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Steinbeck's critics have sometimes accused him of being too careful and objective in his presentation of his characters and stories. They have complained that the writer was too much of a scientific observer (the marine biologist side of him) and did not feel or present enough real emotion in his works. As you read Of Mice and Men, you'll have to decide for yourself whether Steinbeck is genuinely sympathetic toward his characters and their troubles or whether he has chosen merely to sit back and watch them in their hopeless struggle to improve their lives.
Steinbeck's career can generally be broken down into three periods: 1) the years before fame (1929- 34); 2) the years of growing fame (1935-45); and 3) the years of continued popularity (the period after World War II until his death in 1968). Of Mice and Men was written during the middle period, along with Steinbeck's most famous work, The Grapes of Wrath. The period between the Depression and World War II was a bittersweet time in the United States; Steinbeck's writings reflect the sense of loneliness and desperation many Americans felt. The books are sad but truthful, and they won immediate and lasting public approval.
Steinbeck published his first novel, Cup of Gold, in 1929. It failed to earn back the $250 the publisher had given the author as an advance. Steinbeck was not really surprised by the book's failure. In one of his letters he wrote that he didn't expect to be "above average" until his fifth book. As it turned out, Steinbeck underestimated himself. His fourth book, Tortilla Flat, published in 1935, won him public acceptance and critical attention. It also earned some money for him. Steinbeck received between $3000 and $4000 for the film rights to Tortilla Flat. For a man used to earning $35 a week, this seemed like a fortune. Steinbeck determined to get even more serious about his writing: his career was entering its second phase.
Two years later, he published Of Mice and Men. It was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection and earned Steinbeck the honor of being named one of the Ten Outstanding Young Men of the Year.
The book was not an easy one to write. Steinbeck determined to create a new literature form with it. He called this form a play-novelette, a short novel that contained the sparseness of language and description of a play. (You can read more about this form in the Form and Structure section of this guide.) Steinbeck expected problems getting the form just right, but there was one problem he didn't anticipate-one night, while he and his wife were out, their Irish Setter puppy found the manuscript and destroyed nearly half of it. It took Steinbeck two months to re-create the missing parts.
As soon as Steinbeck finished the book, he immediately began work on a play version of the story, which had a successful run on Broadway in 1938. The author was not in attendance on opening night, instead he was living in a migrant camp in Oklahoma. He was developing the first-hand insights for his most important work, The Grapes of Wrath, published the next year. The Grapes of Wrath was powerful, controversial, and, most of all, popular. It was the best-selling book of 1939 and one of the top sellers of 1940 as well. Steinbeck's portrayal of a family of displaced Oklahoma farmers plagued by elements of nature and human injustice won him both fame and hatred. He even received several threats on his life. A Congressman called the book "a black, infernal creation of a distorted mind," while Steinbeck's peers awarded him both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Booksellers' Award. Over half a million copies of the original edition were sold.
None of Steinbeck's later works could match the sharpness of Of Mice and Men or the power and scope of The Grapes of Wrath, but they earned him fame and money nonetheless. The author remained very popular with the public but fell out of critical favor for a while. Recently, however, his works have found revival on television, in movies, and on stage.
Following the publication of his last novel, The Winter of Our Discontent, Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962. The award noted Steinbeck's "great feeling for nature, for the tilled soil, the wasteland, the mountains, and the ocean coasts... in the midst of and beyond the world of human beings."
Perhaps the clearest embodiment of Steinbeck's feelings for nature and his careful observation of our place within the natural scheme of things is in Of Mice and Men. The book is Steinbeck's statement of the pain of human loneliness and the struggle of man to find a home within the "fat of the land." The book has remained popular not because the novel is hopeful or happy (it isn't), but because, like all of Steinbeck's writings, it rings true and clear.