Grammar-Check Your Blog Post About John Steinbeck

Image of John Steinbeck with dog Charley

Though he occasionally misused or misspelled words, John Steinbeck wrote to be understood, often revising sentences, paragraphs, and whole chapters before publishing. Unfortunately, blog posts written about Steinbeck for online magazines, ostensibly with grammar-checking editors, frequently confuse readers with sentences so ill-considered that their meaning is unclear or absent. Recent examples of both errors in online writing about Steinbeck’s greatest fiction can be found in a pair of blog posts published by two online magazines that, except for sectarianism and under-editing, couldn’t be less alike.

How Did The Forward Get John Steinbeck So Wrong?

The first post in question is by Aviya Kushner, the so-called language columnist of The Forward, a respected Jewish publication started in New York five years before Steinbeck was born. The “news flash from the distant land of real news” on offer in Kushner’s May 8 blog post—“How Did John Steinbeck and an Obama Staffer Get the Bible So Wrong?”—is the misspelling of timshol in East of Eden, old news to Steinbeck fans of all faiths or no faith at all. Kushner’s charge—that Steinbeck’s spelling error was an offense against language, culture, and morality—is undermined by her syntax. “It comes down to caring about language,” she writes in conclusion, “and insisting that words have meaning, which is, frankly, a hot contemporary topic that is not just political but also moral.” Ouch and double ouch.

Faith Is No Excuse When Blog Posts Make No Sense

The second example of online magazines writing badly about John Steinbeck comes from Pantheon, a site that bills itself as “a home for godly good writing,” apparently without irony. “Dreaming of Steinbeck’s Country”—the May 6 blog post by a self-identified minister named James Ford—means well but also proves that sententious praise, like captious criticism, collapses when style fails subject in sentences describing Steinbeck. “I consider the Grapes of Wrath [sic] one of the great novels of our American heritage,” writes Ford. “Currents of spirituality and spiritual quest together with a progressive if increasingly that agnostic form of Christianity feature prominently in Steinbeck’s writings. And no doubt it informs his masterwork the Grapes of Wrath.” [Sic] and [sic] again.

Is Your Piece Ready to Publish, or Does It Escape?

The lesson to be learned from this week’s examples of bad online writing? When blogging about John Steinbeck, take time to spell- and syntax- and grammar-check before posting. Online magazines have editors, but contributed posts are like the morning newspaper in Florida whose editor I once overheard describe this way: “Our paper isn’t published. It escapes.” Websites with a sectarian purpose, like The Forward and Pantheon, often make the mistake of allowing sentiment to overwhelm sense when publishing blog posts by sincere writers with a pro or con ax to grind. Steinbeck agonized over The Grapes of Wrath. East of Eden took years to write. Travels with Charley didn’t, and it shows. Is taking time to self-edit when writing about John Steinbeck for any website, secular or religious, asking too much?

Cracker Barrel Wisdom on John Steinbeck’s Birthday

Image of Craig Nagel, Minnesota newspaperman

Craig Nagel, author of the biweekly “Cracker Barrel” column in the Echo Journal, a community newspaper near Brainerd, Minnesota, celebrated John Steinbeck’s birthday with a memorable March 3 column written (as Nagel says of Steinbeck) “so simply and cleanly that his sentences seem effortless.” A Midwestern mensch in the style of Garrison Keillor, Nagel praises Steinbeck for displaying personal bravery in the face of public criticism, and for having a Twain-like sense of humor that “often masked the depth of his outrage, gentling the hatred he felt toward those who used and manipulated others.” Pequot Lakes, the Minnesota town where Nagel lives and writes his “Cracker Barrel” column, has a population of 2,200—about the size of Salinas, California when Steinbeck was born there 115 years ago. Like Salinas, it’s a small place harboring a big heart.

An Artful Reminder of Japanese American Internment 75 Years Ago

Image of George Matsasaburo Hibbi's painting from Topaz camp

The forced internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans two months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor distressed John Steinbeck, who admired Franklin Roosevelt, the president who signed the internment order. Today, exactly 75 years later, the memory of Executive Order 9066 continues to burden American history. An anniversary article on the World War II internment of Japanese Americans in the January 2017 issue of Smithsonian Magazine leads off with a profile of Jane Yanagi Diamond, a vibrant internment survivor I happen to know.

