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Barron's Booknotes-Of Mice And Men by John Steinbeck
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THE AUTHOR AND HIS TIMES

John Steinbeck always planned to be a writer. He was basically a shy person; he rarely granted interviews and felt a little uncomfortable as he gained more fame and publicity. He didn't really enjoy face-to-face contact, even with his friends, and never felt he communicated well over the telephone. Steinbeck was most at ease when he was writing. In his lifetime, he wrote thousands of letters (sometimes even six or seven a day), 16 novels, one short story collection, eight works of nonfiction, and two filmscripts.

Steinbeck's favorite instrument was the pencil. He would start each day with 24 newly sharpened pencils and would need to sharpen them again before the day was through. He wrote in a tiny script, usually on yellow legal-size pads. Little by little, however, his pencils gave way to a typewriter on which he continued to pound out letters and prose at a remarkable pace.

Steinbeck never wrote an autobiography, but all of his writing contains pieces of his life story. The settings of most of the books are the areas near Salinas and Monterey, in California, where Steinbeck was born and lived most of his life. He came from a working-class background, and most of his characters have to struggle to make a living. Before he began making enough money to live on with his writing, Steinbeck worked as a ranch hand, bricklayer, fruit picker, and marine biologist. He worked with union members and with migrant laborers. These people became the focus of his most important writing. And all of his experiences helped to mold the plots and themes of his books.

Steinbeck's early novels were also conceived in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Poverty and rootlessness seem to hang over the lives of Steinbeck's characters, Perhaps this mirrors not only the period of time but also the author's own struggles to find a place in which he could write, and an audience to recognize and appreciate his writings.

Steinbeck was born in Salinas on February 27, 1902. His father was a farmer and treasurer of Monterey County. His mother was a schoolteacher in Salinas. From his mother, Steinbeck learned to love books-among his favorites were Crime and Punishment, Paradise Lost, and Le Morte d'Arthur (the first book he ever owned). He also loved to read the King James version of the Bible. As you will soon see, the last three of these books are echoed in interesting ways in Of Mice and Men.



Besides books, Steinbeck had another great love while he was growing up-nature. He worked on farms and ranches during his high-school vacations and developed a closeness to the land and the plants and creatures that lived on it. This sensitivity toward nature found its place in Steinbeck's writings, particularly The Red Pony, The Pastures of Heaven, and Of Mice and Men. In each of these works Steinbeck's natural settings are places of both life and death, places that allow human beings to enter them but refuse to be dominated by human beings. Such a place is the spot along the banks of the Salinas River where the opening and closing scenes of Of Mice and Men occur. This setting is alive, but death always lurks nearby. Within the novel, it serves as both a haven and a burial ground. Although Steinbeck studied nature and natural forces, his real focus was always people. Steinbeck was a careful observer and listener. His books are noted for the accuracy of their characters and language. For example, the bunk house in Of Mice and Men comes alive for readers because of Steinbeck's understanding of the patterns of the ranch hands' lives and the rhythms of their speech. He had, after all, lived these patterns and rhythms himself.

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