Two journalists, each independently seeking to chart the course John Steinbeck took 50 years ago with his poodle Charley — including figuring out where he slept when — have come to the conclusion that the highly respected author may have taken some liberties with the facts in his classic work of non-fiction.
It’s not stop-the-presses stuff, especially these days, when fuzzily defined terms like “creative non-fiction” and “literary journalism” have taken on enough heft to become college courses.
Like it or not composite characters, re-created dialogue and tampering with timelines have become fairly common practices in non-fiction (though not in my book). But 50 years ago, when “Travels With Charley” was written — five years before Truman Capote’s groundbreaking “non-fiction novel” (his term), “In Cold Blood” — the practice probably would have been given the far less literary label of “making shit up.”
If Steinbeck borrowed from his fiction writing toolbox — and he was primarily a novelist — to craft “Travels With Charley,” he could, on one hand, be viewed as a pioneer. In reality, though, storytellers, even those bound by the tighter confines of non-fiction, have been leaving out the boring stuff and juicing up the truth for centuries.
To Jeff Woodburn, though, who counts Steinbeck among his literary heroes, his discovery that Steinbeck might have made stuff up — and definitely left stuff out — was disheartening.
Woodburn, a New Hampshire-based freelance writer, pitched the idea of writing about Steinbeck’s travels through the state — from Shelburn, west to Lancaster — to the editor of New Hampshire magazine. The editor, being a Steinbeck fan too, liked it. Woodburn set out to retrace the 30-mile route and learn more about the places, and maybe even some of the people, Steinbeck encountered in New Hamsphire.
As Steinbeck recounts it in “Travels With Charley,” on his way to the top of Maine, he drove up a farm road in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, bought some eggs from a farmer and asked permission of him to camp beside the stream on his farm. Later, the farmer visited his camper and they drank coffee, laced with “a good dollop of twenty-one year old applejack.” They talked about Kruschev, and how, that week, he had used his shoe to pound a table during a UN meeting, and whether we should attack the Russians before they attacked us.
When the farmer eventually took his leave, Steinbeck and Charley went to sleep in the camper, parked alongside the stream, according to the book.
Woodburn couldn’t find the farmer, or even the farm. He came up with three possibilities, but none of them panned out. “I really wanted to find him, because he seemed so wise,” he said. When all his research led nowhere, Woodburn began to think that the farmer didn’t actually exist, or that he was a composite of different people Steinbeck met in New England.
Later Woodburn learned that, in reality, on the night in question — Sept. 25, 1960 – Steinbeck apparently slept here:
That’s the Spalding Inn, a luxurious spot in its day, and still moderately fancy, with white tableclothes, well-manicured gardens, orchards and magnificent mountain views. In 1960, it was popular with well-heeled New Yorkers seeking country getaways.
The inn is never mentioned in “Travels With Charley.” Then again Steinbeck admittedly glossed over some of his other stops – Deerfield, Mass., to visit his son in school, and Chicago, where he reunited with his wife at the Ambassador Hotel. “In my travels it was pleasant and good,” he wrote of the latter stop, “in writing, it would contribute only a disunity.”
Woodburn, though his initial retracing of Steinbeck’s route didn’t merit enough for a story, continued to keep a file on Steinbeck, and check out leads when they arose. When he came across a Facebook page about growing up in Lancaster, he put out a query, seeking anyone who remembered meeting Steinbeck 50 years ago.
A local woman responded, saying her mother had met Steinbeck when he stayed at the Spalding Inn, in Whitefield. Woodburn, who worked washing dishes at the inn as a teenager, went to the family that owned it, and they confirmed that Steinbeck was a guest around the time in question.
“It seems as this is where he spend the night,” Woodburn told me over the weekend when Ace and I met him at the inn. “Enough people have said it, that I feel comfortable saying he spent the night here.”