Image of Dorthea Lange's Photograph of young Jane Yanagi and family

The 1942 photograph taken by Steinbeck’s ally and contemporary Dorothea Lange (above) shows Jane as a sorrowing child holding on to her pregnant mother’s hand, moments before the Yanagi family boards a bus on the way to the emergency assembly center hastily set up by the federal government at a California racetrack. The family was then sent to Topaz, an internment camp in Utah that would also house two exceptional California artists, Chiura Obata and George Matsusaburo Hibi. Obata, an art instructor at UC Berkeley, and Hibi, a prolific painter from Hayward, California, founded an art school at Topaz that uncovered hidden talent and helped internees cope until the war ended and they could go home.

Image of George Matsasaburo Hibbi's painting of Topaz camp

Obata eventually returned to his teaching post at Cal and became famous for his Yosemite scenes. Hibi’s paintings included internment camp scenes like the one shown here. He was also magnanimous, donating 50 of his and his family paintings to the Hayward community before being sent to Topaz. Michael Brown, the author of Views from Asian California – 1920-1965, quotes Hibi as saying this about the gift: “There is no boundary in art. This is the only way I can show my appreciation to my many American friends here.’’ Obata died in 1975, Hibi in 1947, two years after his release from Topaz.

Image of Jane Yanagi Diamond at home in Carmel today

How Creating Art Helped Japanese Americans Survive

Obata and Hibi were part of a remarkable art movement in the Japanese American camps, most of which included professional artists who realized the importance of establishing a creative outlet for the internees. The work they produced–both professionals and students–was so moving, so powerful that in 1992 the Japanese American National Museum, the Wight Art Gallery at UCLA, and UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center assembled a landmark traveling exhibition, “The View from Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps 1942-1945.” Hibi’s colorful painting of four Topaz internees seated at easels is testimony to the spirit of the movement he and Obata helped create.

Obata and Hibi were part of a remarkable art movement in the Japanese American camps, most of which included professional artists who realized the importance of establishing a creative outlet for the internees.

I was a reporter at the time, and I wrote several articles about the exhibition. My interest was initially stirred when I learned that a Japanese American artist named Miki Hayakawa was taken from my town of Pacific Grove, California, to an internment camp in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I knew Hayakawa was a superb artist because several of her exquisite paintings had come into the art gallery that my wife Nancy and I owned there. Hayakawa lived in Pacific Grove from 1939 until her removal to the camp and may well have known—or known of—John Steinbeck, who was in Pacific Grove off and on during that period. Hayakawa died in Santa Fe in 1953.

I was a reporter at the time, and I wrote several articles about the exhibition, ‘The World From Within: Japanese American Art from the Internment Camps, 1942-1945.’

I met Jane Yanagi Diamond (shown above at home) several years ago when she and her husband Tony came into the gallery. They live in Carmel and had a painting by Hibi that had hung at Topaz and that Hibi gave to Jane’s father when the family was released. Jane wanted to find a good home for the work and together we decided that it should return to Topaz, where a museum had been established to memorialize the internment of Japanese Americans like Jane. The piece was dramatic. Painted on four panels, it depicts three tigers stalking a brave antelope or gazelle, head down, determined to hold its ground in the face of an approaching threat. I wondered at the time if Hibi painted it to give children like Jane the courage they needed to go on.

I met Jane Yanagi Diamond when she and her husband Tony came into the gallery. They live in Carmel and had a painting by Hibi that had hung at the Topaz camp.

Jane developed a love of art, favoring the freedom of California plein air painting—work painted out of doors in an Impressionistic manner—and attending frequent art openings in and around Carmel with her husband. When an exhibition of Nancy’s paintings opened at the Pacific Grove Library several years ago, Tony and Jane were there. She recently shared a story about her father. “After Topaz,” she said, “whenever my father would get angry about something–sometimes something I might have done–I could always redirect his anger by mentioning Franklin Roosevelt because it brought back memories.”

Jane developed a love of art, favoring the freedom of California plein air painting and attending frequent art openings in and around Carmel with Tony. She recently shared a story about her father.

The Yanagi family also had the three tigers and the gazelle to help them hold onto a piece of personal history made less painful by art. But Hibi’s painting has now returned to Topaz, where it will continue to tell the story of artful courage and coping from a troubling episode in American history.

Photograph of Jane Yanagi Diamond by Paul Kitagaki Jr. courtesy Smithsonian Magazine.

John Steinbeck’s Road Map For Resisting Donald Trump

Image of "Resist Donald Trump"

A recent blog post of the National Book Critics Circle asked members “at this time of cultural shift” in the dawning era of Donald Trump to identify their “favorite work of resistance literature.” The writer Paul Wilner identified John Steinbeck’s “quietly furious” strike novel In Dubious Battle as his personal choice.

