Friday, May 8, 2015

Of Mice and Men (and Fiction and Feeling)

George Salter's design for Of Mice and Men, first edition, fair use claimed, full cite posted below.
Greetings All:

Year to date, I'm averaging about a blog post a week.  I make an effort to write about subjects that matter to me and I hope my readers find of interest.  Usually, current event and/or historical references drive my writing.  Recently, I have been focusing on more positive subjects and attempting to avoid deeper and more somber topics.  I'm not sure how to classify this post, perhaps somewhere in the middle on the "dour" scale.  Ultimately, you, the readers, will be the judge.  In any event, here goes:

There is a post going around social media about how some parents wish to prohibit (i.e. ban) the classic novel, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.  I have a link to the story below and here's the beginning of the article:

"The Great Depression is part of our nation’s history. So why would an Idaho committee seek to ban one of the greatest books written about that time period?  John Steinbeck’s "Of Mice and Men” is under fire from a Coeur d’Alene committee which says the book is too dark and depressing for teens to read."

When I saw this story, it got my attention for a couple of reasons:  First, I consider Steinbeck one of America's literary giants.  I have a link to one list of the 100 best novels and while Of Mice and Men is not on it, another Steinbeck work, The Grapes of Wrath, made the cut, #10.  One critic, Henry James, ranks Steinbeck as #21 amongst America's greatest writers.  I've got a link to the whole list from Commentary Magazine, but please trust me, he's in good company.

The other reason I like this story is I was in the play in high school.  More on that in a moment.

Of Mice and Men is set during the Great Depression on a California ranch.  The two main characters, George and Lenny, are migrant workers, looking for both work and their way in an ever-increasingly hostile world.  Steinbeck masterfully tells a story of hope and heartbreak.  The book is a mirror of that era, casting a painfully clear reflection of the suffering of that time.

It is a tough story.  Then again, we're talking about a tough time in our nation's history.  Various historians have mused that it was this period of systemic economic strife and suffering steeled America for the carnage of World War II.  I think there's more than a little truth to that theory.

The Great Depression was an economic disaster and a human catastrophe.   One-third of the non-farmer population was out of work, or 15% of the population.  For the poor, it was far worse.  Harlem, for example, had a 50% unemployment rate.  (Please see GWU link below for more information.)

If a picture is worth a thousand words...

Dorothea Lange's photo of a mother and her children, 1936, Elm Grove, California, photo source, Farm Security Administration, fair use/public domain claimed, full cite below in the credits.

Simply put, it was a bad time.  Steinbeck's writing reflects the world he saw and experienced.  Is there foul language? Check.  Racism, both blatant and subtle?  Check.  Violence?  Check.  Sexism?  Check.  Heartbreak?  Check, check, check.

And to the parents who say "Don't expose my precious child to this story," I say, "Read it.  Read it twice."  It is precisely because of all the things we find offensive in it that we should read it, all of us.  It's our history.  Reading it is not condoning it.  In fact, I'd argue the only authentic way to own our history is to understand it, with all its blemishes and raw, bleeding wounds.

I have a link below to books that have gone thru challenges over their publishing career.  This book made the list.  I think that Mr. Steinbeck would be proud of that fact, perhaps as much as his Nobel Prize.

So going back to the play and my role in it.  In 1985, Davenport West High School presented the stage version Of Mice and Men.  Under the direction of Mr. Paul Holtzworth, he guided, encouraged, occasionally yelled (well, OK, more than occasionally, but we were kids after all and deserved it) and directed us into a damn good high-school production of that show.

I had the role of Candy, an old farm worker with a crippled hand.  My dog has to be put down and to this day, I tear up when I think of that scene.  I recall that before the show began my friend Reid, a fine actor in his own right, helped me fix my fake bum hand and gave me some of the best advice an actor can receive:  "Keep the illusion alive."

Because after all, a play often is about a fake story.  Notwithstanding the historical background, the story itself is about something that is not real, never was.  There never was a George, or Lenny, or Curley or Candy.  All made up characters.  My friend Tom reminded me of that fact today.  He also made a reference/challenge to all of us to not focus so much on the pretend world and instead engage in solving the problems of our real one.  In a follow up post, he did state the value of a performance that can rise one to feel something.  His comment warrants a quote:

"...if you are crying, laughing, loving, hating, feeling happiness, feeling depression is all part of a good story. We humans have been storytelling for thousands of years..."

That is good advice, and well said my friend.

I would take it a step forward.  I would argue that a good story cannot exist without a basis in fact, in history.  One of my favorite books of the last decade is Stephen Pressfield's novel, Gates of Fire.  It is the fictionalized telling of the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held off the Persian Army in a heroic and suicidal stand, allowing greater Greece to rally and ultimately claim victory.  Oh, and the story is fictional.  The general concept is correct, but once you get past the historical bread, the meat, cheese, veggies (hardly any on my sandwiches) and condiments are all made up!  Never happened.

And yet, it's a hell of a story.  I burned thru it in a few days.  It was one of a few books I took with me on my little sabbatical I took a few years back a few time zones east six years ago.  I have given this book as a gift a bunch of times and have every intention of of continuing to do so.  I've got a link to the book below if you want to check it out and I highly encourage you to do so.

To the moms and dads who have a problem with Of Mice and Men, then this book will really blow your minds.  You don't want your kids picking up this book.  It discusses war and killing and loss and horror.  It also discusses honor and sacrifice and freedom and the willing subordination to a cause greater than oneself.  This is a book that is, to quote a former boss of mine, "a page turner."  It might actually cause (some) of your "so-called" sensitive kids to enlist or pursue ROTC in college.  Wow, how's that for irony?  Alas, I digress...

My (rambling) point is that fiction and the folks who reside in it are not real.  They are made up.  Yet when you mix up the historical background of the story, along with the quite real human emotions and choices that naturally follow, my friends:  Throw all that in a shaker with some ice, strain and serve in a properly chilled glass, and you've got one potent cocktail...of authenticity.  

I submit, I mark as a piece of evidence to be introduced to this court of my readers the concept, the belief, that just because something is a work of fiction does not render it devoid of its human value.  Its authenticity, the "acid test," rests not in its historical accuracy (and I'm talking literature here) but in its ability to move us, to cause us to feel something.  

If it does, then I respectfully argue, it is real, it matters.  And I think the reason some parents are so up in arms about wanting to protect their kids from it is they know, they are convinced that Steinbeck's work is, in fact real.  Real enough to cause their child pain.  

I would suggest, encourage even, these parents who want to keep Of Mice and Men away from their kids do the opposite, encourage them to both read and perform it.  Stage the play.  Let the kids learn their history by performing it.  Of course, provide generous periods of reflection on the subject matter.  If best for the cast, edit out certain ugly words if it will best serve the greater goal of telling the story.  You don't need every swear word or racial epitaph to feel this story.

All you need is the courage to tell it and hear it and collectively share it.  And then, then my friends, this work of literature becomes something real to all in attendance at the performance.  With the proper preparation and appropriate involvement by all, you have done more than told a story.  You've joined history with literature and a collective experience.

That is something no one should ever be denied...and certainly not protected from.

Be well my friends,

Sources: (see explanation for fair use justification.)


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