The damned and dispossessed

The ancient commission of the writer has not changed. He is charged with exposing our many grievances and failures, with dredging up to the light our dark and dangerous dreams for the purpose of improvement. Furthermore, the writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit — for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love...

John Steinbeck, Nobel Prize Speech, 1962

IN his landmark 1893 essay, "The Frontier in American History", Frederick Jackson Turner offered a clear and concrete definition: the frontier was a place occupied by fewer than two people per square mile. But the frontier was obviously not just a geographical location and historians of the American West have often puzzled over the shifting definitions of the word. Finally, the frontier analogy has been taken as a metaphor for promise, progress and ingenuity which was theirs if only they "moved on" to the last frontier where few had gone before. So, when Americans pull up stakes and hit the road, it is usually with a sense of hope and renewal unique to them. With the exceptions of the African slave trade and the forced marches of the Indians, great movements of people in America (someone described it as a continuous continental drift) have usually been taken freely and, more often than not, resulted in better lives for the transplanted. Around this fact a myth of mobility developed that encouraged, for instance, the unemployed North-eastern and Midwestern rust-belt factory workers of the early 1930s to pile into their station wagons and head south or west with little hesitation.

Given this, the plight of the dirt farmers who were forced to evacuate their 40 acres in the Dirt Bowl in Oklahoma of the 1930s was doubly tragic. For the first time in peacetime American history, the country's citizens had to migrate against their will to a location that held nothing for them. And unlike Jews or the gypsies of central Europe, the poor Okies possessed no tradition of painful displacement, no folk culture to explain or absorb the unexpected catastrophe of having to travel to parts unknown. It is in the depiction of this cultural deracination that the immense power of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden lies — one of the most compelling examinations of dispossession ever written. But while Grapes and Eden have been worked over extensively — especially last year which marked Steinbeck's birth centenary — Of Mice and Men that also deals with dispossession and drift and issues vital to our times — the environment, poverty and homelessness, America's moral decline, racism and ethnicity — has been lost in the shadows.

The story is simple and stark. George and Lennie are itinerant farm workers in 1930s California. George is small and quick; Lennie is huge with superhuman strength but with the brains of a dim-witted child. Just why they stick together is anybody's guess — or rather why George hangs around with Lennie who has nothing in common with him. Lennie sticking with George is no mystery: he worships him, imitates his gestures, and hangs on to his every word. May be it is George's goodness of heart that ties him to Lennie, feeding him, trekking with him from job to job. Or may be it is Lennie's earning power that draws George to him. After all, George dreams of saving up enough to buy a small farm for themselves and settle down in ease and plenty. His account of this idyll, its phrases polished like a treasured fairy-tale is Lennie's greatest treat. He is always begging George to repeat it, though he knows it by heart:

"An' live off the fatta the lan'," Lennie shouted. "An' have rabbits. Go on George! Tell what we're gonna have in the garden and about rabbits in the cages and about the rain in the winter and the stove, and how thick the cream is on the milk like you can hardly cut it. Tell about that George."

"Well," said George, "we'll have a big vegetable patch and a rabbit hutch and chickens. And when it rains in the winter, we'll just say to hell with goin' to work, and we'll build up a fire in the stove and set around it an' listen to the rain comin' down on the roof — Nuts!"

It is the rabbits that appeal most to Lennie because he is a gentle giant, or at least means to be. He likes to stroke soft and delicate things — mice, puppies, women. The result is invariably disastrous. The mice and puppies become crushed pulp to Lennie's surprise; the women cry out for help and George and Lennie find themselves on the run, hiding in ditches to escape from a lynch mob.

At the start of Steinbeck's story, very much a Laurel and Hardy tragic pair, they arrive at a new farm where their reputation has not caught up with them. The workers are friendly, the boss is decent enough and everything seems to be working out well to begin with. But Curly, the boss's son, is a problem. He is a pugnacious little fellow who doesn't like big people like Lennie. Worse, he has been recently married and his wife more than a little flirt, hanging around the men's quarters and chatting up with them. She is attracted to Lennie. With the key figures in the drama in place, the novel now builds up to a climax. The tension is almost unbearable, and is achieved without comment from Steinbeck. Sentimentality of any kind is out, as if to say that if you want to touch the heart, the text has to become colder. The effect is entirely modern. It is a narrative bare and relentless, the diction simple and the dialogue ordinary farmhand argot.

But it is the subtext that we need to get at and the story's meaning is grim. For what destroys George and Lennie is a story, or a dream that has turned into a story, as dreams do. If only they had been like mice, not thinking beyond the present, not dreaming about a brighter future, they would have been safe. But human beings are different from animals because they have a dream. And dreams quite often go sour. The other farm workers who hear George reciting his idyll all want to come along and take a share of the small farm. But as it turns out, it is not a personal dream but the fantasy of every loser like the story of the man who observes, looking back at a failed experiment, "Well, you know, it seemed a good idea at the time."

What is worse, Curley's wife has her dream too. Though she is coarse and stupid, she imagines she is cut out for a job in the movies. A film star had once told her that she had talent and she takes it to heart. Her destiny was with the stars. These are the lies, the illusions, Steinbeck seems to be saying (he said as much in his Nobel speech) that ruin our lives. But lies make stories, and stories make us human, and a story is what Steinbeck is spinning out. As Forster said, "a novel tells a story."

The debate over how Steinbeck compares with Hemingway and Faulkner, both titans of his generation, who also won the Nobel Prize, is endless. Some critics have sought to dismiss him as less profound and more superficial than the other two, a straightforward storyteller admired by undergraduates rather than a profound intellectual who probed the human psyche. Comparisons are always odious because not everyone is trying to do the same thing. Hemingway's prose is the best in the language but Steinbeck did the same kind of listening and simplifying. Faulkner was certainly more complex and experimental, more in touch with modernism of people like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, in a way that Steinbeck was not. But that isn't any criteria to measure one against the others. What matters in the ultimate analysis is expressive and evocative powers of language, that is, the power to express whatever it is the writer understands of the world and of life through the telling of stories about people who are made to seem real. Steinbeck does that, as do Hemingway and Faulkner too.

Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck, first published 1937, Penguin Books, special price, �2.99.


Recommended for you