“We may not see the future lying before us,” Wilner explained, “but Steinbeck has provided a valuable road map to the lessons of the past. He may have fought kicking and screaming against the label of ‘engaged’ writer–he’ll never be confused with Sartre, to his credit–but he understood the power, as well as the perils, of resistance.”

‘We may not see the future lying before us, but John Steinbeck has provided a valuable road map to the lessons of the past.’

True enough, but my choice of road map for resisting Donald Trump would be The Moon Is Down, the play-novella John Steinbeck wrote during the early, dark days of World War II about anti-fascist resistance by the citizens of a Nazi-occupied country in northern Europe. Steinbeck’s little book inspired citizen resistance in Nazi-occupied territories from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It contains practical advice for Americans opposed to Donald Trump’s attitudes and actions as president, 75 years after it was written.

The Moon Is Down contains practical advice for Americans opposed to Donald Trump’s attitudes and actions as president, 75 years after it was written.

Set in a fictionalized version of Norway, The Moon Is Down tells the story of what residents do when alien soldiers—never named as Nazis, but unmistakable nonetheless—invade their peaceful coastal mining town by air, land, and sea. Hitler’s forces tried hard to suppress The Moon Is Down in Nazi-occupied lands (possession was punishable by death in Mussolini’s Italy), but contraband copies, printed and passed on by hand, were widely credited with sustaining anti-fascist resistance until Nazi occupation ended in 1945. Once World War II was over, John Steinbeck was awarded the Freedom Cross by King Haakon VII of Norway, that nation’s highest civilian honor.

Set in a fictionalized version of Norway, it tells the story of what residents do when alien soldiers—never named as Nazis, but unmistakable nonetheless—invade their peaceful coastal mining town.

Magnified by an unforgiving winter, the passive bitterness of an occupied people morphs into active rebellion that begins quietly when the town’s mayor refuses to drink with the army officer who—unlike Donald Trump—is a moral man following orders from others. The refusal to cooperate eventually costs the mayor his life, but not before his example inspires numerous acts of rebellion, some violent, by residents of the town. Sanctuary-city mayors around the United States are setting a similar example by signaling their refusal to cooperate with federal orders to round up undocumented residents for deportation. Demonstrations at legislative town hall meetings, by citizens concerned about health care, are following a similar pattern. People are standing up to power.

Demonstrations at legislative town hall meetings, by citizens concerned about health care, are following a similar pattern. People are standing up to power.

When U.S. Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis was interviewed on Meet the Press not long ago, he prepared the stage for official resistance by explaining to Chuck Todd why he felt Donald Trump was “not legitimate” and why he refused to attend Trump’s inauguration. “You cannot be at home with something that is wrong,” Lewis told Todd, citing the example of Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.”

‘We must learn that passively to accept an unjust system is to cooperate with that system, and thereby to become a participant in its evil.’

John Steinbeck understood this principle but professed to be surprised that The Moon Is Down proved so popular, explaining that he wrote the book “as a kind of celebration of the durability of democracy.” When the mayor in Steinbeck’s story says that he feels the will of the people and acts accordingly, he gives unspoken permission for their resistance, the ultimate result of which is left—in typical Steinbeck fashion—for readers to decide. As Steinbeck makes clear, however, the occupiers are flummoxed because they fail to understand the psychology of people brought together by crisis. Products of a top-down, authoritarian culture familiar to students of Donald Trump, they are unprepared for popular resistance and cannot cope when confronted with democratic dissent.

John Steinbeck understood this principle but professed to be surprised that The Moon Is Down proved so popular, explaining that he wrote the book ‘as a kind of celebration of the durability of democracy.’

As Steinbeck’s mayor explains to the puzzled commandant who is trying to keep order, “Free men cannot start a war, but once it is started, they can fight on in defeat. Herd men, followers of a leader cannot do that, and so it is always the herd men who win battles and the free men who win wars.” John Steinbeck’s advice couldn’t be clearer: Once a bully picks a fight, resist. You may lose the battle, but you’ll eventually win the war.

Is Reading Steinbeck an Antidote to Donald Trump?

Time cover image of Donald Trump

A rotten egg incubated by reality television and hatched by retrograde thinking about women and the world, the presidency of Donald Trump is creating anxiety, fear, and a growing sense among progressives that an American psycho now occupies the White House. Many, like me, are turning to John Steinbeck for understanding. But that consolation has its limits.

The presidency of Donald Trump is creating anxiety, fear, and a growing sense among progressives that an American psycho now occupies the White House.

