You probably spent some time as a teenager reading John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men. Even if you know about Lennie and George’s heartbreaking pursuit of life, liberty, and a hutch full of rabbits, there are a few things you might have missed about the iconic story during English class. To commemorate what would have been Steinbeck's 115th birthday, here are 15 things you might not have known about Of Mice and Men.
1. STEINBECK HAD DONE LENNIE AND GEORGE’S GIG.
Although he was a Stanford University graduate and had published five books by the time he wrote Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck had more in common with his itinerant main characters than readers might have expected. “I was a bindle-stiff myself for quite a spell,” the author told The New York Times in 1937, employing the now archaic nickname for migrant workers. “I worked in the same country that the story is laid in.” With Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck wanted to tell the story of a community largely unheralded in literature and high culture.
2. LENNIE WAS BASED ON A REAL PERSON.
In the same New York Times article, Steinbeck recalled a fellow laborer on whom Lennie Small’s arc was based: “Lennie was a real person. He's in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn't kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach. I hate to tell you how many times. I saw him do it. We couldn't stop him until it was too late.”
3. OF MICE AND MEN WAS ARGUABLY THE FIRST “PLAY-NOVELETTE.”
The stage intrigued Steinbeck as much as prose did, and the book shares similarities with both media. Like a theatrical piece, Of Mice and Men manifests in three acts. Its narration bears the character of stage direction, and its dialogue has the feel of something one might hear in a play.
4. STEINBECK HIMSELF WON A NEW YORK DRAMA CRITICS’ CIRCLE AWARD FOR THE STAGE PRODUCTION.
Around eight months after its initial publication, Of Mice and Men made its way to the stage, opening in New York in November of 1937. The following year, Steinbeck accepted the New York Drama Critics’ Circle’s Best Play Award for the production.
5. THE ORIGINAL TITLE WAS MUCH MORE MATTER-OF-FACT.
Before he opted to make his title an homage to Scottish poet Robert Burns’ 1785 poem “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough,” Steinbeck considered a far more deliberate option: Something That Happened.
6. THE TITULAR POEM IS NOT QUITE HOW MOST PEOPLE REMEMBER IT.
Ask any American reader to identify the line of verse that inspired Steinbeck’s title, and you’ll more than likely hear, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” In fact, this is simply the English-language paraphrasing of the original Scottish poem, which reads, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”
7. STEINBECK’S DOG ATE HIS HOMEWORK. REALLY.
Perhaps none too pleased with the ultimate fate of the canines featured in Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s dog, Toby, devoured an early draft of the story, which the author had written longhand on notepaper.
8. THE NOVELLA WAS AN EARLY SELECTION FOR THE BOOK OF THE MONTH CLUB.
In operation for 88 years between 1926 and 2014, the Book of the Month Club was the premiere mail order book service operating in the United States. Before it was even officially published, Of Mice and Men was chosen for distribution by the organization.
9. OF MICE AND MEN IS ONE OF THE MOST COMMONLY READ BOOKS IN AMERICAN SCHOOLS.
In the 1990s, the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature placed Steinbeck’s novella among the 10 most commonly taught books in public schools, Catholic schools, and independent high schools.
10. THAT SAID, IT IS ALSO ONE OF THE MOST CHALLENGED BOOKS.
Of Mice and Men proves that with such prevalence comes backlash. The novella ranked as the fifth most frequently challenged piece of literature on the American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Banned or Challenged Books between 2000 and 2009.
11. THE BOOK HAS BEEN OPPOSED FOR SOME PECULIAR REASONS.
By and large, the heat taken by Of Mice and Men has singled out the story’s strong language, sexual scenarios, and violence. But one organization in Chattanooga, Tenn. was a little more creative, taking issue with the “anti-business attitude” it saw in Steinbeck’s text. The establishment also raised the issue that Steinbeck “was very questionable as to his patriotism.”
12. OF MICE AND MEN PLAYED A BIG ROLE ON LOONEY TUNES.
Following the release of the 1939 film adaptation of the book, the Lennie character earned parody and homage alike in pop culture, most notably in Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes shorts. Lennie took form across the cartoon canon as a hound dog (“Of Fox and Hounds” in 1940 and “Lonesome Lenny” in 1946), an oversized cat (“Hoppy Go Lucky” in 1952 and “Cat-Tails for Two” in 1953), and a tremendous yeti (“The Abominable Snow Rabbit” in 1961 and “Spaced Out Bunny” in 1980), among other incarnations.
13. THE HOUSE WHERE STEINBECK WROTE THE BOOK IS NOW A LANDMARK.
If you’re interested in taking a gander at where the great American author wrote about Lennie and George, take a trip to Monte Sereno, Calif. Between 1936 and 1938, Steinbeck and his wife Carol lived at 16250 Greenwood Lane. The house, a 1989 addition to the National Register of Historic Places, should not be confused with Steinbeck’s similarly recognized childhood home in nearby Salinas, Calif. While in Monte Sereno, Steinbeck wrote both Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath.
14. THE SAME NEIGHBORHOOD LATER INSPIRED OTHER 20TH CENTURY ARTISTS.
15. AN ACTIVIST GROUP HAS ADOPTED OF MICE AND MEN AS PART OF ITS CURRICULUM.
The London-based Anti-Bullying Alliance maintains a list of 10 books aimed at educating young people about the problem of bullying and potential methods for deterrence. Of Mice and Men retains a place on this list among novels like To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and nonfiction books including My Story by Rosa Parks.
This post originally ran in 2015.