Was John Steinbeck racist? American authors from the 19th and early 20th centuries who routinely used phrases universally recognized today as racist are frequently categorized as such. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the works of William Faulkner, written by two of America’s greatest novelists, are frequently derided for their depictions of African Americans and, more to the point, their use of the highly pejorative n-word. Steinbeck’s use of that unfortunate word in Of Mice and Men falls into the same category as Twain’s and Faulkner’s use of the word, especially Twain. These authors wrote in a certain time and in a certain place; their are stories products of the predominant mentalities that existed when they put pen to paper. Whether authors or playwrights or screenwriters (e.g., Quentin Tarantino’s very frequent use of that word in his films) are racist by virtue of their use of that word is entirely a matter of perspective.
Of Mice and Men is the story of migrant ranch-hands and farmworkers during the Great Depression, with a specific focus on two in particular, George Milton and Lennie Small, serving as the novel’s protagonists. They arrive at a ranch seeking employment, and are hired and housed in the bunkhouse with the other ranch-hands. One of the men, an African American named Crooks for his crooked, hunched back, is referred to in Steinbeck’s narrative by that derogatory, racist word, as in the following passages:
“I guess the boss’ll be out here in a minute. He was sure burned when you wasn’t here this morning. Come right in when we was eatin’ breakfast and says, ‘Where the hell’s them new men?’ An’ he give the stable buck hell, too.”
George patted a wrinkle out of his bed, and sat down. “Give the stable buck hell?” he asked.
“Sure. Ya see the stable buck’s a nigger.”
“Yeah. Nice fella too. Got a crooked back where a horse kicked him. The boss gives him hell when he’s mad. But the stable buck don’t give a damn about that. He reads a lot. Got books in his room.”
. . .
“What kind of a guy is the boss?” George asked.
“Well, he’s a pretty nice fella. Gets pretty mad sometimes, but he’s pretty nice. Tell ya what—know what he done Christmas? Brang a gallon of whisky right in here and says, ‘Drink hearty, boys. Christmas comes but once a year.’”
“The hell he did! Whole gallon?”
“Yes sir. Jesus, we had fun. They let the nigger come in that night. Little skinner name of Smitty took after the nigger. Done pretty good, too. The guys wouldn’t let him use his feet, so the nigger got him. If he coulda used his feet, Smitty says he woulda killed the nigger. The guys said on account of the nigger’s got a crooked back, Smitty can’t use his feet.”
Some of the ranch-hands in Steinbeck’s novel, especially Curley, the owner’s son, are racist. That much is clear. Whether the author is racist for depicting racist characters, however, is far from clear. As noted, Twain and Faulkner were of the American South, and racist terminology and attitudes were a part of the environment in which they lived. Their literature, consequently, reflects the cultures in which they were raised. Steinbeck, though, was born in California, where many of his novels take place. He was, though, raised during a period in American history when racist attitudes remained very prevalent, and the triumphs of the civil rights movement were still decades away. It is noteworthy, however, that the character of Crooks is more decent, and more educated, than the white ranch-hands. That is bitter and angry much of the time is entirely logical given his treatment as an African American and the difficulties inherent in the life and the others were living. Just as Twain’s character Jim represents his novel’s most decent human being, so Crooks represents one of Steinbeck’s more thoughtful characters.
Historical novels that attempt to gloss-over the uglier features of history out of respect for politically-correct sensitivities may be sparing themselves potential accusations of racism. Novels that truly represent or reflect certain times in American history, however, and that remain true to the age in which they were written are not afforded that luxury. Would men living in the time and place occupied by Steinbeck’s characters have spoken as those characters did in this novel? Sadly, yes. As such, Steinbeck cannot logically be labeled racist on the basis of his use of racist words and sentiments in a novel depicting that period of time.