• Straight Talking English

FREE SAMPLE: The American Dream in Of Mice and Men

For those of you who think Steinbeck’s account of life on the farm in the 1930s is not relevant to today, think again. One of the main issues necessary to consider when engaging with this novella was one of the hot-button issues of Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, and has continued to be so for the last three years (at the time of writing).

‘“Sadly, the American dream is dead,” Donald Trump proclaimed when he announced his candidacy for president of the United States.’

Vice President Mike Pence jumped into the debate and informed commentators that reports of the American Dream’s death had been premature.

‘Was the American dream in trouble? You bet. I really do believe that’s why the American people chose a president whose family lived the American dream and was willing to go in and fight to make the American dream available for every American.’

However, in February 2019, political scientist Samuel J Abrams gleefully reported that:

‘I am pleased to report that the American dream is alive and well for an overwhelming majority of Americans.’

This is a novella about the American Dream and a conflict between American Dreams. The definition of this concept is just as vague now as it was in the 1930s, and while it’s difficult to define, it’s easier to see how different characters took different American Dreams and turned them into the sources of disagreement throughout Of Mice and Men.

As soon as America became a separate nation in 1776, the idea that a person can follow their own quest for happiness became a priority. This was even enshrined in the Declaration of Independence in an iconic line.

‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’

However, this pursuit of happiness became really ill defined. The American Dream became a concept which defined an American Identity, but it was never really made clear what it was. It’s easier to address Of Mice and Men as a novel of the death of the American Dream if we take each character who engages with it separately, since every character with a dream is associated with a different shard of the Dream.

Despite working towards the ranch, George holds a secret dream.

‘God a'mighty, if I was alone I could live so easy. I could go get a job an' work, an' no trouble. No mess at all, and when the end of the month come I could take my fifty bucks and go into town and get whatever I want. Why, I could stay in a cat house all night. I could eat any place I want, hotel or any place, and order any damn thing I could think of. An' I could do all that every damn month. Get a gallon of whisky, or set in a pool room and play cards or shoot pool.’

This dream can be summarised as a dream of consumption, of being able to access all the pleasures of the 1920s. This was the boom decade of new products and free time earned by no longer doing everything by hand. This desire to access these commodities was inflamed by the use of what can be considered modern advertising.

‘Mass advertising campaigns were launched to encourage consumers to buy, use and buy again. . . The goal of advertising, said Bruce Barton [founding member of a famous advertising firm] is to arouse desires and stimulate wants, to make people dissatisfied with the old and out of date and by constant iteration to send them to work harder to get the latest model—whether that model be an icebox or a rug or a new home.

While advertising fanned the flame of desire for new goods, new forms of credit—noticeably instalment buying—enabled consumers to buy them. ‘Ride Now, Pay Later’ trumpeted auto manufacturers. Advertising raised expectations and fostered a belief in Americans that they were entitled to an ever-rising standard of living. In the past, most people had thought it immoral to go into debt. Now, they were inspired by advertising to seek instant gratification. Old-fashioned notions of thrift and self-restraint were replaced by the urge to consume.’

However, George is a rural farmworker. For him, the 1920s would have not been a decade of increased leisure time and a higher standard of living. For a start, his wages would probably have gone down.

‘The average wage of the farmworker, which had climbed to $830 in 1920, slipped back to $551 in 1924.’

Economically, George has little chance of achieving this, especially with Lennie around. Logistically he also has little chance of achieving this since just going to a bar would be a nightmare trip.

‘In 1914 there were only 750 miles of concrete highway in the entire country. Most roads were merely dirt or gravel tracks, and were often washed out or quagmires. Maps of rural America were also non-existent as was information on road conditions.’

Even the simple dream at the opening of the novella is never going to happen.

Curley’s wife, however, dreams of fame and fortune.

‘Coulda been in the movies, an' had nice clothes—all them nice clothes like they wear. An' I coulda sat in them big hotels, an' had pitchers took of me. When they had them previews I coulda went to them, an' spoke in the radio, an' it wouldn'ta cost me a cent because I was in the pitcher. An' all them nice clothes like they wear. Because this guy says I was a natural.’

This was a very common dream in the 1920s, as it still is today. This decade saw the birth of Hollywood as we know it, and the demand for movies was huge.

‘By the mid-1920s movie theaters were selling 50 million tickets each week, a sum equal to roughly half the US population!’ 

Is Curley’s wife’s dream likely to have come true? In a word, no. It’s another example of an empty pipe dream. Just a quick glance at the ways other successful actresses had their big breaks will tell anyone that being a farmer’s wife who grew up in the middle of nowhere in California was not the way to go about it. Take Mary Pickford’s entry into Hollywood:

‘When Pickford was five and still named Gladys Smith, her widowed mother Charlotte allowed a travelling theatre couple to put her on stage for a fee. The applause was great; the cash was better. Pickford was driven by success, almost frighteningly so, even in her first years as an actress. She’d stab her cheeks with a hair pin to imitate the older blushing beauties. School was out—Pickford only attended for three months—and instead learned how to read from the billboards she’d spot on the road. (She claimed a lifelong hatred of cerise, the dark-red colour of train seats.)