Woodburn, whose piece on Steinbeck’s travels through the state will appear in New Hampshire magazine’s November issue, said he was told Steinbeck went to dinner at the inn, but was refused service because he wasn’t wearing the required jacket and tie. Upon learning who he was, they supplied him with proper attire.
Other than having dinner, Steinbeck did little socializing while at the inn, and it’s doubtful that Charley, his poodle, actually slept inside. More likely, he spent the night alone in the camper.
To Woodburn, who is a third generation New Hampshirite, finding that Steinbeck might have been less that totally honest was disturbing.
“I’m a big fan of Steinbeck. I’m very troubled that he didn’t tell the truth,” he said.
To blogger Bill Steigerwald, who is retracing Steinbeck’s route for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, discrepancies between the book and reality — and he’s found a few — don’t diminish the esteem he holds for the writer.
Steigerwald, who we met on a ferry boat as we crossed the Long Island Sound the same day Steinbeck did — 50 years later — tried a couple of weeks ago to find the “ghost cabins” along the Connecticut River that Steinbeck slept outside of on his way back through New Hampshire
Steinbeck wrote that, although its signs said “open” and “vacancy,” no one was around when he walked into the office 50 years ago. So he and Charley, according to the book, slept in the camper on the lot.
As it turns out, and as both Woodburn and Steigerwald have confirmed, the “ghost cabins” did exist, and were known as Whip O’Will. Today, they’ve been replaced by the Beaver Trails RV Park, and Munce’s Convenience store. Next to that is the Happy Star Chinese restaurant. And across the street live Mike and Sallie Beattie, whose family once owned the Whip O’Will property.
During its conversion to an RV park, the new owners took down the six cabins and offered one (that’s it above) to the Beattie’s, who had it moved across the street so they could use it for storage.
Steigerwald buys the ghost cabin account, but he has serious doubts about the New Hampshire farmer — since that’s apparently the same night Steinbeck apparently stayed at the Spalding Inn.
“It’s clear evidence — and further proof, considering what I and others already know and anyone who reads ‘Travels With Charley’ with a critical eye should suspect — that the book is not nonfiction but a creative mix of fiction and nonfiction,” Steigerwald wrote on his blog, Travels Without Charley.
Woodburn, while less forgiving, also notes that Steinbeck gave some hints that the book wasn’t a straighforward account of the journey. ”It’s easy to confuse reality with romance,” he said. “I think he gave signs that he was making stuff up.”
As Steinbeck himself noted, reality is in the eye of the beholder:
“What I set down here is true until someone else passes that way and rearranges the world in his own style,” Steinbeck wrote. “In literary criticism the critic has no choice but to make over the victim of his attention into something the size and shape of himself.”
I bounced the issue of a professor-friend, a teacher of creative non-fiction writing, who pointed out that the term didn’t exist until around the 1980′s, when the National Endowment for the Arts saw it as a way to give non-fiction writers a chance to win literature fellowships.
Though the term is fairly modern, the practice is not, he agreed.
“There’s been a long and wondrous and centuries-long tradition of made-up non-fiction in literature (the Victorians were particularly good at it), and not even just a few changes of detail.
“Steinbeck was a novelist, not a journalist. If his fibs were limited to whether he stayed in a hotel or not, that’s pretty remarkable restraint,” he added. “It’s not my personal standard for writing nonfiction, but many writers have had worst standards (paging Mr. Capote). It seems a silly thing to lie about, really.”
Posted by jwoestendiek October 14th, 2010 under Muttsblog.
Tags: accuracy, america, bill steigerwald, creative non-fiction, dog's country, dogscountry, facts, fiction, jeff woodburn, john steinbeck, lancaster, literary, literary journalism, literature, new hampshire, new hampshire magazine, new journalism, non-fiction, reality, road trip, spalding inn, steinbeck, travels, travels with ace, travels with charley, truth, vermont, whitefield
I wasn’t personally tuned in, but it seems Pup, the accordion-playing pooch vying to win the NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” competition, failed to make much of an impression last night.
