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Context: Of Mice and Men


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Context: Of Mice and Men

  1. 1. The‘Dust Bowl’occurred across many southern states of theUSA fora ten-year period covering thelate 1920s and1930s. Over-cropping by increasingly intensive farming methods andthecutting down of woodlandand hedgerows toincrease field sizes, coupled with aseries of hot, dry, windy summers andwinters led toan agricultural disasternever before met in theUSA. Hundreds of thousands of farmers packed up their families and few belongings, and headed for ‘Golden’ California. Thestate’s mild climate promiseda longer growing season and, with soilfavorable toa wider range of crops, it offered more opportunities toharvest. TheCalifornians turnedmany back, fearing they wouldbe over-run. The migrants were often met with scorn by California farmers andnatives, which only made their dislocation andpoverty even more unpleasant. Therefuges had nowhereto goback to, so they set up homein huge camps in the California valleys - living in shacks of cardboard andold metal - and sought work as casual farmhands. By the time ‘Of Mice and Men’ was published huge combine harvesters harvested almost half of America’s grain. Five men could do what hundreds did a decade before. George and Lennie are some of the last of the migrant farm workers. Huge numbers of men travelled the countryside between the 1880s and the early 1930s harvesting wheat. They earned at most $3.00 a day, plus food and accommodation. Migrant Workers 2
  2. 2. From the 17th Century, when the first settlers began to arrive from Europe, they dreamed of a ‘New World’ and the chance to start a better life – a place where hard work and ‘right-living’ would be rewarded; a place where a new and better Christianity could exist, free of what they saw as ‘Old World’ corruption and immorality. But for many this ‘American Dream’ became a ‘nightmare’: the horrors of slavery, of the American Civil War, the growth of towns with slums as bad as those in Europe, and the corruption of the American political system led to many shattered hopes. For the American society as a whole the dream ended with the Wall Street crash of 1929. This was the start of the Great Depression that would affect the whole world during the 1930s. However the dream survived for individuals. Forced by poverty and hope, thousands made their way west to California to escape from the ruined and bankrupt farmlands in the mid-West – made worse by the ‘Great Dust Bowl’ and increased mechanisation of farming. The growing popularity of cinema was the last American Dream for many. James Truslow Adams (who coined the phrase, “The American Dream) [The American Dream is…] that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, and too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position. [The Epic of America, 1931] The American Dream 3
  3. 3. ‘People who had always been able to put food on the table suddenly found themselves standing in bread lines and soup lines.’ The family structure for poor Americans worsened dramatically during the 1930s – and it is easy to imagine that life for poorly educated Black Americans worsened most of all. Even in white families, the father’s role as provider and head of household became more challenging because there were far fewer jobs. The general expectation in this patriarchal society was for fathers to work and support their families; however, as the Great Depression progressed and more men lost their jobs, these fathers had to spend their days searching for any kind of work they could find. The reality was few brought home any pay. Some fathers suffered dreadful anxiety and feelings of worthlessness for failing to provide for their families. The lack of jobs made many American men feel ‘emasculated’ – less than ‘real men’. Many, driven by desperation, resorted to stealing food and money just to get by: ‘Men resented employed women for they felt that they were occupying jobs that could be given to unemployed men’. Children were expected to try to get an education so that they could improve their future situation; but in addition, they were needed at home to help with household chores. Unfortunately, many children of poor families dropped out of school because they felt obliged to help support the family financially. Girls felt especially that they should be involved with the chores of keeping home and helping mum to bring up the family. Yet there was an obvious difference in lifestyle for the middle class. The upper- middle class still managed to live well and sometimes had servants. This allowed parents, particularly mothers, to take on larger social roles; however most lower- middle and working families barely had enough money to provide the basic necessities for their children. Families were broken apart because of the constant migration from town to town in search of work. Some lost their homes and had to make temporary shelters out of boxes they found on the street. These so-called ‘shanty towns’ constructed of packing crates, boxes and any other kind of left-over materials, were called ‘Hoovervilles’. They became frequent sites across the country. The family structure of the upper class during the Great Depression did not vary much from the family structure before the depression. It differed from the lower class in that the father generally managed to keep a steady job and therefore was able to give his family above and beyond what they needed. The women of the upper class had a very relaxed lifestyle and sometimes had servants or help around the home. Mothers were usually at home which meant the children had more chances to spend time with them. Children of the upper classes – especially the boys – were given a first rate education. They were sent during the day to boarding schools and spent the rest of their time with their families. Families 1