She’d met deMille when she performed in his play on Broadway at the age of 15. His younger brother Cecil (who capitalised the family name to make it ‘DeMille’) was another cast member. Both men would become big names in Hollywood—years after Pickford showed the doubters that it could be done. She arrived in 1910, the month before Hollywood even got its official name, as the rising star of DW Griffith’s Biograph Company.’

Bebe Daniels has a different, but still more conventional, start to a Hollywood career.

‘She came from a show business family with an actress mother and a theater manager father and she first appeared on stage at the age of 4. She started her film career aged 8 and worked for a number of studios, including Imperial, and Pathe and she was the first screen Dorothy in 1910 in 'The Wonderful Wizard of Oz'.

When she was just 14 she was chosen to join Hal Roach's comedy studio as Harold Lloyd's co-star in a long series of "Lonesome Luke" two-reel shorts starting with 'Giving Them Fits' in 1915.

After four years and a highly publicised romance with Harold Lloyd Bebe decided her career needed greater variety and she signed a contract with producer/director Cecil B. Demille, appearing in a number of silent movies, usually in glamorous, non-starring roles, over the next two years.’

The hope of being ‘discovered’ at a rural party just seems to make the reader feel more sympathy for Curley’s wife. It will never happen.

On the face of it, George and Lennie’s dream seems the most typical of any American Dream held by any character.

‘Lennie pleaded, "Come on, George. Tell me. Please, George. Like you done before." "You get a kick outa that, don't you? Awright, I'll tell you, and then we'll eat our supper...." George's voice became deeper. He repeated his words rhythmically as though he had said them many times before. "Guys like us, that work on ranches, are the loneliest guys in the world. They got no fambly. They don't belong no place. They come to a ranch an' work up a stake and then they go into town and blow their stake, and the first thing you know they're poundin' their tail on some other ranch. They ain't got nothing to look ahead to."

Lennie was delighted. "That's it- that's it. Now tell how it is with us."

George went on. "With us it ain't like that. We got a future. We got somebody to talk to that gives a damn about us. We don't have to sit in no bar room blowin' in our jack jus' because we got no place else to go. If them other guys gets in jail they can rot for all anybody gives a damn. But not us."

Lennie broke in. "But not us! An' why? Because... because I got you to look after me, and you got me to look after you, and that's why." He laughed delightedly. "Go on now, George!"

"You got it by heart. You can do it yourself."

"No, you. I forget some a' the things. Tell about how it's gonna be."

"O.K. Someday- we're gonna get the jack together and we're gonna have a little house and a couple of acres an' a cow and some pigs and-"

"An' live off the fatta the lan'," Lennie shouted. "An' have rabbits. Go on, George! Tell about what we're gonna have in the garden and about the 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."

"Why'n't you do it yourself? You know all of it."

"No... you tell it. It ain't the same if I tell it. Go on... George. How I get to tend the rabbits."

"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 the 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!" He took out his pocket knife. "I ain't got time for no more."’

This was a dream that had been pitched at Americans for a long time, and examples go back as far as the founding of the Old West, where pioneers were encouraged to buy land in the middle of nowhere in the hope it would become better later.

‘Why, this wasteland could be England or Missouri, if plowed in the right way. Brochures were distributed in Europe, the American South, and at major ports of entry to the US: “500,000 acres offered for sale as farm homes” and cheap as well, the land selling for $13 an acre. Twice a month, agents for the syndicate rounded up five hundred people and put them on a train from Kansas City to the Texas Panhandle to see for themselves. The train ride was free.

Speculators who bought from the syndicate turned around and added to the claims. “Riches in the soil, prosperity in the air, progress everywhere, an Empire in the making!”

. . .Well sure, it rained less than twenty inches a year, which was the accepted threshold for growing a crop without irrigation, but through the miracle of dry farming a fellow could turn this land into gold. Put a windmill in and up comes water for your hogs, chickens, and garden. And dryland wheat, it didn’t need irrigation. Just plant in the fall, when a little moisture would bring the sprouts up, let it go dormant in the winter, then wait for spring rains to get the crop growing again. Harvest in summer. Any three-toed fool could do it, the agents said.’

These claims were what partially led to the hideous Dust Bowl of the 1930s. George and Lennie’s dream is a nostalgic recycling of a very old myth.

Would Crooks be able to share any of the American Dreams held by the other characters? Perhaps, but it’s reasonable to assume that his would hold a slightly different focus. From the second he is mentioned in the novella, he is marked as different from the others using racially offensive language.

‘George lifted his tick and looked underneath it. He leaned over and inspected the sacking closely. Immediately Lennie got up and did the same with his bed. Finally George seemed satisfied. He unrolled his bindle and put things on the shelf, his razor and bar of soap, his comb and bottle of pills, his liniment and leather wristband. Then he made his bed up neatly with blankets. The old man said, "I guess the boss'll be out here in a minute. He was sure burned when you wasn't here this morning. Come right in when we was eatin' breakfast and says, 'Where the hell's them new men?' An' he give the stable buck hell, too."

