were written by Morey Amsterdam, who always reminded me of my grandfather, who was always quick with a pun and a musical ditty.
I’m not sure how we got from Sinclair Lewis to my grandfather, with stops at John Steinbeck, Garrison Keillor, and Morey Amsterdam. Blame it on the stream of consciousness that tends to babble so briskly — if not always clearly — when I drive.
While they were all fine storytellers, we shall close as we pull into Sauk Centre and get situated in our room at the Gopher Prairie Motel with the sweet and simple words of Mr. Amsterdam, and one more sappy 60′s song — the lyrics to the Dick Van Dyke Show theme:
Why not hold your head up high and,
Stop cryin’, start tryin’,
And don’t forget to keep your fingers crossed
When you find the joy of livin’
Is lovin’ and givin’
You’ll be there when the winning dice are tossed
A smile is just a frown that’s turned upside down,
So smile, and that frown will defrost.
And don’t forget to keep your fingers crossed!
Posted by jwoestendiek October 26th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: 1960s, ace, america, animals, authors, dick van dyke, dick van dyke show, dog, dog's country, dogs, dogscountry, garrison keillor, john steinbeck, lyrics, main street, minnesota, morey amsterdam, pets, road trip, sinclair lewis, sixties, storytellers, travel, travels with ace, travels with charley, wisconsin
The reason? Folks were emptying the dispensers only hours after they were being filled, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported.
“People walk up and take them until they’re gone,” he said. “And it’s not just one isolated incident. It’s everywhere and often.”
John Keprios, director of parks and recreation for the city of Edina, said the $12,000-per-year poop bag program was halted at eight parks that formerly stocked the bags.
“I would have loved to have kept providing them,” Keprios said. “Financially, it’s not just feasible if they treat it that way.”
One wonders how much it cost to put up the signs notifying people of that at the eight parks.
(Photo: Minneapolis Star-Tribune)
Posted by jwoestendiek May 12th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: animals, bags, dispensers, dog, droppings, edina, emptied, empty, feces, john keprios, minnesota, news, ohmidog!, parks, pets, poop, poop bags, theft
Ken Wahl has added the 1990 Golden Globe award he received for his starring role in the television series “Wiseguy” to the reward being offered for information leading to the arrest of whoever glued a cat to a southern Minnesota highway.
“Men who pick on cats are sick cowards that have control issues, since cats are half wild and independent,” Wahl told Radar Online. “We’re not just finding a kitten killer, we are preventing this person becoming a serial killer.”
Timothy, a 10-month-old kitten, was found glued to a Minnesota highway last month in freezing temperatures. The kitten had also been struck by a vehicle. Despite attempts to save the cat, he died ten days later.
Wahl’s donation comes on top of more than $12,000 already donated to the reward being offered by Second Chance, an animal rescue organization in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“Rescue Ink” is also stepping in to try to find the cat killer, according to Wahl, who is retired from acting and living in Arizona.
Posted by jwoestendiek January 20th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: 1990, animal cruelty, animals, award, cat, cats, donate, donates, donation, glued, golden globe, highway, ken wahl, kitten, minnesota, pets, rescue ink, second chance, sioux falls, timothy, torture, wiseguy