Historical Context

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Agriculture During the Great Depression

During the late 1930s, California was struggling not only with the economic problems of the Great Depression, but also with severe labor strife. Labor conflicts occurred on the docks and packing sheds and fields. Steinbeck wrote movingly about the struggles of migrant farm workers in three successive novels In Dubious Battle (1936), Of Mice and Men (1937), and The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

Agriculture as a working-culture was undergoing an historic change. In 1938, about half the nation's grain was harvested by mechanical combines that enabled five men to do the work that had previously required 350. Only a short time before, thousands of itinerant single men had roamed the western states following the harvests. Their labor had been essential to the success of the large farms. By 1900, about 125,000 migrants travelled along a route from Minnesota west to Washington state. Many traveled by rail in the empty boxcars that were later used to transport grain. At the turn of the century, the men were paid an average of $2.50 to $3 a day, plus room and board. The "room" was often a tent.

Wages had risen somewhat at the time of World War I, partly because of the Industrial Workers of the World, which established an 800-mile picket line across the Great Plains states. The "habitual"' workers lived the migratory life for years until they grew too old to work. By the late 1930s there were an estimaled 200,000 to 350,000 migrants: underpaid, underfed, and underemployed. The migrant worker was always partially unemployed, the nature of the occupation making his work seasonal. The maximum a worker could make was $400 a year, with the average about $300. Yet California's agricultural system could not exist without the migrant workers. It was a problem that would continue for decades. The farms in the state were more like food factories, the "farmers" were absentee owners, remaining in their city offices and hiring local managers to oversee the farming. In short, California's agriculture was not "farming" in the traditional sense. It was an industry like the lumber and oil industries. At the end of the 1930s, one-third of all large-scale farms in the United States were in California, reflecting the trend toward corporate farming. These farms had greatly fluctuating labor demands, and owners encouraged heavy immigration of low-wage foreign workers, usually Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos. Mexicans began arriving in large numbers around 1910 and represented the largest percentage of the migrant workforce for about twenty years.

During these years, there were thousands of white Americans among the migrants, usually single men who followed the harvesting. Steinbeck writes about them in Of Mice and Men. These "bindle-stiffs," as they were known, had no union representation for several reasons: They had no money to pay dues, and they moved from location to location so often that it was difficult to organize them. In addition, American unionism, with its traditional craft setup, did not welcome unskilled workers like farm laborers. In 1930, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, a Communist-led union, organized the first effective drive among the migrants. During 1933. the group followed the migrants and harvests, organizing a nine-county cotton pickers' strike that affected 12,000 workers. By mid-1934 the union had led about fifty strikes involving 50,000 workers. The group's leaders claimed to have a membership of 21,000 and said they had raised the basic hourly field wage from an average of 15 cents to 17.5 cents an hour in 1932 to an average of 27.5 cents in 1934.

In the summer of 1934, the union...

(This entire section contains 933 words.)

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was broken up by the anti-Communist activities of employers and state authorities. Its last stand was at an apricot pickets strike in June 1934. Deputies herded 200 strikers into a cattle pen, arrested some of the leaders, and transported the rest of the strikers out of the county. In trials, the union's president and secretary and six of their associates were convicted of treason. Five of the eight prisoners were later paroled and the other three were freed when an appellate court reversed the convictions in 1937. The existence of a strike was the greatest threat to California's growers. The harvest could wait while negotiations dragged on. Crops had to be picked within a few days of ripening or the result would be financial ruin. This situation created much social unrest. In the 1930s, vigilante activity against strikers and organizers was bloody. Many workers, as well as a number of strike breakers and townspeople, were injured. Vigilantism was not uncommon in early union activities, but in California's farming industry it was particularly vicious, which was odd because the growers could not have existed without the migrants' labor. During peak seasonal demand, growers hired as many as 175,000 workers.

Yet after the harvests most of these workers were not needed. Growers argued that they could not be responsible for paying workers year-round when they were needed only for a few weeks or months. Steady work was impossible not only because of the seasonal nature of the industry, but also because jobs were widely separated and time was lost traveling on the road. Steinbeck wrote Of Mice and Men at a time when he was becoming involved in California's social and economic problems. In the novel, he wrote about a group of people, the white male migrant workers, who were to shortly disappear from American culture. World War II absorbed many of the workers in the war effort in the 1940s. Although farm workers were generally exempt from the draft, the expansion of the defense industries to supply the U.S. military needs reduced the pool of surplus labor. The novel's continued popularity over the decades clearly shows that it has transcended its historical times.

Social Concerns

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Although in many ways little more than an extended short story, Of Mice and Men provides a vehicle for Steinbeck to focus on one of the oldest issues in human relationships: a person's responsibility for the welfare of fellow humans. The drifter George travels from job to job with the slow-witted Lennie, who depends on him to serve as both intermediary and protector in almost all social situations. Without stating his theme directly, the novelist presents through his characterization of Lennie a sensitive and revealing portrait of the plight of retarded individuals in a world where a lack of understanding of their special needs causes them to be misunderstood and at times reviled by others. Lennie is fortunate to have George serve as his protector, since most of the people with whom he comes in contact have little patience for his actions or sympathy for his seemingly anti-social actions. Even when his misguided actions lead to the commission of a crime, however, Lennie is treated with great compassion by George, whose views represent those of the novelist.

