John Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men midway through the 1930s, the most creative decade of his career. During that time he was becoming increasingly concerned, it seems, about social and economic problems in California, what Upton Sinclair was focusing on in his End Poverty in California movement. In fact, he published three successive novels about farm workers during that period, each distinctive in tone and conception.
Of Mice and Men was a deliberate change from his previous book, In Dubious Battle (1936), an imaginative interpretation of a contemporary farm strike and a study of the movement and action of crowds. In the new project he set out to work within a narrow framework, concentrating on a small number of characters in carefully crafted settings, detailed… ideal for the theater. Telling his story economically and as dramatically as possible led to translating the novel into a play.
The subject was less controversial than that of his previous book. He was writing about people who were isolated in the society of their time, who belonged to a group that was fast disappearing from the American scene. Only a short time before, thousands of itinerant single men had roamed the Western states following the harvests. Their labor was essential to the success of the bonanza grain-growing enterprises that had been started in the second half of the nineteenth century and had proliferated so rapidly that by the year 1900 some 125,000 threshers were migrating along a “belt” that extended from the Brazos Bottoms in Texas north to Saskatchewan and Washington. Many of them traveled by rail, arriving in the fields in empty boxcars that were later used to transport grain.
In the early years they were paid an average wage of $2.50 to $3.00 a day plus board and room. The “room” was frequently a tent: living conditions were spartan. But wages rose at the time of the First World War when the price of wheat was high, partly through the action of the Industrial Workers of the World, which established an eight-hundred-mile picket line across the Great Plains states.
In California, where grain was the chief farm commodity in the 1870s and 1880s before the advent of irrigated agriculture, some of the early harvesters were disappointed miners returning from the goldfields. In the social and occupational hierarchy they were on a level considerably below the mule drivers, who, like Steinbeck’s character Slim, were valued for their skill in handling as many as twenty animals “with a single line” and who were generally employed permanently on ranches.
Steinbeck’s recognition of the status of the mule driver epitomizes his re-creation of a working class culture that was undergoing a historic change even as he wrote about it. In 1938, the year after Of Mice and Men was published, about half the nation’s grain was harvested by mechanical combines that enabled 5 men to do the work that had been done formerly by 350.
The single farm workers who traveled from job to job by train, or like George and Lennie by bus, were disappearing. They were being replaced by whole families migrating in cars, like the people in Steinbeck’s next novel, The Grapes of Wrath.
When the characters in Of Mice and Men (and their real life counterparts) labored in the fields, they were not exposed to dangers on the order of what they’re subjected to today. It’s been a quantum leap of horror that’s taken place in their realm since eighty years ago; things have gotten infinitely worse for the workers and others, like the residents who live, study, work or play near the fields. And this is not to say a single thing about how the atrocious momentum which involves the replacement of workers with machines is proliferating.
It’s an unconscionable scenario that’s unfolding, one which would not be possible with there being profiteering rats in charge of men, rats who care nothing for the sacredness of human life. I am using “rats” here in the street sense, of course, with no reference meant to the genus Rattus.
And on that note — since I am an educator and a professor of Literature — permit me to underscore how there are rats running the show in educational institutions, who insist upon ignoring the dynamic above that I’ve described. Teachers and administrators who never address the reality behind the vegetables and fruits served in most school cafeterias. They, obviously, are as complicit in the suffering I’m touching upon, which includes the rape of our farming lands.
The farm hands deserve better, but neither they nor the land they work will be allowed to be whole unless YOU do something new in solidarity with others. [Pause.] And on that count, I humbly and respectfully request that you contact me for a discussion of viable options for concerned citizens.
At present, Of Mice and Men is treated as a melodrama in the classroom. And I have rarely come across any instructors who delve into the deep roots from which agons emerge, the current tragedies in the fields almost always unspoken of. What kind of “education” is that?
The Good News is that the high school “classic” can be deal with a different way. And easily. But even if that is done, there is another dimension to Steinbeck’s work which should be addressed, and that has to do with the author’s intention in writing his minor melodramatic fare; I don’t care much for the work as drama, but I do feel it’s worth exploring for a number of reasons, the main one being that those being worked to death in the fields deserve our proactive attention.
Interviewed in his home, Steinbeck denied there were any subtle implications in his play. “All I tried to write was the story of two Salinas Valley vagrants,” he said. “It hasn’t any meaning or special significance outside of what appears on the surface. It’s just a story. I don’t know what it means, if anything, and damned if I care. My business is only storytelling.”
I find that hard to believe, the thrust of those words; perhaps omitted context would help here. Those aspects of Steinbeck’s politics which I disagreed with in the 60s notwithstanding, Steinbeck was not a callous art-for-art’s sake writer, not oblivious to what his work had generated among the public, not disinterested in real world affairs. He certainly was not what I’m calling a rat.
Rats in 30s Hollywood, headed by Louis B. Mayer and other higher ups, produced and distributed a number of “attack films” to undermine the EPIC campaign of Upton Sinclair; he was a shoe-in for governor until they interfered. Rats in the FBI tried to hound Steinbeck to death. And fat Rats in governmental offices, and little rats all across the country in private quarters chewing on lettuce and the like grown in the ground with groans moans groans… well, the general well-fed public needs to also do the right thing. [I’m out of breath just thinking about the injustice and insanity.]
Be human. Be a decent man, a decent woman. Get in touch with those who provide your food, and the remaining healthy land that must now be seen as the basis for our last stand against momentum that will make machine food mandatory.
Valleria Ruselli is a member of the Oxman Collective. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.