|James Franco as George and Chris O'Dowd as Lenny in the 2014 stage revival of Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, first published in 1937.|
Of Mice and Men (1937)
by John Steinbeck
This last portion of the 1001 Books Project has felt a bit like a high school english class: Of Mice and Men, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Burmese Days... the combination of Authors and titles is such that almost everyone with a junior college degree has read one of the three. To be fair Burmese Days by George Orwell isn't one of this top hits, but Orwell is a monster of high school English class. Of Mice and Men is clearly a book I should have read in school: It's by a native Californian author, it is set in the Great Depression and it is barely 100 pages long- if even that.
Of Mice and Men was Steinbeck's first hit. As the chronology of his life included in the back of the volume which contained it makes clear, Steinbeck went through a great deal of struggle both before and after fame. Before, he lived in garrets, worked in warehouses and lived off of Daddy's money. After, he cheated on his wife, got divorced and struggled with numerous physical and mental maladies. He would go on to publish The Grapes of Wrath and win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Today he is considered the most famous inhabitant of the Monterey/Carmel/Pacific Grove/Salinas Central Coast area, with his own museum and numerous landmarks. His description of Central Coast places like Tortilla Flats and Cannery Row have become synonymous with those places, as do his descriptions of Depression area farming life in the Central Valley.
Of Mice and Men is located firmly inland in what sounds like the Northern reaches of the Central Valley. The kind hearted George and slow witted Lenny are iconic literary figures. My take is that the success of Of Mice and Men is tied to his depiction of a mentally challenged character with a level of insight and sensitivity that is new to literature. He also generates enough atmosphere to keep attention despite the banal surroundings. The timelessness of the fields being worked are given a sharp counter-point by the action sequences- flirting, fistfights and more. The overall impact is to create a pleasing rhythm in spite of the awkward length.