History of the Text

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Last Updated on July 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982

Reception and Publication History: Since its publication, Of Mice and Men has been both celebrated and censored. Due to Steinbeck’s growing popularity after the 1935 publication of his first novel, Tortilla Flat, book-of-the-month clubs started publicizing Of Mice and Men before its publication. As a result, the book was an immediate critical and commercial success. Steinbeck then adapted the text into a three-act play in 1937, which was recognized with the 1938 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. The story was adapted into a 1939 film that won five Academy Awards and a 1992 film that was critically acclaimed. However, due to its controversial themes and profane language, the text is one of the most frequently banned books of recent decades. Critics claim that the book is unsuitable for young readers, and others contend that the text argues in favor of euthanasia, a politically and morally controversial subject. 

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An Artifact of the Great Depression: Looming large in the setting of Of Mice and Men is the Great Depression. The great international economic calamity of the 20th century, the Great Depression, began on Tuesday, October 29, 1929, when the stock market collapsed beneath the excesses of the 1920s. The inflated state of the economy prior to the crash was caused by a variety of factors, all stemming from the ease with which individuals and investors could access credit. Homeowners could access lines of credit for home electronics they couldn’t afford; farmers could purchase equipment with loans for crops they hadn’t yet grown; Wall Street financiers could speculate and invest in dividends they hadn’t yet earned. This ability to buy beyond one’s means made for a turbulent but ultimately prosperous economy in the 1920s. August of 1929 was marked by a surge in financial speculation, though unemployment in the US was already growing and production already declining. In October, fear that the stock market would collapse began, and on the 29th traders dumped over 16 million shares, which amounted to billions of dollars lost. Despite President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legislative efforts to reignite the economy through the New Deal, the economy didn’t fully recover from the Great Depression until the United States entered World War II. 

  • The Great Depression hit the rural, agricultural economy particularly hard, as the 1930s coincided with the Dust Bowl—a period of heavy droughts resulting in dust storms throughout the central United States. Not only did the Dust Bowl affect those in the Midwest, but it also led to an oversupply of laborers throughout the nation. This effect was particularly noticeable in California, famed for its natural abundance, where workers flooded in from states such as Oklahoma and Arkansas. The resulting oversupply in labor caused wages to drop, resulting in an atmosphere of scarcity, competition, and rivalry. Characters such as George, Lennie, Candy, Carlson, and Slim face these very conditions in Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck as a Journalist: A native of the small farming town of Salinas, California, Steinbeck was born in 1902 to a moderately successful businessman and a former schoolteacher. Always a passionate writer, Steinbeck enrolled in Stanford as a young man, leaving in 1925 without a degree. Steinbeck was both a migrant worker and a prolific journalist for The San Francisco News during the Great Depression. The sparse, clear, and concrete prose found in Of Mice and Men reflects his background in newspaper writing, where economy of language is paramount. His inclination to use individual characters to represent large demographic groups reflects how journalists often use the experiences of individuals to illustrate larger social patterns. By his death in 1968, Steinbeck had won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, and a Nobel Prize for his contributions to literature. 

  • Lennie and Mental Disabilities: During the 1930s, there were scant resources available for individuals with mental disabilities. If such individuals weren’t cared for by their families, they were placed in either private or state institutions and separated from society. The quality of these institutions varied widely. Though the Progressive Era had brought some humane reforms to the worst institutional practices of the 1800s, the Great Depression occurred during the height of the eugenics movement. This movement was defined by the irresponsible exploration of genetic science. Doctors subjected patients with mental and physical disabilities and illnesses to involuntary sterilization and other pseudoscientific experiments. 
  • Curley’s Wife and White Women: During the Great Depression, most jobs were allotted according to gender. Generally, men worked as laborers, while women worked in the service industry. Since the economic crisis affected the labor sector more than the service sector, working-class women’s employment actually rose during the Great Depression. However, their white-collar counterparts didn’t fare as well. White women who entered the professional class during World War I and the Roaring Twenties were pressured to leave their positions in favor of male workers during the Great Depression. Nevertheless, women saw an overall increase in employment over the course of the 1930s. While 13 million women earned wages outside the home in 1930, that number rose to 14 million by 1940. Despite this trend in data, women who worked faced social scrutiny. Working women were criticized for robbing men of jobs, and colleges implored female graduates to avoid entering the workforce. Government recovery efforts during the Great Depression were also sexist in nature: some only allowed male applicants, and others allowed only one adult applicant per household. 
  • Crooks and Black Americans: Scholars hold that no American demographic was affected by the Great Depression as dramatically as black Americans. At its highest, the unemployment rate in US population as a whole hit 24.9%; for black Americans, the unemployment rate approached 50%. Many white Americans demanded that black Americans be fired from jobs as long as there were unemployed white Americans. Violence against black Americans also rose, evidenced by the increase in the number of lynchings of black Americans from eight in 1932 to twenty-eight in 1933. 

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