As Francis Cline observed recently in The New York Times, one positive result of the groundswell of bad feeling about Trump is that “[q]uality reading has become an angst-driven upside.” Anxious Americans yearning to feel at home in their own country have a rekindled interest in exploring their identity through great literature. “Headlines from the Trump White House,” Cline notes, “keep feeding a reader’s need for fresh escape” and “alternate facts,” when “presented by a literary truthteller” like John Steinbeck, are “a welcome antidote to the alarming versions of reality generated by President Donald Trump.”

‘Alternate facts,’ when ‘presented by a literary truthteller’ like John Steinbeck, are ‘a welcome antidote to the alarming versions of reality generated by President Donald Trump.’

The literary tonic recommended by Cline may or may not have the power to clear the morning-after pall of Trump-facts and Trump-schisms (the two sometimes interchangeable) afflicting our panicked public dialogue, our beleaguered press, and, for those as apprehensive as I am, the American-psycho recesses of our collective mind. Perhaps counter-intuitively, his prescription for mental wellness includes works by a group of novelists with a far darker worldview than that of Steinbeck, who felt an obligation to his readers to remain optimistic about the future whenever possible. The writers mentioned by Cline include Sinclair Lewis (It Can’t Happen Here), George Orwell (1984), Aldous Huxley (Brave New World), William Faulkner (The Mansion), Jerzy Kosinski (Being There), Philip Roth (The Plot Against America), and Philip Dick (The Man In The High Castle). As an antidote to Donald Trump, they are bitter medicine. Is Steinbeck’s better?

The prescription for mental wellness includes works by a group of novelists with a far darker worldview than that of Steinbeck, who felt an obligation to his readers to remain optimistic about the future whenever possible.

As the Trump administration pushes plans to litter federally protected Indian land with pipelines (“black snakes”) that threaten to pollute the water used by millions of Americans, John Steinbeck’s writing about the dangers of environmental degradation seems more relevant, and more urgent, than ever. To mark the 100th anniversary of Steinbeck’s birth in 2002, the award-winning author and journalist Bil Gilbert wrote an insightful article on the subject for The Smithsonian entitled “Prince of Tides.” In it he notes that “Steinbeck’s powerful social realism is by no means his only claim to greatness. He has also significantly influenced the way we see and think about the environment, an accomplishment for which he seldom receives the recognition he deserves.”

But Steinbeck’s writing about the dangers of environmental degradation seems more relevant, and more urgent, than ever.

Judging from “The Literature of Environmental Crisis,” a course at New York University, Gilbert’s point about Steinbeck’s stature as an environmental writer of major consequence is now more generally accepted than he thinks. Studying what “it mean[s] for literature to engage with political and ethical concerns about the degradation of the environment” the class will read “such literary and environmental classics as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath” to “look at the way literature changes when it addresses unfolding environmental crisis.”

Judging from ‘The Literature of Environmental Crisis,’ a course at New York University, Steinbeck’s stature as an environmental writer of major consequence is now generally accepted.

“Before ‘ecology’ became a buzzword,” Gilbert adds, “John Steinbeck preached that man is related to the whole thing,” noting that Steinbeck’s holistic sermonizing about nature’s sanctity reached its peak in Sea of Cortez, the literary record of Steinbeck’s 1940 expedition to Baja California with his friend and collaborator Ed Ricketts, the ingenious marine biologist he later profiled in Log from the Sea of Cortez. In it Steinbeck seems to foresee how America’s precious national resources—and collective soul—could one day become susceptible to the manipulations of an amoral leader like Donald Trump:

There is a strange duality in the human which makes for an ethical paradox. We have definitions of good qualities and of bad; not changing things, but generally considered good and bad throughout the ages and throughout the species. Of the good, we think always of wisdom, tolerance, kindness, generosity, humility; and the qualities of cruelty, greed, self-interest, graspingness, and rapacity are universally considered undesirable. And yet in our structure of society, the so-called and considered good qualities are invariable concomitants of failure, while the bad ones are the cornerstones of success. A man – a viewing-point man – while he will nevertheless envy or admire the person who through possessing the bad qualities has succeeded economically and socially, and will hold in contempt that person whose good qualities have caused failure.

“Donald Trump has been in office for four days,” observed Michael Brune, the national director of the Sierra Club, “and he’s already proving to be the dangerous threat to our climate we feared he would be.” The executive actions taken by Trump in his first week as president (“I am, to a large extent, an environmentalist, I believe in it. But it’s out of control”) appear to fulfill Steinbeck’s prophecy about the triumph of self-interest over social good. That’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone who cares about the planet.

The executive actions taken by Trump in his first week as president appear to fulfill Steinbeck’s prophecy about the triumph of self-interest over social good. That’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone who cares about the planet.

