Of Mice and Men is a dialogue-heavy novella--written to be performable as a play--focused on the relationship between and experience of two men, George and Lennie, who are following work from one ranch farm to another while attempting to save up for their dream: a small farmstead of their own, where they can grow crops and tend animals for themselves. George and Lennie have known each other since they were children, and in many ways George takes care of Lennie. Their friendship and their shared dream set George and Lennie apart from the other characters in the book; Of Mice and Men is largely centered around themes of friendship and loneliness, and of hope and despair.
This is a tragic book, difficult to read due to the nature of the story Steinbeck tells within it. Added to that difficulty is the fact that the language of this book is what Shirley Shillinglaw, in her 1994 introduction to the novel, describes as "naturalistic dialogue" which "offended and continues to offend." Steinbeck himself, in a letter to his godmother in 1939, wrote that, "For too long, the language of books was different from the language of men. To the men I write about profanity is adornment and ornament and is never vulgar and I try to write it so." Of Mice and Men is, indeed, quite liberally adorned with profanity--including the regular use of the N-word to describe the one Black character within the book.
Why is this book being challenged?
As hinted by what Shillinglaw said regarding the 'offensive' language of the dialogue in Of Mice and Men, the profanity and--in particular--the slurs within the book are often cited as reasons to remove it from library shelves or from classroom curricula. According to the ALA, this novel has been "[b]anned and challenged for racial slurs and racist stereotypes, and their negative effect on students."
Reading Of Mice and Men makes me incredibly uncomfortable. There is an underlying, casual display of racism, sexism, and ableism within the words and actions of many (if not all) of the characters. The most egregious of these is the racism--for half of the book, for example, the only Black character goes entirely unnamed as he is referred to almost exclusively via racial slur. When he is finally named, it's quite clear that it still isn't his given name that's provided; he has been crippled by a back injury that has left him with a crooked spine, and the name he is given is "Crooks."
The racism directed against Crooks within the book is blatant, but Steinbeck's treatment of this character is not so straightforward. As Lennie converses with Crooks, the focus is on how lucky Lennie is to have George, and how this contrasts with the damaging loneliness Crooks feels as the only Black man working on the ranch--he isn't allowed in the bunk house, and is left alone with only himself and some books for company most of the time. There is also an explicit acknowledgement of how dangerous the threat of a white woman's tears is for a Black man depicted when Curley's wife enters the scene:
"Listen, N--," she said. "You know what I can do to you if you open your trap?"
Steinbeck doesn't shy away from realistically depicting the attitudes and language common to the time and place in which he and the characters he created lived, but the racism within Of Mice and Men does seem to come from the characters rather than from the author.
While a distinction should be made between depicting racism and being racist, that is often complicated by the fact that the very existence of slurs (such as the N-word) in a book can be harmful; teaching a book that includes such language risks introducing harmful slurs to a classroom environment that should be a safe space for all students.
In a 2020 article for Book Riot, Enobong Essien makes a point that assigning and reading texts which contain slurs does not mean giving students permission to give voice to those slurs. She gives the example of her sister teaching Of Mice and Men in her classroom:
At the beginning of her lesson, she handed each student in her class a sticker to place in the front of their book. This note is a reminder to every student that the use of the n-word and other such words is a hate crime and will result in expulsion if the word is used in her classroom. Even when they are reading the book out loud as a class, she is the only person allowed to use the word. Everyone else must say “the n-word”. They can say the word in their heads, but they are not to use it out loud. All racial slurs continue to be banned in her literature class, regardless of whether they’re in a book or not.
I love this example from Essien because it demonstrates so clearly how it is possible to condemn the racist language and attitudes depicted within books without removing or banning those books. Essien puts it beautifully when she states that "by drawing attention to certain words and disallowing their usage, even when it comes to reading a text out loud, educators can demonstrate that yes, words do have power, they are hurtful and offensive and we don’t just get to arbitrarily decide when they are hurtful and offensive. They always are and we should always avoid them."
Of Mice and Men is a difficult, challenging book, but I would argue that it is difficult and challenging in a way that is meant to push readers to critically consider their own biases and to seriously contemplate relationships and how those relationships--or lack thereof--are tied up with our capacity for hope against the despair of the human condition. In his journal, Steinbeck described his writing process as carrying on an "ancient cry": "Try to understand each other. You can't hate men if you know them." While I wouldn't say that Of Mice and Men is entirely unproblematic, I do think that it is a book which is more aimed at realistically depicting problematic common attitudes and situations with the goal of provoking critical thought about those attitudes and the situations they give rise to. Ultimately, Of Mice and Men is a tragedy that is meant to evoke empathy and sympathy from readers.
While I don't think that Of Mice and Men should be banned from classrooms or otherwise censored, I do think that how we teach this book is incredibly important. Any teaching of this book should be paired with a strong condemnation of the racist language and slurs within it that is not softened by some excuse centered around how the 1930s were 'a different time.' There needs to be an emphasis on how 'that's how things were' isn't at all the same as 'that's how things should be'--and how we can, and should, do better.
I do also think that, while Of Mice and Men is a valuable piece of literature, we should be doing more to diversify the literature that we teach in our classrooms. Whatever else is true of Of Mice and Men, it is also true that it is yet another piece of classic literature which was written by a White man--White male authors have dominated the literary space and our classroom reading lists for far too long. Sure, many of their books do remain valuable, good pieces of literature, but not every good book deserves a place in standard curriculum. More places should go to promoting too-long-silenced and underrepresented voices, such as that of BIPOC authors.
A Challenged Books Challenge
This is the eighth installment in the series of 10 book reviews I will be doing as part of my challenge to read and review all of the ALA's Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020. Read more about this challenge, including the other books involved, here. The first installment (George) can be found here, the second installment (Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You) can be found here, the third (All American Boys) can be found here, the fourth (Speak) can be found here, the fifth (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian) can be found here, the sixth (Something Happened in Our Town) can be found here, the seventh (To Kill a Mockingbird) can be found here.
The next book I will be reviewing is The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Look for that review here on my blog on August 20.
Elizabeth Wilcox. Writer, Avid Role-Player, Amateur Mixologist. Survivor.