  4. 4. The Great Depression Prosperityin theUnited States in the1920s overshadowed the chronicpoverty ofcertain vulnerable populations.These were the same populationsthat hadalways been at risk in American history:children, older Americans,minorities, female-headed families, people with disabilities, and workerswith unstable or low-paying jobs. According to James T. Patterson, author of America’s StruggleAgainst Poverty: 1900- 1994, about one-fourth of the populationinsouthern rural areas consisted of poor sharecroppers and tenant farmers.4 Over a thirdof these small farmers were African Americans. When thestock market crashed in 1929 (on BlackFriday)these peoplebecameeven poorer and more vulnerable. This is when many middleand upper-income families first experienced povertyin America. These were hard-working peoplewho fully shared thevalues and ideals of theAmerican dream, peoplewho had enjoyed thestrong economy of the1920s and hadbought the homes, refrigerators, and automobiles.Thesudden and severe downturn of theAmerican economy left many ofthese peoplein shockand denial. Some became suicidal. Between 1929 and 1933, unemployment in theUnited Statesjumped from 3.2 percent to 24.9 percent, almost a quarter of theofficiallaborforce.6 This represented 12.8 millionworkers In 1933 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as the32nd President; a Democrat he believed that thegovernment should interfere in people’slives to relieve povertyand stimulate employment. Roosevelt introduces ‘TheNew Deal’ to try to get American agriculture and industry back on its feet. This includes providing foodandclothing,schoolsand employment for the unemployed. Somework is provided through constructionof roads, publicbuildingssuch as schoolsand hospitalsand otherimprovement schemes. Welfare and poverty 4
  5. 5. Agriculture and the west Steinbeck admired many of the particular ‘community’ qualities inherent in the ‘old ways’ of cowboy ranch life – he came from Soledad himself and had seen it at first hand; by the mid-1930s however, he saw that this traditional way of life was being warped and threatened by what he perceived to be the increasing greed for profit of the farm owners (capitalism – where costs are reduced to a minimum, and profits are maximised), by the influx of cheap labour created by the Great Depression and the Great Dust Bowl, and by the increasing mechanisation of farm work. The characters in the story form a kind of moral hierarchy both directly and indirectly. Steinbeck felt that many of the enduring good qualities in the old agricultural way of life were still apparent, qualities of behaviour that relied on modes of ritual shown through particular courtesies, acts of playfulness, games, the devoted enjoyment of natural processes, an admiring concern for sexuality, a pattern of warm-hearted appreciation of goodness that is completely outside of any concern for property or wealth. Such ritualistic descriptions within the novel (‘setting down’ to talk together, the sharing of food and drink, the game of horse shoes, and so on) act as a kind of ‘symbolic shorthand’ to help the careful reader understand a character, his actions and ways of thinking and living more fully. Steinbeck believed strongly in the influence of myth and archetype (Carl Jung, the eminent 20 century psychoanalyst, developed and proposed these ideas - that certain all-pervading human thought patterns and ways of behaviour were universal and ancient in origin. It was as if such ways of thinking emanated from a kind of ‘universal genetic pool of thought’. Jung termed this, mankind’s ‘collective unconscious’. Such archetypes create particular patterns of thought and have their origin in ancient myths, stories and legends: stories of good versus evil, of the brave warrior, the evil dragon, the wicked witch, the temptress, the happy family, and so on). Steinbeck felt that such universally held ideas were important to the way humanity behaved and he incorporated some of these ideas within this simple story because he knew the power they have on readers of all ages. 6
  6. 6. Prejudice: society’s intolerance to anyone on the ‘outside’ or in a minority, or just ‘different’ from the accepted white, physically strong, male, middle class ‘norm’ power holders of society. In the period of the 1930s in America there were lots of forms of prejudice and discrimination: Sexism: Women were not seen as equal to men - they had fewer rights than men. They were paid less and most of them were only allowed to take care of domestic chores. Most single women worked for a living, and so did a lot of married women. The number of married women going out to work increased during the 1930s because many women were trying to keep their families afloat. Some people objected to married women working, because they thought they were taking jobs from single women who needed to support themselves. Many school boards for instance refused to hire married women teachers. But in spite of this, the number of working married women increased steadily throughout the 30s. Racism: Slavery was practiced in the Deep South of America until the end of the American Civil War in 1865. By 1937, slavery had been abolished in the USA. However, black people did not yet have equal rights. Although they were free, the Black Community were not allowed to live in the same areas, attend the same schools, eat in the same restaurants or travel on the same trains or buses as white people. Black and white people were segregated or separated. Black people, of course, had a lower quality of resources, education, etc. Local laws made sure they remained second-class citizens. Many black people were forced to take poorly paid jobs which left them as badly off as when they were slaves. The police ignored the majority of crimes against black people, whilst it only took an accusation of a crime for a black person to be presumed guilty. Therefore, it was a white woman’s or man’s word over a back man’s; the white person was always believed and the black person suffered tremendously. Ageism: Ageismin its limited meaning (regarding discrimination against the elderly) tends to assume that the elderly are no longer able to contribute to society in a meaningful way, and drain the broader society’s resources because of a continuous decline in health and well-being. Prejudice 5