Whether Trump becomes the kind of full-throttle fascist described in It Can’t Happen Here remains to be seen. Sinclair Lewis’s fantasy of a future fascist in the White House appeared the same year as Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck’s sunny ode to multiculturalism and the common man. Unfortunately, I’m not as optimistic about the American spirit as John Steinbeck felt obliged to be when he wrote that book more than 80 years ago. I’m afraid that the man occupying the high castle in Washington today is an American psycho with the capacity to do permanent harm, not only to the environment, but to the American soul Steinbeck celebrated in his greatest fiction.

Truth or Twitter? Why Donald Trump Is No John Steinbeck

Image of Donald Trump

Donald Trump bragged that someone once called him the Ernest Hemingway of Twitter. Unfortunately for us, the new president possesses neither the courage nor the self-control of Hemingway, winner of the 1954 Nobel Prize in Literature for writing unforgettably about bravery under fire. And as the problems created by Trump-tweets pile up, the source of Trump’s addiction to Twitter has become clear. Eugene Robinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post columnist, described it in words worthy of John Steinbeck: “Trump’s Twitter tantrums are a message of weakness.”

‘Donald Trump’s Twitter tantrums are a message of weakness.’—Eugene Robinson

When I read Trump’s recent Twitter attack on Congressman John Lewis, the venerated civil rights leader who, despite vivid memories and bloody images to the contrary, Trump had the temerity to write was “[a]ll talk, talk, talk – no action or results,” I was reminded of the lecture Toni Morrison gave when she won the Nobel Prize in 1993. Like the speeches of two previous Nobel Prize-winners, William Faulkner and John Steinbeck, her lecture extolled the power of language in explaining and validating human experience. “We die,” she observed. “That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

‘We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.’—Toni Morrison

Echoing George Orwell, Morrison warned that “the systematic looting of language can be recognized by the tendency of its users to forego its nuanced, complex, mid-wifery properties for menace and subjugation.” Foreshadowing Donald Trump’s grade school twitter-burns, she described “language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.”

‘Language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.’—Toni Morrison

At her popular blog BrainPickings.org, Maria Popova praised Toni Morrison’s lecture as “perhaps our most powerful manifesto for the responsibility embedded in how we wield the tool that stands as the hallmark of our species.” I agree with this assessment, and with Morrison’s Orwell-like admonition. “Whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities,” she said, “it must be rejected, altered and exposed.”

‘Whether it is the malign language of law-without-ethics, or language designed for the estrangement of minorities, it must be rejected, altered and exposed.’—Toni Morrison

I also agree with Kyle Sammin, the lawyer and writer from Pennsylvania who advised Donald Trump to delete his Twitter account, quoting Calvin Coolidge: “[t]he words of the President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.” As Toni Morrison noted, Abraham Lincoln provides an even better example of presidential brevity: “When a President of the United States thought about the graveyard his country had become, and said, ‘The world will little note nor long remember what we say here. But it will never forget what they did here,’ his simple words are exhilarating in their life-sustaining properties because they refused to encapsulate the reality of 600, 000 dead men in a cataclysmic race war.”

‘The words of the President have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.’—Calvin Coolidge

By the time Republicans convened in Cleveland last summer, I had already blogged that the Republican nominee for president was the antithesis of Abraham Lincoln. He’s no Coolidge either. Hell, he may not be as good as Dan Quayle, who at least had the sense to stop explaining when he misspelled “potato” at a Trenton, New Jersey elementary school during the 1992 campaign. As Arthur Delaney pointed out in a recent Huffington Post headline, “Donald Trump Can’t Stop Tweeting Mean Things About People.” America’s new president is like a gambler on an all-night binge in Atlantic City, compulsively feeding nickel-and-dime tweets, retweets, and mentions into the slot-machine of his ego.

‘Donald Trump Can’t Stop Tweeting Mean Things About People.’—Huffington Post headline

Since he shows no sign of stopping, Trump would do well to follow the example of John Steinbeck, whose son Thom—also a writer—had this to say about the virtue of authorial self-control during a 2012 interview with Alexander Jaffee. “Ultimately,” he noted, “the greatest amount of time in all writing is spent editing. My father said there’s only one trick to writing, and that’s not writing, that’s writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. Like sculpture. I mean, the first thing off the top of your head isn’t the most brilliant thing you ever thought of. And then when you’re writing about it, when you want others to understand what you’re still talking about, then it really requires that you edit yourself really, really well, so that other people can comprehend it.”

