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D e a d ly K ids, S tin k in g D o g s , a n d H e ro e s : T h e B e s t L a id P la n s in S te in b e c k ’s O f M ic e a n d M e n L o u is O w e n s In 1950, the eminent American man of letters Edmund Wilson dis­ missed Steinbeck’s The Grapes ofWrath by writing, “[I]t is as ifhuman sen­ timents and speeches had been assigned to a flock of lemmings on their way to throw themselves into the sea” (42). Thirty years later, in a New York Thnes hatchet job on Steinbeck that masqueraded as a review of two new biographies by Jackson Benson and Thomas Kieman, Roger Sale launched what the reviewer must have considered a definitive strike against Steinbeck’s literary reputation, declaring that he “seems a writer without a source of strength” and sneering, “there is a story to be told here, which would stress how hollow Steinbeck’s dreams were, and how much he did with the little gift he had” (10). There have been a few champions of Steinbeck’s writing among academic and popular critics, such as Malcolm Cowley, who wrote of The Grapes of Wrath, “A whole literature is summarized in this book and much of it is canied to a new level of excellence,” but voices such as Cowley’s have been in the minority to say the least and seldom found in the better universities (qtd. in OwensJoh n Steinbeck’s Re-Vision of America 128). And the overriding damnation has been one of sentimentality. Alfred Kazin in 1956 indicted Steinbeck for “moral serenity” and “calculated sentimentality” (qtd. in Hadella 19). Edwin Berry Burgum accused Steinbeck’s values of being “paralyzed in the apathy of the sentimental” (qtd. in Hadella 20). A writer with such indestructible international popularity as Stein­ beck deserves, perhaps, a closer scrutiny to see if such criticism is valid. Is Steinbeck guilty of “moral serenity and calculated sentimentality”? If so, then his popularity is perhaps easily explained by the mass of readers’ colLouis Owens submitted this essay to Susan Shillinglaw, editor of Steinbeck Studies, shortly before his sudden death in July 2002. Shillinglaw kindly suggested joint publication with Western American Literature. We publish this essay with gratitude for his generosity to colleagues and stu­ dents and for his discerning writing, in many genres, about the fluidity of seemingly impenetrable boundaries. 3 2 0 WAL 3 7 .3 FALL 2 0 0 2 lective appetite for the simple and sentimental, a reality of lowbrow lit­ erary consumerism academic critics like to infer if not quite pronounce in the more egalitarian late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. If not, then is there more to his craft than Kazin and Wilson and company, along with the academy, have been inclined to notice? Of Mice and Men is an ideal subject for such scrutiny, for despite being a Book of the Month Club selection and bestseller still read in vir­ tually every high school in America and, with minimal adaptation by Steinbeck, winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award as the best stage production of 1937, this novella has been a particular target for critics who decry sentimentality in literature. Typical is Freeman Champney, who, in the Antioch Review, declared that “Of Mice and Men is little else besides a variation on the theme ‘every man kills the thing he loves’” (qtd. in Hadella 20). Still another critic accused Stein­ beck of being “embarrassingly sentimental and cheaply trite” (qtd. in Hadella 20). Of Mice and Men was written to be simultaneously a readable play and a stageable novel, an experiment that Steinbeck himself described as “a tricky little thing designed to teach me to write for the theater” (Steinbeck and Wallsten 132). The tricky little novel was first performed directly from the text, with no playscript, by the Theatre Union in San Francisco in the spring and summer of 1937 and then, after being adapted for stage by Steinbeck and George S. Kaufman, opened on...


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