Steinbeck, His Critics, And Of Mice And Men Essay, Research Paper
More a Mouse Than a Man
“If an author does not have at least one great popular success, he or she may well be ignored by the media, but if he or she is constantly popular, then the critics become suspicious of the writer’s serious intentions” (Benson Introduction). What do critics from the literary world have to say about Steinbeck’s writings? Critics have much to say, both positive and negative. What link exists between Steinbeck and his writings? Perhaps the most noteworthy biographical link between Steinbeck and his writings is that he was born and came to maturity in the Salinas Valley. In this area of California, bounded on the north and south by the Pajaro and Jolon valleys on the west and east by the Pacific Ocean and the Gabilan Mountains, Steinbeck found the materials for his fiction (Tedlock 3). John Steinbeck’s agricultural upbringing in the California area vibrantly shines through in the settings and story lines of the majority of his works.
John Ernst Steinbeck was born in Salinas, California, on February 27, 1902. His father’s family, originally called Grossteinbeck, had come from Wuppertal, about twenty miles east of the German city of D sseldorf. During summers he worked as a hired hand on nearby ranches, “nourishing” his impression of the California countryside and its people (Lisca 32). He made occasional exciting trips to San Francisco with his family and more frequent trips to the Monterey peninsula (Fontenrose 2). In 1918, he became ill with pneumonia and almost died, but he was able to recover. After graduating from Salinas High School in 1919, Steinbeck enrolled at Stanford University, taking courses in English and Marine Science (Bloom 11). He was always an excellent student, eager to learn both in and out of school, interested in books, music, science, religion, and sports (Fontenrose 3). During this time, he worked as a sales clerk, farm laborer, ranch hand, and factory worker, and left Stanford permanently in the fall of 1925 without a degree (Fontenrose 3).
In New York City, his brother-in-law found him a job pushing wheelbarrows for the construction of the original Madison Square Garden while continuing his pursuit as a writer (Lisca 32). After giving free-lance writing a try, he returned to California in 1926 (Fontenrose 3). For the next three years, periods of temporary employment alternated with periods devoted entirely to writing; and he moved from place to place, to San Francisco, Monterey, Salinas, Lake Tahoe, writing novels and stories that no publisher would buy (Fontenrose 4).
On January 14, 1930, Steinbeck married his first wife, Carol Henning (Fontenrose 4). As a gift, his father gave him a house in Pacific Grove, California. Later that year, Steinbeck met Edward Ricketts, owner and operator of a small commercial biological laboratory on the waterfront of Monterey. Steinbeck’s association with Ricketts stimulated “the best period of his career” (Fontenrose 4). Steinbeck’s second marriage began on March 29, 1943, when he married Gwyndolen Conger. Soon after, he became a war correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1944, his first son, Tom, was born. His second son, John IV, followed two years later. In December of 1948, Steinbeck was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
On December 28, 1950, Steinbeck married his third wife, Elaine Anderson Scott. On October 25, 1962, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. On September 14, 1964, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. His support of the Vietnam War in his final years came as a shock to some (Bloom 14). Throughout his life, John Steinbeck remained a private person who shunned publicity (Bloom 15). In 1968 he suffered several heart attacks while summering in Sag Harbor. He died on December 20, 1968 of arteriosclerosis in New York City. His ashes were placed in the Garden of Memories Cemetery in Salinas (Bloom 15).
John Steinbeck has published eight volumes of fiction, each as different from the others as all are different from the writings of most novelists. He has employed a variety of techniques to describe an assortment of characters His readers have come to expect the unexpected; his critics have taken refuge in enthusiasm or despair. But beneath this apparent variety, Steinbeck has been astonishingly consistent. A single purpose has directed his experimentation, a single ideas has guided his literary thought. Always his fiction has described the interplay of dream and reality; his thought has followed the development of the American dream. (Tedlock 68)
In John Steinbeck: Journeyman Artist, Joseph Warren Beach, like other critics, notes the versatility of Steinbeck’s talents. He is not disturbed to find Steinbeck something more than an “objective realist” (Tedlock 19). And Steinbecks’ style suggests to him no “mellifluous evasion” of responsibility, as at least one critics has thought, but is “remarkable for its feeling for rhythm and right English idiom” (Tedlock 19). Altogether Beach’s method is to compare Steinbeck’s characteristics with a broad range of literary accomplishments, rather than to judge the “correctness of his position regarding contemporary urgencies and controversies” (Tedlock 20).
In George Snell’s chapter on Steinbeck in The Shapers of American Fiction: 1798-1947, he notes Steinbeck’s strengths and weaknesses: “an enormous gift of story-telling”, “catholicity of sympathy” and “‘common touch,’” ease of character creation through “types” rather than “individuals,” “love of exaggeration and a resulting humor,” and “a basic sentimentalism” which results in his “gravest weakness” (French 56). Like Beach, Snell is positive about the early books. Particularly acute is his remarking that it was clear from the first that Steinbeck would never be “a literary naturalist” despite his interest in biology (French 57). In 1947, Snell thought Steinbeck still gave promise of being the “most gifted all-around novelist” (French 57).
