When You Read About Dogs and Writers, Gossip and Secrets Are Revealed

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For 30 years I was a freelance writer and then little by little I quit.  The market had changed, I let life distract me- pity for someone who had been writing since she was five- years- old – but let’s play the Stradivarius another time.  I want to write about a few famous writers and their dogs.  When I cruise the web on this topic, the sepia-toned photos are heartfelt and bittersweet.  E. B. White with his Dachshund Fred, Virginia Woolf with her Cocker Pinka. . . What writer doesn’t need unconditional love curled up at our feet be it dog, cat, or in Flannery O’Connor’s case, peacocks?  These creatures will see us through the hard work; rejections (My favorite was from the fiction editor at Playboy: “You need to go back to school.”); money woes; good ideas hammered at by mediocre editors; bad ideas nursed along by great editors; booze; cigarettes; coffee; panic; euphoria.  It’s a long list and believe me, I have experienced it all.

I was overwhelmed by how many books and articles there are on authors and their canines so at 1:50 p.m.  with a Norfolk Terrier puppy asleep at my feet, I decided to KIS: Keep It Simple.  So, this week there will be no diatribe on Gertrude Stein’s French poodle Basket (she had three with the same name) or gorgeous prose on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “To Flush, My Dog” which Virginia Woolf later turned into a biography.  I took the simple route while drinking tea on a cold spring day, at peace with the world, and I read about politics, happened on Robert Gottlieb’s article about Dorothy Parker, and then I cruised author websites. I learned the darnedest tidbits.  Important things.  Like Dorothy Parker’s Dachshund Robinson wasn’t housetrained so the staff at the Algonquin Hotel did not appreciate him.  I learned that Edith Wharton often fed her array of long-haired Chihuahuas, Pekingese, and Papillons on silk pillows under her diningroom table.  I learned Thomas Hardy’s terrier Wessex was a bit of a bully and used to charge guests and tear their pants; he also liked to walk on top of the dinner table and sample from plates, not to mention the Hardys’ mailman had to kick out two of Wessex’s teeth to protect himself.  (The Hardy news was in a Guardian article by Mikita Brottman who also wrote a book called The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Exceptional Dogs.)

And my favorite dog quote was from Gustave Flaubert: “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only one worth living.”

I had recently reread John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, a favorite book in high school, so I keyed in the title.   Such a great book.  John Steinbeck takes to the road!  So much better than Jack Kerouac!

You can put what I found in the Oh, No! Category.  It turns out Steinbeck got in his converted camper in Sag Harbor, New York and his plan was to drive cross-country with his French poodle Charley, to write about his experiences, re-discover this great land, eat beans and sleep in his truck down by the riverbed and under a litter of prairie stars, this was going to be a 10,000-mile odyssey.  The only problem is it turns out this is not the trip Steinbeck took; he spent most of his time staying in hotels, inns, luxury resorts.  Forget the ole curmudgeon rediscovering America and getting to know ordinary folk across the heartland.  He was often with his wife Elaine!

I was crushed.  I can’t believe how gullible I’d been the few times I’d read the book.  The scene where he meets an eloquent Shakespearean actor camping in the middle of nowhere in North Dakota who enjoyed discussing the talents of John Gielgud probably wasn’t true. (The letter survives that puts Steinbeck in another town that night, 300 miles west.)   I should have known better.

This whole fable came to light in 2010 when a journalist named Bill Steigerwald set out to recreate Steinbeck’s journey and he blogged for the Sunday magazine for his newspaper The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  Little by little, travelling the same route in his red Toyota Rav4, researching, making a timeline, rereading the original manuscript, studying letters, newspaper articles, dates, Steigerwald realized a lot of this great work of non-fiction was more of a novel.  He wrote about his discovery for Reason magazine and also published a book called Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth About ‘Travels with Charley.’ Yet, the scholarly world was never very interested and now, if you visit the National Steinbeck Center’s website, you can read about the “elegiac tones” of Travels with Charley and Steinbeck wrote “from a distinctly observational but highly sympathetic standpoint.” There is no mention of Steigerwald’s reporting.

In 2012 when the Penguin Group reissued Travels with Charley in honor of the 50th anniversary of Steinbeck’s Nobel Prize for Literature, the introduction had been amended by wellknown writer and teacher Jay Parini who admitted Steinbeck “took great liberty with the facts.”

My favorite quote from this literary sleuthing was from an article in The New York Times by Charles McGrath where he quoted Steinbeck’s son who explained his father never talked to a lot of people in the book.  “He just sat in his camper and wrote all that #$&#*!”

Mr. Steinbeck, I know you were middle-aged, crotchety, and in poor health, and realized that travelling cross-country and meeting your wife in nice inns would not make a very good book, but I do think you owe Charley an apology.

Note:

Next week’s blog will be a column on submissions from readers.  Topic: You Know You Are A Dog Owner When. . . Please send in your quips and I will print them with your first name, your dog’s name and the type of dog you have.

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