A letter to my students upon reading Of Mice and Men

by Mr. Sheehy

Ths letter was intended to be heard, and you can hear me read it by clicking on the podcast. I thought it through quite thoroughly, though, and figured it was worth posting the transcript.

 listen

I feel as though beginning our unit on John Steinbeck requires a moment to stop and discuss my personal feelings toward this author, since Steinbeck plays a significant role in why I am your English teacher instead of your math teacher. Yes, math – I enjoyed math quite a bit in high school, and one of the little bits of bragging I actually indulge in is mentioning the 4 I earned on the AP Calculus exam.

But literature pulled me out of the world of math and into its created universes. I met characters like George Milton (Of Mice and Men), Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath), and, most importantly for me in high school, Mack from Cannery Row, who “was the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment” (119).

These were characters for whom society had no love – cast aways and vagabonds; roughnecks, good-for-nothings. And Steinbeck turned his eye to them and created worlds where we could not deny them the goodness and beauty they possess. They are fun, kind, sacrificial, content, and modest. In Cannery Row Mack is described by a friend as having “qualities of genius.” This man goes on to observe that “They’re all very clever if they want something. They just know the nature of things too well to be caught in that wanting” (252).

We all could do well not to be caught in the wanting that dominates so much of our lives, and in this and many other instances, when we read Steinbeck we find ourselves looking up to and admiring characters we frown upon when we meet them in our “real” lives.

But that is not to say they are without fault. Steinbeck does not plane, whittle, and sand the characters down so far that their faults disappear. He shows them in the true paradox of all people – people in whom good and bad, sin and righteousness, co-habit. And this makes them real and recognizable. They are a type of echo of reality – a reverberation of what we know to be true, but an echo that, when we hear it, showcases something we did not recognize before.

“Yes,” we might think. “I have seen these characters before, but I had not looked closely enough to see their virtues, the suggestion of something greater in them.”

But if we willingly follow Steinbeck into his created worlds, and we meet Mack and Tom Joad and George and Lennie, we will recognize something greater in them, and we will see beauty in them. And if we allow our sentiments to be unguarded, we will learn about empathy, and we can walk away better people than we were before.

That is part of what makes literature so powerful.

You see, when I was halfway through high school, I didn’t care much about reading. I could read fine and I cared about school and did well, but I bluffed my way through a year’s worth of independent reading assignments during my sophomore year, because I was more interested in other things, like watching college basketball and playing soccer. But during my junior year I read about Mack and the gang in Cannery Row– and when I finished, I knew I’d changed. I saw people differently; more completely. Later that year I read The Grapes of Wrath for the first time, and with it Steinbeck completed the change in me.

I don’t want to overstate how much influence this one author has had on my perspective in life. There were other more important tides changing as I began my junior year of high school, and if I were to engage in a full criticism of Steinbeck’s work and world view, I would have a lot to say in disagreement with him – and much of that in vital areas.

But Steinbeck’s work affected me, and affected me in positive ways, and as we begin this one small work, Of Mice and Men, my hope is that you will release yourself to the world of the story and allow it to affect you, if it can. And if you enjoy it, I can’t encourage you enough to read more Steinbeck, because in my mind you haven’t tasted Steinbeck until you bite into The Grapes of Wrath and stroll through Cannery Row.

That said, let’s meet George Milton and the lovable Lennie Small, and see what we can learn about being better people in a hard and complex world.

*Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men / Cannery Row. New York: Penguin, 1978.

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