‘My father said there’s only one trick to writing, and that’s not writing, that’s writing and rewriting and rewriting and rewriting.’—Thom Steinbeck

Sadly, Donald Trump has a problem in this area that no amount of self-editing can fix. Describing John Steinbeck’s honesty, Thom wrote: “[e]verything he wrote had truth to it. That’s what he was addicted to. He was addicted to the truth.” As demonstrated by Twitter attacks on true American heroes like John Lewis, Donald Trump has the opposite addiction.

 

Off Limits: Of Mice and Men And the Death Penalty Today

Image of the death penalty surviving in America

Seventy years after its publication John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men continues to stimulate debate, pro and con, about the death penalty. But justifying capital punishment was the last thing on the mind of the author, a liberal thinker who created the character of Lennie to increase our understanding of the mentally challenged and the American underclass. As a defense attorney who admires Of Mice and Men for this very reason, I’m angry that Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Cathy Cochran used Lennie in a 2004 legal opinion about imposing the death penalty when mental capacity is at issue. The “Lennie standard” she proposed continues to have consequences in the courts, and in the lives of the condemned.

Justifying capital punishment was the last thing on the mind of the author, a liberal thinker who created the character of Lennie to increase our understanding of the mentally challenged and the American underclass.

John Steinbeck’s late son Thom, an accomplished writer, was furious about Judge Cochran’s opinion after it was rendered. In a 2012 interview with the Beaumont (Texas) Enterprise, Thom’s wife Gail Steinbeck, an attorney, said that “his ears turned red” when her husband first learned of Ex Parte Briseno, in his view a gross distortion of his father’s meaning. In a statement published by The New York Times on August 8, 2012, Thom complained bitterly about the misconstruction of his father’s intentions in writing Of Mice and Men:

I had no idea that the great state of Texas would use a fictional character that my father created . . . as a benchmark to identify whether defendants with intellectual disability should live or die. My father was a highly gifted writer who won the Nobel Prize for his ability to create art about the depth of the human experience and condition. His work certainly wasn’t meant to be scientific, and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability. I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous and profoundly tragic. I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way.

The Supreme Court Considers the Case of John Steinbeck

In 2002 the Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for the intellectually disabled, but left it to the states to define what constitutes intellectual disability. Since 2004 courts in Texas have used Judge Cochran’s ill-considered Lennie standard to determine intellectual disability in capital punishment cases. Arguing before the Supreme Court last month in Moore v. Texas, the solicitor general of Texas, Scott Keller, bristled when Justice Sonya Sotomayor asked him about the state’s use of the Lennie standard, an illogical jumble concocted from a sentimental—and incorrect—interpretation of John Steinbeck’s character. “The character from Of Mice and Men was never part of the test,” asserted Keller in the state’s defense: “it was an aside [in Judge Cochran’s] opinion.” Justice Sotomayor replied, “But it informed its view of how to judge [intellectual disability],” insisting that Texas clearly “used the Lennie standard.”

Since 2004 courts in Texas have used Judge Cochran’s ill-considered Lennie standard to determine intellectual disability in capital punishment cases.

Questions about Judge Cochran’s odd Of Mice and Men citation—and the quirkiness of a judge relying on a work of literary fiction to support a legal opinion—had been predicted long before oral argument before the Supreme Court began. M. Todd Henderson, a University of Chicago law professor, pointed out the nature of the incongruity in 2008. “Citations to literature are extraordinarily rare in federal appellate court opinions, appearing in only 1 out of every 10,000 federal appellate cases,” he wrote. When judges do cite fictional works in judicial opinions, he continued, “they are most likely to cite to novels for propositions that are closely related to their own work and job.” That’s why it’s baffling that Judge Cochran was reportedly “unfazed” when she learned of Thom Steinbeck’s outrage over her violation of his father’s purpose in writing Of Mice and Men.

Citations to literature are extraordinarily rare in federal appellate court opinions, appearing in only 1 out of every 10,000 federal appellate cases.

John Steinbeck wrote much of Of Mice and Men at the Steinbeck family cottage in Pacific Grove, California. Ironically, Judge Cochran is said to have reread “all of Steinbeck” while living in nearby Monterey, three decades later, in the 1960s. Recently my wife and I traveled to the National Steinbeck Center in neighboring Salinas to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. Driving through John Steinbeck’s beloved Salinas Valley, we saw the still poor, still struggling migrant workers toiling under the California sun, like Lennie and George, for subsistence pay. That evening we left our comfortable bed and breakfast to stroll hand-in-hand along the shore celebrated by Steinbeck in Sea of Cortez and Cannery Row. Nowhere, not even in the turbulent tide pools that Steinbeck explored with his wife Carol, did we perceive the death penalty.

