Monday, May 8, 2017

Favorite Books (4): Of Mice and Men

Reading for Enjoyment

Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this is part of a continuing series.

“I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.”
— Crooks, Chapter 4, in John Steinbeck’s  
Of Mice and Men (1937)

First Edition (2nd printing copy; Covici Friede, New York) of John Steinbeck’s American classic, “Of Mice and Men,” a story of the bond of friendship between two migrant ranch workers (George Milton and Lennie Small) in California during the Great Depression. It was published on February 6, 1937. Steinbeck had a long association (beginning in 1934) with Pascal Avram “Pat” Covici [1885–1964], a Romanian-Jewish book publisher and editor who moved to Chicago when he was twelve. This is the same man to whom Saul Bellow dedicated “Herzog” (1964) with the following words: “To Pat Covici, a great editor and, better yet, a generous friend, this book is affectionately dedicated.”
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Of Mice and Men (1937), by John Steinbeck [1902–1968], a novella, is the California writer’s seventh book and the first that made me aware of this writer’s talents with language. I first read it in high school, in my Grade 9 English class, where I was fortunate to have an excellent teacher (Miss K.). I am not sure if it continues to be read today in high schools, but it carries a universal message that remains relevant today, particularly in the nation where the story takes places, the United States.  It is about camaraderie and friendship, and the need for both. 

The book is also about how understanding can lead to friendship and friendship to understanding. It also touches on the theme that loneliness is accentuated when one decides, however unwisely, to act in a cruel and an inhumane way to another, thus increasing the separateness between persons. It is not by chance that the story takes place near the town of Soledad, a Spanish word for solitude or loneliness. 

It is situated in the Salinas Valley, a rich and productive agricultural area, as is the city of Salinas (30 miles northwest), which is where Steinbeck was born and grew up. Many of his stories take place in this region, which is not surprising when you consider what Steinbeck writes about, what is dear to his heart. It is about telling a story, about offering something to the reader. I accepted what Steinbeck offered, his drink offering, even when it didn’t go down easy. Why? Steinbeck had a moral vision, one that was clarified in the heartbreak of the 1930s.

The novella’s title, no instrument of fate, is taken from two lines of a Robert Burns poem, “To a Mouse,” which he wrote in 1785. In modern English, the lines in reference are The best laid schemes of mice and men/Go often askew. In other words, not according to plans, even though these might be the best plans that one could make or imagine. Nothing more to add here other than one cannot always know the end from the beginning, despite one’s best efforts. Some things are not within our control; perhaps too many things lie seemingly within our grasp and yet are too distant to touch, let alone take in and hold. And there is a human need to have and to hold.

Friendship, which is often easy when young, proves quite difficult and elusive later on, particularly when middle-aged and older. There are some, no matter the age, who have never known the feelings of friendship. This is not always a choice; this could never be good for the soul of a human. Great tragedies have been written that speak of this absence. Modern technology, despite what it does well, can never be a replacement for another human. This is neither its intent nor its strength. 

For Steinbeck, his writing was about America and the changes he encountered, both good and bad. Decades later, loneliness and alienation continue to be a part of many people’s lives. But there is no living in such a life. I am not sure if it has become more acute or more chronic, in the age of social media, but it remains a common part of life in America. And, as Crooks notes, it can make people sick. 

While I can’t explain why some persons never make friends, it is true that when you view someone as strange, he remains a stranger and there is a distance between the two of you. When you make an effort to get to know someone, there is a good possibility that he becomes less strange. Not everyone can become a friend, it is true.  Often the possibility is lost for a lack of effort on the part of one or the other.  Yet, sometimes that person becomes a friend and in a few rare cases a good friend.

Along with Grapes of Wrath (1939) and East of Eden (1952) [see the beautiful and honest dedication of friendship to Pat Covici], this book is the most known of Steinbeck’s works, a likely result of these three books being read in schools across the American nation, and also in other countries like Canada. There is every good reason that these books need be read.

Like many fine writers, I have read all of his fiction and quite a bit of his non-fiction, including Travels with Charley (1962). This is an accounting, but much more, of his 1960 journey across America in his camper-truck aptly named Rocinante (after Don Quixote’s horse) with his faithful dog, a middle-aged French poodle. One of his stops was in Salinas, which Steinbeck hadn’t seen in 20 years. In his travels through thirty-eight states, driving 10,000 miles, Steinbeck was “not recognized even once.