Reading "Of Mice and Men" in my Thirties

I have enjoyed this novel every single time I have read it. It is a fast and easy read, and so amazingly tightly written. I keep finding new and interesting things from it at every age. The lessons that I learn seem to have similar themes, but they are always different lessens. I also love Steinbeck as a writer. This is the first time that I have read Steinbeck knowing that, as a career Academic, I am a writer too. His writing is inspirationally good – which isn’t really all that surprising once you realize he is a Nobel laureate. As someone who now has much more experience as a writer than my younger self, it is clear that he has spent a lot of time on rewriting and editing.

The current American climate, and my career in Academia, has really made me view Of Mice and Men through a more feminist lens this time around. I think the paper has some very important things to say about masculinity and how masculinity is constructed. The two themes in this area that jumped out at me the most were 1) the performance of masculinity in the face of failure and 2) the fear of being powerless in the face of accusations from women. Fundamentally, both of these themes are about powerlessness.

I was also struck by the universality of yearning for an idyllic futures. We all tell ourselves these quiet lies about how some day we will arrive and then things will be much easier. “Things will be better when…” – but they never are. As a man just arriving at the end of graduate schooling and starting in my career as an Assistant Professor, I can sympathize with looking forward to how much better life will be, even knowing that nothing can ever be as good as you can dream it will be.

In the past I hadn’t noticed how cinematic Steinbeck was in his description of the scenery. The locations in which the events of the story occur almost become their own characters. They are often left alone on the “stage” at the beginning and end of chapters. Of course, this helps to personify the place and pull the reader in, but it is even more interesting in how it emphasizes the transient nature of George and Lenny’s existence. The persistence of the setting without the main characters present also draws attention to how inconsequential George and Lenny are. Their appearance and disappearance has minor impacts on the world around them, but shortly after they are gone the world soon returns to business as usual – they have not brought about any lasting changes.

I was also struck by his skillful use of foreshadowing. Everything that is in the story serves a function and establishes the facts the story continues to come back to later. In fact, the only place where I noticed an exception to this was when we traveled into Lenny’s imaginary world near the end of the novel. This sequence was so out of place that it caught me entirely off guard. I don’t remember noticing it before.

In my Twenties

In my twenties I read the novel for the second time. It was shortly after I graduated from college, within the first few years of being in the “real world” and before I went back to graduate school. I hadn’t noticed the first time that Steinbeck had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. this was the first time that I read a novel aware that the author had been awarded the Nobel. I’m not sure if it made a difference in how I perceived the book or not.

The story really touched me in my twenties. I found that I identified with George quite a bit. Throughout my school years, especially in Junior High, I had a number of friends who had more than the usual social and/or intellectual challenges. I understood what it was like to try to help someone understand social expectations or wrestle with unintended consequences, much as George does for Lenny throughout the novel. I don’t remember making this personal connection the first time I read the novel; perhaps I needed some distance to notice.

I also appreciated Steinbeck’s signature style more in my twenties than in my teens. At this age I could recognize the amount of effort and drafting that goes into crafting a novel without any unnecessary words. I still thought of myself as a characteristically terse writer and I thought of Steinbeck as an ideal to be striven for, though I engaged in essentially none of the draft work that is necessary to accomplish the style well. At this age I usually edited while I wrote and thought of my writing as complete right after the first time through. I often wouldn’t even proofread, which is more than a little embarrassing looking back on it.

In my Teens

I only have hazy memories of this book from my teen years. I remember reading it in High School, but it wasn’t assigned reading in any of my courses. I’m not sure how or why I picked it up, but it is a shockingly fast read and well worth the time if, for no other reason, the cultural fluency it bought me. There are many allusions to this book throughout popular culture.

My only previous experience with Steinbeck was The Red Pony, which had been required reading back in Junior High. I remember Steinbeck’s stark masculine style feeling forced and inauthentic to me in The Red Pony, but in Of Mice and Men it rang true. I was struck at the time by the way Steinbeck’s masculine style of writing fit with the subject matter.

I found in Steinbeck a kindred spirit. I had often been critiqued by teachers for my writing being too brief. I often struggled to make papers reach their required lengths. Reading Steinbeck felt like vindication that I could be a good writer. It was only later that I would realize how much writing, revision, and editing it takes to produce such tightly written prose.