Memo to the Supreme Court On Of Mice and Men and the Death Penalty, With Helpful Hints from Literary Criticism

Image of members of the Supreme Court

The August 22 New York Times story by Adam Liptak—“Supreme Court to Consider Legal Standard Drawn From ‘Of Mice and Men’”—suggests that a book by John Steinbeck, like the Bible itself, is open to misinterpretation whenever there is a point to prove. In response to the Supreme Court’s 2002 decision barring execution of the “intellectually disabled,” reports Liptak, “Texas took a creative approach, adopting what one judge there later called ‘the Lennie standard,’” so named for Lennie Small, the mentally handicapped farmhand who kills and gets killed in Of Mice and Men. “This fall, in Moore v. Texas, No. 15-797,” Liptak continues, “the United States Supreme Court will consider whether the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ highest court for criminal matters, went astray last year in upholding the death sentence of Bobby J. Moore based in part on outdated medical criteria and in part on the Lennie standard.”

The story by Adam Liptak suggests that a book by John Steinbeck, like the Bible itself, is open to misinterpretation whenever there is a point to prove.

John Steinbeck explained that his fictional character was based on fact in a 1937 New York Times interview quoted by Liptak. “Lennie was a real person,” Steinbeck told the Times. “He is in an
insane asylum in California right now.” Responding to the misuse of his father’s novel when the Texas case made news in 2012, Thomas Steinbeck—a novelist very much in his father’s image—objected in the strongest terms. “The character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability,” he said at the time. “I find the whole premise to be insulting, outrageous, ridiculous and profoundly tragic [and] I am certain that if my father, John Steinbeck, were here, he would be deeply angry and ashamed to see his work used in this way.”

Lessons from Literary Criticism for the Supreme Court

Of Mice and Men is popular with middle and high school students, yet legal authorities continue to misread the author’s intention, as noted in Liptak’s story. The Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Lennie standard seems certain to set a precedent for legal debate about the death penalty, so understanding what Steinbeck intended matters. Judges like source citations, and reviewing literary criticism written around Steinbeck’s intention in Of Mice and Men may clarify their thinking. The brief summary of literary criticism that follows is intended to spare Steinbeck from further misreading as arguments over eugenics, euthanasia, and the Lennie standard unfold in the courts.

Of Mice and Men is popular with middle and high school students, yet legal authorities continue to misread the author’s meaning.

Fundamental to the death penalty debate is understanding what Steinbeck meant by having George execute Lennie at the end of the novel. Charlotte Hadella and critics have questioned the inevitability of this ending, the so-called mercy killing carried out by George at Slim’s urging as something that must done to spare Lennie from being lynched. George looks up to Slim, a figure of respect whose word counts among the menon the ranch. But Slim’s motives are murky, and he is associated with earlier killings in the novel—the shooting of Candy’s dog and the elimination of Lulu’s unwanted puppies.

Fundamental to the death penalty debate is understanding what Steinbeck meant by having George execute Lennie at the end of the novel.

Likewise, Louis Owens’s reading of the novel revolves around “the various deaths that punctuate the story,” beginning with Slim’s drowning of four puppies from Lulu’s litter. Carlson takes the opportunity to agitate for saving one puppy for Candy so that they can shoot Candy’s old dog, whose offense is that he “stinks.” In an attempt “to give his argument the kind of humanitarian bent euthanasia proponents prefer,” Carlson tells Candy it’s cruel to keep the dog alive—even though there is nothing to indicate that the animal is suffering or unhappy—and a killing of convenience suddenly seems inevitable. Candy appeals to Slim, who takes what Hadella calls “an enormous ethical leap” by saying he wishes someone would shoot him if he got “old and crippled” like the dog. Or like Candy himself, who Owens suggests may have cause to wonder whether Slim will decide to shoot him too someday. Like Lennie and Crooks, Candy is just the kind of character Curley’s wife calls weak—“unproductive,” “valueless,” inconvenient like his dog.

The Gun: Connecting Eugenics, Execution, and Fascism

Steinbeck makes the parallels between the dog’s shooting by Carlson and George’s shooting of Lennie unmistakable, for both are shot “in exactly the same way with the same gun.” As Owens notes, “Dog and man are both annoyances and impediments to the smooth working of the ranch. One stinks and one kills too many things.” When the body of Curley’s wife is discovered, George’s first impulse is humane, to capture Lennie and lock him up so he won’t be a danger to society. But Slim objects. Using the rationale that justified killing Candy’s dog, Slim argues that Lennie would be better off dead than incarcerated—in Slim’s words “locked up, strapped down, and caged.” Slim, Owens observes, “is playing God.” Significantly, the gun used for these killings is described as a Luger, according to Owens a deftly emphasized detail intended by Steinbeck to associate them with eugenics and fascism in Germany.

