Better Read Than Never: Steinbeck’s OF MICE AND MEN

Chaney and Meredith, Lennie and George (1939).

Quaid and Blake (1981).








I quoted John Steinbeck recently (in “He Said/She Said”, below right) because I empathize with the fear and inadequacy he felt as a writer. It’s always good to know that heroes are what they are not because they have “no fear” – that great modern lie of the superhero movies and shoe-hawking T-shirts – but precisely because they do fear and it doesn’t stop them. His writerly doubts came as he was struggling with an experimental novel, the classic Of Mice and Men, and I read about them in its introduction. Then I dived, certainly not for the first or second time and (swear to God, hope not to die) likely not for the last, into Steinbeck’s timeless evocation of rural California, sometime early in the 20th century.

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John Steinbeck (On Fear, Self-Doubt and Creativity)

[In writing Of Mice and Men] “the biggest problem is a resolution of the will. The rewards of work are so sickening to me that I do more with the greatest reluctance….It is strange how this goes on. The struggle to get started. Terrible. It always happens….I am afraid. Among other things I feel that I have put some things over. That the little success of mine is cheating. I don’t seem to feel that any of it is any good. All cheating.”

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) had, by this time (1936) broken through as a writer, and the monumental The Grapes of Wrath was also in progress. As I take another tour through Of Mice and Men, it is oddly heartening to hear a Nobel Prize-winner lament his lack of will, and his conviction that his stuff jus’ ain’t what it oughta be. And yet, though he mutters in his journal that he finds it “sickening”, on he plods. This quote comes from the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition by the Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw.

Zhong Qiu Kuai Le

It’s the evening of Mid-Autumn Festival day in Dalian, China. It has been a lazy but pretty day. Zhong qiu kuai le literally means “middle autumn happy”, the standard holiday greeting. We wandered through the nearby university on the way to the first restaurant we entered in this city, in September 2009. Then, an American veteran of the Dalian scene noticed us dazedly looking around, and came out of Fengxin Jiujia (literally “harvest money alcohol home”), a homey little restaurant/tavern with a menu in English. It’s been a mainstay since.

We’ve eaten a little bit of “mooncake” (yue bing), which is a little like what Christmas cake used to be in Canada — everyone gives them or serves them during the season, but many don’t actually like them. We smile, imagining the furious cross-country scurrying of couriers delivering elaborate and requisite mooncake gifts to people who then have a disposal problem. Some people love ’em, though, and there are decadent and non-traditional ones that my sweet tooth would likely savour. (This is a short greeting, so don’t be afraid to continue!)

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