Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck

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Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men with Course Hero's video study guide.

Of Mice and Men | Context


Agriculture and Migrant Workers

During Steinbeck's childhood, an agricultural shift was taking place in California. In the 1800s, large ranches and grain farms dominated the state's economy. More specialty farms later developed that cultivated fruit crops such as oranges and grapes. This shift was enabled by the increased use of irrigation, which transformed many desert areas into productive cropland. By 1929 irrigated land made up about 16 percent of the farmland in California. Irrigation provided the water fruit farms required. From 1879 to 1928, the value of fruit farm production rose from 4 percent of the total agricultural output to about 80 percent.

Besides needing a lot of water, fruit farms required more laborers than California could provide through its native-born residents. To solve this problem, landowners hired immigrants from Mexico and Asia and migrants from other states. As the fruit farms increased in size and number, the demand for these workers increased. Thus, when Steinbeck was attending college during the early 1920s, he was able to easily drop out and get work as a bindlestiff. These migrants worked on both fruit farms and grain ranches, such as the one depicted in Of Mice and Men. They usually completed the grain harvest by early July and did not start the grape harvest until September.

While doing this work, Steinbeck came into contact with many of society's outsiders, including Mexicans, African Americans, and the physically and mentally disabled. Talking about Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck stated, "I worked in the same country. ... The characters are composites. ... Lennie was a real person."

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, millions of Americans found themselves out of work, a problem that was compounded by the Dust Bowl. This 10-year drought struck lands already harmed by bad farming practices, devastating large areas of Oklahoma, New Mexico, and a number of other states. As a result, thousands of tenant farmers were forced off their land. To find work, many of them migrated to California to work on fruit farms and ranches. As Steinbeck was writing Of Mice and Men in the mid-1930s, California was being overrun with migrant workers. Most of them faced harsh working conditions, which is suggested in Of Mice and Men and more fully developed in The Grapes of Wrath.

Literary Connections

Steinbeck was partially motivated to write Of Mice and Men because of the success of his novel Tortilla Flat. Before the publication of this novel, Steinbeck and his wife, Carol, lived in obscurity in poor conditions in a cottage. Although he published several works before Tortilla Flat, none of them achieved any popularity. This lack of success had a benefit for the author. Because he didn't have much money, Steinbeck acted and dressed as other poverty-stricken people did, which gave him a connection and insight into the lives of the poor. With the success of Tortilla Flat, however, Steinbeck began to earn much more money, a development that allowed him to improve his and Carol's living conditions. Although the extra income was welcome, Steinbeck feared he might lose touch with the poor workers he depicted in his novels.

Tortilla Flat garnered Steinbeck widespread critical praise for his writing. The author worried this praise would alter his perspective. He feared that he might start to write in a way that was "important," rather than truthful. To counteract this tendency, Steinbeck decided to write a humble children's story. "I want to re-create a child's world," he said, planning to feature sensations, such as colors and tastes, that are more clear to children than they are to adults. The result was Of Mice and Men, the title of which comes from the 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns's poem "To a Mouse." Although this work developed into an adult novel instead of a children's story, it still retains some of Steinbeck's original intentions. His description of the pond, for example, is vivid and sensual: "A stilted heron labored up into the air and pounded down river." Of Mice and Men, therefore, was an attempt by Steinbeck to remain humble.

From Page to Stage to Film

Steinbeck's attempt to preserve his attitude as an obscure writer resulted in the author being thrusted even further into the public eye. Because of the popularity of Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck became a household name.

Soon the playwright-director George Kaufman wanted to adapt Of Mice and Men into a theatrical play, which would differ greatly from the staged production Steinbeck supported in San Francisco. The latter production was almost identical to the novel, using exactly the same dialogue. Kaufman, however, wanted to shape the story into a Broadway production, which would involve changing dialogue and actions as needed. Eventually Steinbeck agreed and worked with Kaufman to adapt the novel. Steinbeck soon felt out of his element and allowed Kaufman to take more control of the project. The play Of Mice and Men opened to rave reviews on Broadway in 1937 and won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for best play for 1937–1938. As a result, Steinbeck became an even more popular author.

Hollywood soon made a strong push for a film adaptation of the work. The producer-director Lewis Milestone bought the film rights and gained creative control of the movie. The result was a highly regarded film starring Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie. The film adaptation, also titled Of Mice and Men, opened in theaters in 1939 and received four Oscar nominations.

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