Maybe he was overwhelmed by the bright lights, the big stage and the huge Hollywood crowd, but Pup only tugged a couple of times on the elastic strap attached to the accordion, and once it snapped out of his mouth, he stayed away from the accordion altogether.
After Pup balked, the act turned into a solo – basically his owner, Ed, singing and strumming “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”
Pup failed to live up to the expectations of the judges, and his owner, Ed, from Oakhurst, California — and anyone else who saw his impressive audition tape (above).
“If Pup had continued we may have had a sensation on our hands, but we’re never going to know,” said judge Piers Morgan, who “X-ed” the act early on.
“We had some problems,” Ed explained afterward.
Pup’s on air performance — a bit painful to watch — is included in the video below.
Posted by jwoestendiek August 11th, 2010 under Muttsblog, videos.
Tags: accordion, acts, america's got talent, animals, competition, dog, dogs, ed, music, musical, nbc, performances, pets, piers morgan, playing, pup, reality, talent, television, tv, video
Yesterday we brought you slow-motion dogs. Today we’ll take a look at no-motion dogs — those whose owners like to keep them around, even after death.
As the first episode of “The Marriage Ref” showed, the practice is seen by some, perhaps most, as horrific, while still others consider it a fitting tribute to their pet.
The new show, a Jerry Seinfeld creation that premiered this week, included a segment on a marital spat over a husband’s decision — over his wife’s objections — to “stuff” his deceased Boston Terrier, Fonzie.
The show’s resident fact checker reported that only about 1,000 people a year have their pets “stuffed,” and its panel of “experts,” which included Seinfeld, Kelly Ripa and Alec Baldwin, all sided with the wife in the dispute, concluding that the practice was bizarre and Fonzie shouldn’t be displayed, shrine-like, in the couple’s home.
With that, the husband agreed to move Fonzie to the attic, which is where a lot of “stuffed” animals end up.
The show didn’t get into the specifics of how Fonzie was preserved after death, instead just using the misnomer “stuffed.” But apparently he was freeze-dried, an increasingly common technique being used by taxidermists and others — and at a rate that I think probably exceeds that reported by the “fact-checker,” NBC News reporter Natalie Morales.
I did some research into the practice in connection with my forthcoming book about dog cloning, looking back at the days when “stuffed” animals really were stuffed, the more modern form of “mounting” or stretching their pelts over a plastic form, and the more modern yet version, freeze-drying.
As part of my research, I interviewed Chris Calagan in West Virginia, owner of Perpetual Pet, which has been freeze drying pets since 2002, when he and his wife started with their own cat, Naomi.
Posing the pet and removing the moisture in his freeze drying machine is a process that can take months, depending on the pet’s size, Calagan explained to me.
“We don’t put a hole in it. It’s just through osmosis, very gradual, like drying an orange,” he said. “The moisture comes out through the peeling.”
Freeze drying is the latest variation of a practice that goes back to Victorian times, and one to which many have turned over the years.
Stubby, a pit bull who was the most decorated dog of World War I, was stuffed after his death and displayed at the Smithsonian.
When cowboy star Roy Rogers’ horse, Trigger, died in 1965 at age 33, the Rogers family had him mounted, his skin stretched over a plastic mold, posed proudly in the position of a horse at its liveliest – reared up on its hind legs. Trigger became the main draw at the Roy Rogers/Dale Evans Museum. The Rogers also had Dale Evans’ horse, Buttermilk, and their German shepherd, Bullet, mounted to become museum pieces. Rogers, before his death in 1998, joked about having his own body “stuffed” and placed atop his rearing horse, but he never actually pursued that.
More recently, the mounted pet returned to popular culture in the television show “Scrubs,” in which a lifeless dog named Rowdy had a recurring role.
To some, it’s far to creepy a thing to ever consider. Others pursue it precisely because it is so quirky. But the majority of pet owners do it because of a sincere wish to keep a beloved dog around — in a state they can view and touch.