Lincoln Gibbs’ “John Steinbeck: Moralist” is one of the few essays to handle the question of the morality of Steinbeck’s fiction without revealing that the critic has some “institutional axe to grind” (Tedlock 22). Gibbs is one of the first Steinbeck critics to argue that “successful adaptation to environment is not enough for human beings” (Tedlock 22). Gibbs’ misgivings about the range of Steinbeck’s philosophy are “broadly representative of the least prejudiced and least condemnatory” of the critics who share them (Tedlock 22). Writes Gibbs, “Steinbeck’s revulsion against prudery and hypocrisy carries him to violent extremes” (Tedlock 22). Gibbs concludes that Steinbeck’s “human sympathies” and “artist’s perception” are different from and superior to his “philosophic confusion” (Tedlock 22). His “humanistic conclusion” is that Steinbeck’s writings extends one’s knowledge of men beyond the “expedient range” of experience and makes for “a fuller realization of democracy” (Tedlock 22).
Steinbeck has not fared well in the hands of historians of contemporary literature (Telock Introduction XXXIX). Writes Frederick J. Hoffman in The Modern Novel in America: 1900-1950, “His interest in biology is a source of confusion in his interpretation of the human scene” (Tedlock Introduction XXXIX).
He is unable to give us a convincing definition of his people because, having once reduced the scale of definition to their animal nature, he has subsequently shifted his ground of interpretation and with a desperate earnestness grasped at the most superficial but convenient ideational strategy available to him in the 1930s. (Tedlock Introduction XXXIX)
One novel of John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men, takes place in the Salinas Valley of California. The drama is centered around two itinerant farm workers, George Milton and Lennie Small, with a dream of someday owning a place of their own. Lennie Small is a simple-minded, slow moving, shapeless hulk with pale eyes whose enormous physical strength often causes him to get into trouble. George Milton on the other hand is small in stature, clever, dark of face and eyes, and acts as Lennie’s guardian and calming force.
Early in the story the prospect of their ever realizing their dream seems remote, but as the plot unfolds (they meet a crippled bunkhouse worker who wants to go in with them on the scheme, and who offers offer to chip in his life savings), the probability of fulfillment rises. If the three pool their salaries at the end of the current month, they can quit and move into their farm. Lennie manages to avoid disaster for exactly three days. He gets involved with the flirtatious wife of Curley, the boss’ violent son. Through a series of unfortunate events, he becomes frightened and inadvertently kills the girl. Curley organizes a group to apprehend Lennie. George gets to Lennie first and out of sympathy for his companion, shoots him in the head to spare him the pain of Curley’s shotgun or the misery of incarceration.
Lennie’s killing of mice and later his killing of the puppy sets up a pattern that the reader expects to be followed. George’s story about Lennie and the little girl with the red dress, which he tells twice, adds to this expectancy, as do the shooting of Candy’s dog, the crushing of Curley’s hand, and the frequent appearances of Curley’s wife. All these incidents predict the fate of the dream of a safe place. The plan is doomed virtually from the beginning not only because human fellowship cannot survive, but also because the image of the farm, as conceived by George, Lennie, and Candy, is overly idealized. The probability being that life, even if they obtained the farm, would not be as they envision. The fruits and vegetables in abundance, the livestock and domestic animals, and the community of people involved are unreasonable expectations.
The greater part of the novel’s appeal, George and Lennie’s relationship, although far from what one could call a reciprocal friendship, intrigues the reader in the same way many comic duos intrigue. It is easy to identify with the “smart guy” who helplessly tries to cope with and control his irrational, dumb and, yet, spontaneous, child-like partner as they lurch from one self-inflicted crisis to another. Steinbeck uses that classic comic routine so that the reader warmly identifies and recognizes the relationship. Steinbeck’s narrator establishes and characterizes George’s lording of power and control over Lennie early in the first chapter:
George’s hand remained outstretched imperiously. Slowly, like a terrier who doesn’t want to bring a ball to its master, Lennie approached, drew back, approached again. George snapped his fingers sharply, and at the sound Lennie laid the mouse in his hand (9).
Unlike the typical Disney ending, Steinbeck delivers a harsh, but anticipated conclusion. However, Steinbeck is not trying to imply that hope is futile. Although hope does not prevail at the end of this novel, throughout the body, it plays a critical factor. Hope improved the quality of life for George and Lennie, and it gave them a goal to strive for. Without hope, Of Mice and Men would have lacked depth. One can not help but feel pity for Lennie, because of the dreams that lay in the ruins of his actions. Throughout reading this book, one is constantly bombarded with feelings of hope. In this story hope is an aspect bureid inside every event and played a heavy role in the lives of the characters.
Steinbeck employed a symplistic writing style in order for his works to be understood by the everyday person. His vocabulary and sentence structures are effective, yet straightforward. The dialogue he chose to use aided in captivating the reader’s attention and interest.
The parallels that exist between Steinbeck’s works and his upbringing are undeniable. Of Mice and Men is a typical Steinbeck novel in terms of simplicity, story line, and setting. Steinbeck transplants the knowledge he gained and the images he conceived of California in his writings.
Benson, Jackson J. The Short Novels of John Steinbeck. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1990.
Bloom, Harold. John Steinbeck. Pennsylvania: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999.
Davis, Robert Murray. Steinbeck: A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1972.
Fontenrose, Joseph. John Steinbeck: An Introduction and Interpretation. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1964.
French, Warren. John Steinbeck’s Fiction Revisited. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994.
Lisca, Peter. The Wide World of John Steinbeck. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1958.
Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. New York: Penguin Books USA Incorporated, 1978.
Tedlock, E.W. Steinbeck and His Critics. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1957.