Recent revelations detailed that John Steinbeck’s widely read Travels with Charley (1962) about a tour of America the author took in 1960 in a pickup truck, camping out and rubbing elbows with common folk, may have been largely made up. “Virtually nothing he wrote in ‘Charley’ about where he slept and whom he met on his dash across America can be trusted,” says Bill Stiegerwald, who investigated the experiences related in the book. When asked about Mr. Steigerwald’s discoveries, Jay Parini, who wrote a biography of Steinbeck and introduced the Penguin Travels with Charley, responded: “Does this shake my faith in the book? Quite the opposite. I would say hooray for Steinbeck. If you want to get at the spirit of something, sometimes it’s important to use the techniques of a fiction writer.”
If an author wants to use the techniques of a fiction writer to get at the spirit of something, he could just go ahead and write fiction. Or he could write the truth, to the best of his knowledge and recollection. Or, he could at least let the reader know that he has compressed, combined, changed names, presented composite histories, rendered the spirit of conversations but not the exact words. Writers have done that. But decades of postmodernism have eroded the very belief in truth and Parini’s cavalier attitude is proof of that.
But fiddling with the truth can be dangerous. As Ashley writes below, Greg Mortensen’s books on building schools in Afghanistan have been sacred reading in colleges and universities. They have also been used in high schools and even middle schools, accompanied by elaborate reading guides. Many students now stand to feel a measure of disillusionment, unless they decide to go in for Parini’s cheerful cynism, which would be worse. Furthermore, according to an article in the Washington Post by Greg Jaffe, Mortensen may have helped mislead the diversity-besotted American military, eager to believe that winning hearts and minds was the way to go in Afghanistan.