As with cloning, those who have done it might face a certain amount of ridicule, but, more often than not, they don’t care what anybody else thinks. In fact, they’d probably have two words for those who judge them: Stuff it.
Posted by jwoestendiek March 5th, 2010 under Muttsblog, videos.
Tags: alec baldwin, animals, coping, dogs, fonzie, grieving, jerry seinfeld, kelly ripa, mounting, mounts, mourning, perception, perpetual pet, pet death, pets, popular culture, public, reality, rowdy, roy rogers, scrubs, stubby, stuffed, stuffing, taxidermy, television, the marriage ref, trigger, tv
You might want to sit down for this one: Michael Vick is going to star in his own television series.
Two weeks after his first regular season appearance as an NFL quarterback since completing his prison sentence for dog fighting, Vick has announced he has the starring and title role in an eight-part docu-series on BET, tentatively titled “The Michael Vick Project.”
Call it amrak (the opposite of karma). Call it unjust desserts. Call it absolutely outrageous. But the convicted animal abuser is on the verge of getting another heaping helping of good fortune.
“I just want people to really get to know me as an individual,” Vick said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “What I want to do is change the perception of me. I am a human being. I’ve made some mistakes in the past, and I wish it had never happened. But it’s not about how you fall, but about how you pick yourself up.”
The program will spotlight his controversial comeback with the Philadelphia Eagles and examine his tumultuous past — including his troubled childhood and his 2007 arrest for running a dogfighting ring, with visits to both the Virginia estate where he fought dogs and federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, where he served his sentence.
Officials with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals expressed skepticism about the project. “People who abuse animals don’t deserve to be rewarded,” said PETA spokesman Dan Shannon. “They shouldn’t be given multimillion-dollar contracts . . . or given the privilege of being a role model.”
The project has the support of the Eagles, the NFL and the Humane Society of the United States, which has enlisted Vick in its battle to end the widespread abuse of dogs in the inner city.
The project is being produced by DuBose Entertainment; Vick’s production company, MV7 Productions; and Category 5 Entertainment. No one associated with the production would comment on Vick’s compensation for the series, the Times reported. Vick has filed a six-year plan to repay creditors an estimated $20 million to get out of bankruptcy.
Producers of the Vick series said the program would not a typical reality show like VH-1′s “The T.O. Show,” which revels in the excesses of its flamboyant star, wide receiver Terrell Owens. The tone of Vick’s show, say producers, will be serious and somber as it focuses on his personal struggles since his release.
“This show can be a blueprint for so many kids,” Vick said. “I want to show them that things are going to happen, that they’re not going to get through life without dealing with some kind of adversity. I want to show that if they have a fall from grace, this is how they can turn it around. We want this to be a story of hope.”
Posted by jwoestendiek October 7th, 2009 under Muttsblog.
Tags: bet, contract, docu-series, documentary, hsus, michael vick, michael vick project, nfl, peta, philadelphia eagles, program, reality, series, television, tv, vick
The company that brought you the Emmy Award winning A&E show “Intervention” is starting production of a new “documentary-reality” show to be called “Animal Hoarders.”
GRB Entertainment says the new series will be “an unflinchingly honest look at animal hoarders, the people and pets affected by them, and the challenges of confronting their unusual condition.”
Each episode, we will “delve into the hearts and minds” of two animal hoarders, according to the show’s website.
“We will witness the torment friends and family experience as they see their loved ones spinning out of control. We will take a gritty and often heartbreaking look at the pets trying to survive in an unsuitable environment. And in the end, we will be there as friends and family confront the hoarders, forcing them to get help, and let go of their animal hoard in the interest of a healthier life for the animals and themselves.”
The show is now seeking subjects, and has issued the following “casting call:” Read more »
Posted by jwoestendiek October 5th, 2009 under Muttsblog.
Tags: A&E, animal hoarders, animals, casting call, cat lady, cats, cornwell casting, documentary, dogs, entertainment, GRB Entertainment, hoard, hoarders, hoarding, intervention, pets, program, reality, television