The gun used for these killings is described as a Luger, according to Owens a deftly emphasized detail intended by Steinbeck to associate them with eugenics and fascism in Germany.

In support of this point, Owens demonsrates Steinbeck’s familiarity with studies of eugenics whose conclusions were used to justify the forced sterilization of those deemed defective by the Heredity Court in Hitler’s Germany. Their Blood Is Strong, the title of the predecessor to The Grapes of Wrath, shows Steinbeck’s familiarity with when he wrote Of Mice and Men. As Owens points out, the ominous repetition of the word Luger in the novel clearly connects “the supposed ‘mercy’ killings of the novel with the rise of Fascism in Germany.”

Their Blood Is Strong, the title of the predecessor to The Grapes of Wrath, shows Steinbeck’s familiarity with eugenics when he wrote Of Mice and Men.

In the light of literary criticism, then, Of Mice and Men can be understood as a cautionary tale written in response to current events. Accepting Lennie’s and the dogs’ deaths as inevitable, as mercy killings that simply must be done, is contrary to Steinbeck’s meaning, the act of misappropriation pointed out by Thomas Steinbeck in his comments about his father and capital punishment. Furthermore, Slim’s inviting George to have a drink after shooting Lennie is an invitation to accept a worldview in which life is nullified—the Nazi world of eugenics, euthanasia, and extermination. This worldview is reflected in current political rhetoric about racial purity, national identity, and the justification of police violence and mass deportation.

This worldview is reflected in current political rhetoric about racial purity, national identity, and the justification of police violence and mass deportation.

Both presidential campaigns remind us that the sanctity of the Supreme Court depends on the outcome of the election. Both would benefit from understanding the moral questions raised by John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men. Where is our compassion? Who will care for the Lennies of our world today? As for the Supreme Court as presently constituted, I have this advice: read Steinbeck’s novel—closely, slowly, carefully, paying attention to details—and read with your heart, as Steinbeck intended for all his books. Though it may seem so sometimes, America isn’t Nazi Germany. Don’t use Steinbeck’s story as an excuse to execute those who are mentally ill or intellectually handicapped because they don’t pass the Lennie test.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Hadella, Charlotte Cook. Of Mice and Men: A Kinship of Powerlessness. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1995.

Heavilin, Barbara A. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men: A Reference Guide. Westport, Connecticut, 2005.

Owens, Louis. “Deadly Kids, Stinking Dogs, and Heroes: The Best Laid Plans in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.” Steinbeck Studies. (Fall 2002), 1-8.

John Steinbeck, Islamic Religion, and the Globalism Of The Grapes of Wrath

Cover image of Turkish edition of The Grapes of Wrath

John Steinbeck grew up in the Episcopal Church during an era when religion, like politics, tended to be insular. But parochial thinking never suited Steinbeck, a freethinker who practiced tolerance, traveled widely, and employed images and ideas from other faiths in his writing. Not surprisingly, Chaker Mohamed Ben Ali finds echoes of Islamic religion in The Grapes of Wrath, the novel that continues to attract attention to Steinbeck’s broad-minded values and ecumenical vision. A teacher in Algeria, Chaker Mohamed Ben Ali delivered his paper on Islam in the The Grapes of Wrath (written in collaboration with Salah Eddine Merouani) during the conference on Steinbeck’s internationalism held at San Jose State University in May. Posting his video presentation now seems especially appropriate in the context of current world events. It is a timely reminder that John Steinbeck’s global perspective is more relevant than ever, and it includes a helpful discussion about how to broadcast conference papers, like this one, to an online international audience.—Ed.

East of Eden Comes Alive at Brigham Young University

Image of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah

Image of Brigham Young University professor Steve LiddleThe information systems professor who heads the entrepreneurship program at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Business probably isn’t the first person who comes to mind when thinking about how to explain Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden to an academic audience. But that’s exactly what Steve Liddle—a California native who first read The Grapes of Wrath as a boy—brought off brilliantly in a stirring speech about free will and personal responsibility to Brigham Young University faculty and students on May 3. Non-members of the Mormon Church, with which the Provo, Utah university is affiliated, might consider Latter-Day Saints (the accurate term for Mormons) too conservative for Steinbeck, but Steve Liddle explains timshel better than anyone we’ve heard anywhere. Listen to the address at Brigham Young University’s podcast site to learn how. (To get to the East of Eden part quickly, advance the podcast dial to 20 minutes. But Liddle’s full speech is inspiring, even for non-Mormons.)