George patted a wrinkle out of his bed, and sat down. "Give the stable buck hell?" he asked.

"Sure. Ya see the stable buck's a nigger.”

"Nigger, huh?”

"Yeah. Nice fella too. Got a crooked back where a horse kicked him. The boss gives him hell when he's mad. But the stable buck don't give a damn about that. He reads a lot. Got books in his room."

"What kind of a guy is the boss?" George asked.

"Well, he's a pretty nice fella. Gets pretty mad sometimes, but he's pretty nice. Tell ya what- know what he done Christmas? Brang a gallon of whisky right in here and says, 'Drink hearty, boys. Christmas comes but once a year.'"

"The hell he did! Whole gallon?"

"Yes sir. Jesus, we had fun. They let the nigger come in that night. Little skinner name of Smitty took after the nigger. Done pretty good, too. The guys wouldn't let him use his feet, so the nigger got him. If he coulda used his feet, Smitty says he woulda killed the nigger.

The guys said on account of the nigger's got a crooked back, Smitty can't use his feet." He paused in relish of the memory. "After that the guys went into Soledad and raised hell. I didn't go in there. I ain't got the poop no more.”'

Crooks lived at a time when the Jim Crow laws prevented him from having the full rights due to him as an American Citizen based on his race. He also lived at a time of segregation, which explains why he can’t live in the bunkhouse with the other men. In 1926, a good eleven years before Of Mice and Men, President Harding had made his views on race relations very clear:

‘I believe the federal government should stamp out lynching and remove that stain from the fair name of America . . .I believe Negro citizens of America should be guaranteed the enjoyment of all their rights . . .they have earned the full measure of citizenship bestowed.’

Crooks has been promised an improvement in his situation that had not materialised, and this improvement in his rights is exactly what his participation in George and Lennie’s dream will entail. This dream is also shattered by the end of the novella.

Candy, the elderly swamper, buys into George and Lennie’s dream too, hoping in exchange for his compensation check (given after a farming accident led to the loss of a hand) he will get to live out his retirement in peace and safety. Considering that life is fair rotten for all the ranch hands, Candy’s life is not the worst. He does have a limited safety net.

‘The defining event of the 1930s the Great Depression, brought a resurgence in the Eugenics Movement. This time eugenicists based their arguments on economics instead of genetics. These arguments, and the notion of Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, proved persuasive as competition for a scarce number of jobs became brutal.

Paradoxically, the decade saw the election of FDR, the first president with a physical impairment. Using a wheelchair for mobility due to polio, Roosevelt’s disability was not widely known by the public. During most of Roosevelt’s public appearances he was not seen in his wheelchair and was often placed at the podium to appear as if he was standing on his own.

Although he downplayed his own disability, Roosevelt brought the concept of social security to America through his New Deal. As part of the Social Security Act, public assistance was extended to ‘the blind and children with disabilities’. Ironically, his belief in a social safety-net for citizens with disabilities contrasted the fact that the work relief programs his administration devised often discriminated against individuals with disabilities.’

This sounds promising, but the reality of this new social security was awful, as Victoria Brignell explains:

‘For much of the 20th century, it was common in the UK and USA to segregate disabled people from the rest of society.

Large numbers of British and American disabled people were put away in institutions on the grounds that it was for their own good and the good of society. For example, in 1913, the passing of the Mental Incapacity Act in Britain led to around 40,000 men and women being locked away, having been deemed “feeble-minded” or “morally defective”. Many disabled people living in hospitals, special schools and care homes are known to have suffered severe emotional and physical abuse.

Institutions regularly regarded their disabled residents as second-class citizens and showed them little respect. Staff often made little attempt to empathise with disabled peoples experiences, denying them autonomy, choice and dignity and at times deliberately causing them pain and discomfort. In care homes and special schools for disabled children, there was sometimes hardly any attempt to meet the children’s emotional needs or acknowledge their individual identities.

In Pride against Prejudice by Jenny Morris, one disabled woman recounts her childhood experiences of living in various institutions in England in the 1940s and 1950s. In one place, disabled children had to go outdoors at 6am every morning and weren't allowed to put bedclothes over themselves at night. For half the day they were not permitted to speak so they spent much of their time making paper darts and trying to throw messages to each other. Children never had their own toys and when they were sick they were expected to eat their own vomit. When the girl's father gave her a doll for her 11th birthday, the staff wouldn't allow her to keep it.

If the nurses took a dislike to a child they would hold her under the water in a bath until she started to go blue. A group of children would be assembled to watch what was happening. On one occasion, the nurses held a child under the water for too long and the child drowned. It was impossible for the children to tell the outside world about what went on inside the institution. All letters written by the children to their parents were censored and staff were always present when the children had visitors.’

Candy’s involvement in the Dream is therefore not a vision of relaxation, but also of survival, since an elderly disabled man may well have ended up in an institution that was the stuff of nightmares.

To say Of Mice and Men is a novel of the American Dream is very true, but Steinbeck is also acknowledging the multiple American Dreams that his peers believed in, and how, in fact, most of them were futile.

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