- Steinbeck Today
Last fall marked the thirtieth anniversary of Banned Books Week. Sponsored by the American Library Association (ALA) and other organizations interested in protecting America’s freedom to read, the event sparked a spate of reflections on the status of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men as one of the most consistently challenged books in the period between 1953 and 2007 (“Banned Books Week”). Traditionally, the novel has been banned for its use of foul language, racial slurs, violence, and depictions of subject matter deemed inappropriate for young people. An interesting post published on Pen.org, the website of a global advocacy group dedicated to protecting freedom of expression, suggests that perhaps it is the anomalously close relationship between two adult males who desire to make a home together that is most disturbing to contemporary Americans (Brown). The author of the post, Nate Brown, deputy director at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, has also investigated claims that the book supports euthanasia, although he has found no public challenges substantiating that position.
While challenges to Of Mice and Men have declined in the United States in recent years, the book continues to be banned in countries overseas. Purportedly it was banned in Lebanon in 2012, and in January, Turkey’s İzmir Education Directorate was criticized for attempting to censor several of the novel’s “‘immoral’ passages,” even though Of Mice and Men is one of the most widely read novels in the country (“Of Mice and Men Gets Taste”). Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay vehemently criticized the directorate for the decision, calling attempts to ban the novel inhuman (“Censoring Steinbeck”).
The insistent attempts to ban Of Mice and Men while it nonetheless enjoys enormous global popularity as a novel, play, and musical emphasize the dichotomously attractive yet repulsive appeal of the work. As Brown comments, there must be some “fundamental reason” that Of Mice and Men is both so celebrated and so condemned, though no one has quite put a finger on it. He laments the fact that the novel has fallen off the ALA’s top ten list of most-challenged books and hopes that it is not because readership of the novel [End Page 77] is declining in the United States. Brown concludes that Of Mice and Men is “a novel that clearly condemns exploitation, that exalts a dream of communal subsistence living, and in which a mercy killing is an honorable and humane alternative to ‘justice.’” Considering the United States’ current wage stagnation and increasing wealth gap, which smacks of injustice, Brown asserts, “Now more than ever, it’s a book we need to read.”
Fortunately, there are projects such as The Big Read, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, that are dedicated to “inspiring people across the country to pick up a good book.” Such efforts continue to keep Steinbeck and his works in the American public eye. The Big Read, launched in 2007, sponsors events on classic authors across the nation to encourage Americans to read for recreation. This year, The Big Read features The Grapes of Wrath on its list of recommended novels. Libraries in the Phoenix metropolitan area; the Garfield Public Library in Rifle, Colorado; and the Santa Cruz Public Library in California are hosting dozens of events related to the book, including Depression-era art exhibits, book discussions led by Steinbeck scholars, and musical performances. Events are free and designed for the general public in order to re-interest all Americans in reading, an activity that a 2004 NEA report found to be on a sharp decline (Reading at Risk). Undoubtedly, Steinbeck would appreciate his writing being put to such important use.
Typical of Steinbeck’s historically distinctive relationships with the popular reading public and critics is that even while the National Endowment for the Arts is celebrating his status as a noteworthy American author, attacks have been mounted by some individuals interested in maligning Steinbeck’s character and reputation. Former journalist Bill Steigerwald independently published Dogging Steinbeck: How I Went in Search of John Steinbeck’s America, Found my Own America, and Exposed the Truth about Travels with Charley in December 2012, a...