A short introduction to the classic novel Of Mice and Men, in the form of five interesting facts
1. John Steinbeck’s original title for his classic novella, Of Mice and Men, was ‘Something That Happened’. This deliberately nondescript title was intended to remove any sense of individual blame for the events that occur in the novella (something quite different from the ironic intention behind the similarly titled play Stuff Happens, David Hare’s recent play about the Iraq War). Of Mice and Men, as the novel came to be known, focuses on two migrant workers, George (a smart, quick-thinking man) and his friend Lennie (a simpler man, who is mentally disabled but physically big and strong – ironically, his surname is ‘Small’), who work on various farms during the Great Depression in America in the 1930s (Steinbeck was drawing on his own experiences as a ‘bindlestiff’, as he also would for his next novel, The Grapes of Wrath). Joseph Heller, author of Catch 22, was possibly alluding to Steinbeck’s working title when he called one of his own later novels Something Happened.
2. The novel’s eventual title, Of Mice and Men, is taken from a (frequently misquoted) poem by Robert Burns. Steinbeck knew Burns’s poem ‘To a Mouse’, which describes the poet’s sadness and sense of remorse over having destroyed the mouse’s habitat when ploughing a field. In the poem, Burns concludes, ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft agley’ – i.e., ‘go often awry’. The lines are often misremembered and misquoted (or, if you will, adapted) as ‘the best laid plans’. But the allusion to the Burns poem neatly sums up Lennie Small’s personality in the novel: he is kind to animals but doesn’t realise his own strength, and often unintentionally ends up killing them (like Burns’s mouse).
3. The first draft of the novel was eaten by Steinbeck’s dog. Sticking with our animal theme, but moving from mice to dogs … as we revealed in our list of fascinating Steinbeck facts, Steinbeck’s dog Max chewed up and devoured the original draft of Of Mice and Men. Thankfully, Steinbeck was able to rewrite the draft!
4. It was published in 1937 and was an immediate hit. Of Mice and Men was a bestseller then and sales remain steady today, thanks largely to its popularity as a set text in schools and universities. The novella sold a whopping 500,000 copies in its first edition alone; in 1999, sales figures for the book in the USA alone were put at 7.5 million.
5. Despite the novel’s popularity, Of Mice and Men is – officially – the fourth most challenged book in America. According to the American Library Association in 2006, Of Mice and Men is the fourth most controversial book in the United States – ‘controversial’ in that it is one of the most challenged titles in schools and libraries, a book that many people want removed from public libraries. Of Mice and Men has been challenged largely because of the language used in the book – its use of ‘vulgar’ profanity – but also for a whole host of other perceived taboo issues: ‘promoting euthanasia’ and being ‘anti-business’ among the more unusual. What constitutes a ‘challenge’ to a book? According to the Library Association, ‘Challenges are defined as formal, written complaints filed with a library or school requesting that materials be removed because of content or appropriateness.’ You can read the ALA’s top ten most challenged books/book series here – the Harry Potter series tops the list. You can also read more about where Of Mice and Men has been challenged, and why, here. The fact that, after J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men has the longest entry on the entire page, says much about the novella’s continued, if controversial, popularity.
Our recommendation for a good (annotated) edition of the novel is Of Mice and Men: With Notes. You can read more about Steinbeck in our post about him here. Learn more about American literature with these noteworthy film adaptations of classic American novels.
Image: Poster for the 1938 film adaptation Of Mice and Men, via Wikimedia Commons.