The story of drifters George and Lennie also highlights the plight of all people who search for a better life. The two have a dream with which many may identify: the wish to own their own land, be their own bosses, and control their own destinies. It is clear from the outset, though, that George and Lennie will never realize their dream; the foreshadowings of impending doom are present in the very first scene. The novel dramatizes the tragedy of frustrated hopes: Fate inexorably crushes the dreams of humankind, no matter how carefully individuals plan to overcome obstacles to happiness.

Of Mice and Men is replete with matters of social concern. Its themes are overtly social, dealing with issues of people's responsibility for others. Steinbeck is intent on getting his readers to see that humans cannot be isolated from others, nor can they ignore the plight of the less fortunate.

The treatment of the two main characters, George and Lennie, evokes an atmosphere of pathos that nudges the reader to judge their behavior sympathetically. Such an attitude, however, can easily lead one to condone certain actions that are questionable at best. One must distinguish carefully between attitudes and actions in this work, for there is an exceptional amount of physical violence presented here, and a suggestion that such violence is part of the way things happen in the world. Several animals meet their deaths either through accident or as a result of the natural struggle for survival; when Lennie kills his puppy, for example, the reader is apt to focus on the protagonist's sorrow and overlook the fact that Lennie is a danger to other creatures— both animals and humans—because his brute strength is not reined in by a competent intellect. Even the accidental death of Curley's wife at Lennie's hands can easily be misread: the reader may become caught up in worrying about how Lennie will escape or what George will do to save him, rather than realize the horror that should be felt in knowing that, through Lennie's actions, a human life has been snuffed out. Steinbeck even challenges the reader to consider the possibility that mercy killing may be acceptable: certainly the final paragraphs of the novel suggest that George may have been right in taking Lennie's life rather than letting him face the wrath of Curley and the gang bent on avenging the death of Curley's wife. The importance, and the inevitability, of violence in people's lives is an issue that cannot be overlooked in any discussion of this work.

Topics for Further Study

  • Research the migrant farm labor movement's attempts to organize unions in the 1930s in California and compare with the work of Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers Union in the 1970s.
  • Investigate the claims of People for the American Way that John Steinbeck's novel Of Mice and Men is the book most frequently challenged by school censors. Other controversial books include J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
  • Research and compare how the number of farms in the United States has declined from the 1930s to the 1990s, including the average acreage of individual farms during these decades and the percentage of farms owned by corporations versus those owned by private farmers.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1930s: The Great Depression and severe drought in the Midwest (leading to what became known as the Dust Bowl) forces a population shift from rural to urban areas. People leave their farms and move to the cities to find jobs. This change in demographics spurs industrialization within the cities, a trend that is accelerated in the 1940s with the beginning of World War II. Farms once owned by families begin to be bought out by corporations and consolidated into "farm factories."

    Today: Though the stock market skyrockets in the 1990s, the "Electronic Revolution" encourages more efficient business practices which, in turn, fosters corporate downsizing. Workers begin to move out of centralized urban office settings to work out of their homes in the suburbs, using computers and the Internet, while factory workers are increasingly replaced by improved automation techniques and must retrain to find jobs requiring higher skills. The number of individual farms decreases from over six million in the 1940s to two million and are largely owned by businesses.

  • 1930s: Labor unions see an incredible growth in memberships and, with the help of the federal government and dynamic union leaders like United Mine Workers president John L. Lewis, strike successfully against powerful corporations. The Roosevelt administration puts laws into effect, including the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, that facilitate unionization. Disputes among skilled versus unskilled laborers causes unskilled workers to split from the American Federation of Labor (AFL) to found the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

    Today: The ability of large unions like the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers (UAW) to strike effectively against businesses is compromised and membership is down as federally mandated worker benefits have become widespread and public sympathy for workers diminishes. However, the practice of corporations to hire more part-time laborers in order to bypass laws that demand full-time employees receive medical and retirement benefits creates new labor problems as ordinary workers find it increasingly necessary to work two or more part-time jobs.

  • 1930s: Communism becomes a popular social movement in America and the 1930s are later dubbed the "Red Decade." Intellectuals and common workers alike support the concepts of communism, and this new social consciousness leads to support of the Social Security Act and the repeal of Prohibition. By 1936, the Communist Party favored Roosevelt's New Deal, a series of governmental programs designed to support workers with federal funds.

    Today: Communism, unpopular in America since the 1950s, collapses around the world as a political movement, especially in Europe after the breakup of the Soviet Union. However, government-funded programs have become standard in the United States, and by 1997 some 43 million Americans receive Social Security benefits and individuals become dependent on socialistic government programs.


Style, Form, and Literary Elements


Connections and Further Reading