Steinbeck’s Short Stay

By KELLYN BROWN for the Flathead Beacon Newspaper

As we talked about various events to include in the timeline of Montana’s first 150 years, we predictably began discussing one of many residents’ favorite quotes. You know the one, by John Steinbeck, in “Travels with Charley.”

“I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”

It’s a great quote. It makes us feel proud. But so much of Steinbeck’s book has been disputed that its 50th anniversary printing in 2012 included this disclaimer in the introduction, written by Jay Parini:

“It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative.”

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“I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” (CourtesyPhoto).

I’m not suggesting Steinbeck loved this state any less, but he was hardly an authority on the area. And his love must have been at first sight, because he wasn’t here very long.

Bill Steigerwald, a former journalist for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, first brought many of the discrepancies in Steinbeck’s famed book to the fore in 2010. Originally, Steigerwald had hoped to simply retrace the route in Travels with Charley for a book on how America had changed over the previous 50 years. Instead, he found a book largely perceived as nonfiction, largely fiction.

Steinbeck’s own son has suggested much of his dad’s book was made up, but Steigerwald went further, creating a timeline of the author’s journey after researching letters, biographies and the original transcript. “This is just grunt journalism,” Steigerwald told the New York Times in 2011. “Anybody with a library card and a skeptical gene in his body could do what I did.”

Steigerwald’s conclusion of Steinbeck’s time in Montana: “The great author’s love affair with the Treasure State was really more like a two-night stand” and he was only within our borders for “about 60 hours.”

Steinbeck’s iconic quote has been repeated so often – attached to photos, repeated on our social media feeds and reprinted on T-shirts – that one would think he spent a year exploring every corner of our state and interacting with its pioneering residents. That’s not the case. Apparently, he didn’t veer far from what today is Interstate 90, except for a quick visit to Yellowstone National Park and another to the Custer Battlefield site.

Our territory, and now state, has made quite an impression on millions of visitors over the years. And perhaps one can fall hard for Montana by simply driving across its Interstate. As a Spokane, Wash. native, I’ve traveled much of Steinbeck’s route dozens of times – when I worked in Bozeman and Bismarck, N.D., and attended college in Powell, Wyo. It’s a beautiful drive.

But Steinbeck should have stayed a little longer. He should have aimed north toward Flathead Lake and spent time in Glacier National Park. He should have hiked and fished and explored our sprawling national forests. He didn’t.

Steinbeck wrote: “It seems to me that Montana is a great splash of grandeur. The scale is huge but not overpowering. The land is rich with grass and color, and the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda.”

All this is true to many of us and few could articulate that feeling better than Steinbeck. Imagine what he would have written if he would have spent a week here.