- Critical Insights: Of Mice and Men ed. by Barbara A. Heavilin
edited by Barbara A. Heavilin
Grey House Publishing / Salem Press, 2017, 304 pp. $105.00 cloth
Comprising two introductory essays, three "Critical Contexts" essays, ten "Critical Readings" essays, and a "Resources" section including useful bibliographical and biographical information, Barbara A. Heavilin's anthology is the most comprehensive and compelling collection of interpretations of Steinbeck's brilliant 1937 novella. For scholars, the collection represents a remarkable and representative range of thinking about a work that continues to invite interpretation. For students, clarity of style and relevance of the content make it an accessible resource for their writing. It is a superb addition to the Critical Insights series on individual literary works.
In its application of a non-teleological approach to narrative that eschews clear causation and blame in favor of ambivalence and ambiguity, Of Mice and Men parallels Steinbeck's previous novel, In Dubious Battle, and also his next major work, The Grapes of Wrath. Attentive to the centrality of this approach, a number of contributors to the volume note that Steinbeck had originally intended to give Of Mice and Men the title "Something That Happened." The non-teleological dimension of Steinbeck's writings in this period from 1936 to 1939—years that Tetsumaro Hayashi labels "the years of greatness"—receives extensive treatment in the various essays. However, the significant fact that the three novels he wrote in succession all feature a pair of male protagonists (Mack and Jim; George and Lennie; and Tom and Casy), one of whom is killed, leaving the future of the other uncertain, is never mentioned. That lacuna is one of the very few interpretative stones left unturned in an anthology of impressive depth, range, and readability. [End Page 67]
In his compelling prefatory essay, Robert DeMott explores the participatory and non-teleological dimensions of Steinbeck's narratives, while countering the charges that Steinbeck was sentimental—an accusation made in the forties and fifties by followers of the New Criticism who failed to appreciate the humanistic qualities of his fiction and the deep well of empathy from which it flowed. In "Enduring Legacy for America," her expert introductory piece, Heavilin traces the arc of Steinbeck's career from the early thirties to the sixties. She contrasts and connects the treatment by biographers—namely, Jackson Benson's focus on Steinbeck's dedication to craft as a way to illuminate the everyday lives and struggles of ordinary people and Jay Parini's opening focus on Steinbeck's childhood that moves on to the nature and quality of his fiction. She reminds the reader that the social justice that motivated Steinbeck's work is as relevant to Of Mice and Men as anything he ever wrote and is powerfully encapsulated in his 1962 Nobel Prize speech, which emphasized the writer's responsibility to expose "our many faults and failures" and "to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit, . . . for courage, compassion, and love."
In her "Critical Contexts" essay on "the [wall] of background" in Of Mice and Men, Heavilin introduces Robert Burns's 1785 poem "To a Mouse"—the inspiration for the novella's title, which Carol Steinbeck proposed to her husband—and the Luger pistol used to kill Candy's dog, a foreshadowing of its later use in ending Lennie's life, and its connection to the looming context of Nazi Germany. Heavilin's treatment of Louis Owens's 2002 exploration of Of Mice and Men, "Deadly Kids, Stinking Dogs, and Heroes," provides a framework for consideration of core questions in the continuing debate over the work's meaning: Were there alternative courses of action for George? Did he have to kill Lennie? Are there any eugenicist implications, or validations, in the work's tragic ending? Heavilin also explores the critical debates over the character and death of Curley's wife, thus setting the stage for discussions pursued in the essays that follow.
Nick Taylor's "On Page, Stage, and Screen" highlights the intimacy of the individual reading experience, which makes any work partly the creation of the reader (as Steinbeck had...