A Little Study in Humility
By Director Mary B. Robinson
In February 1936, John Steinbeck wrote to a friend that he was writing “a little study in humility for my own benefit, in case I should be impressed with my own importance. That is the trap.” After years of struggle and poverty, the 33-year-old author was starting to gain national attention with the publication of In Dubious Battle, the first of his trio of novels about migrant farm workers in his native California. But always wary of the dangers of success, Steinbeck chose to return to his roots in Of Mice and Men, writing about the bunkhouse life of the “bindle stiff” which he had experienced first-hand while working on the ranches of the Spreckels Sugar Company in the Salinas Valley. He invested his creative energies in a group of individuals who don’t own much of anything, and who each yearn deeply, not for material success, but for something very simple: his or her own “little place” in a difficult world.
Concerned that his novels and short stories were not reaching the working people he was writing about, Steinbeck intended Of Mice and Men to be performed as well as read. He conceived of it as a play in novel form, submitting it to a labor theater group in San Francisco, which mounted it as a morale booster for striking dockworkers. Subsequently, the book went on to become a Broadway play in 1937, which Steinbeck himself adapted under the guidance of George S. Kaufman, who directed the original production (although our version tonight also incorporates some narration from the novel). The play enjoyed a long run and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award “for its direct force and perception in handling a theme genuinely rooted in American life,” according to the Circle. But by the time his play opened in New York, Steinbeck was already back in the field, working alongside cotton and fruit pickers as he researched the great novel he was about to write, The Grapes of Wrath.
Just as Steinbeck’s stories have always resonated in new ways as America’s own story evolves, they also strike different personal chords in each of us, depending in part on when in our lives we encounter them. I first read and directed Of Mice and Men many years ago when I was in my twenties, and the characters’ longing for connection and a home was what spoke to me most at that time. A decade later, when I revisited the play, I was the mother of a two year old, and saw the relationship between George and Lennie in a vivid new light. And now, as I listen to the national discussion about what it means to find a sense of community in 21st century America, I’m struck anew by the world of have-nots Steinbeck chose to create, even while he himself was beginning to enjoy extraordinary success. These displaced, marginalized people will always speak to us powerfully because of the profound and inspiring empathy of their creator more than 75 years ago.
“the best laid schemes…”
By Alexandra Harbold, Dramaturg
They used to tell me I was building a dream, and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear, I was always there right on the job.
They used to tell me I was building a dream, with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line, just waiting for bread?
…Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal? Buddy, can you spare a dime?
“BROTHER, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME,”
Lyrics By Yip Harburg, Music By Jay Gorney (1931)
The Roaring Twenties was a time of unprecedented prosperity for many Americans, particularly those in urban areas. The era saw revolutionary technological advances: the mass production of the automobile, the spread of indoor electricity, plumbing, electrical
household appliances, and mass media in the form of radio and motion pictures. As the stock market boomed and consumer confidence soared, working class investors entered the market with their savings and the dream of becoming rich. It became common practice to buy stocks “on the margin,” borrowing money against the prospective value of the stock itself. Even the banks speculated that stock values would continue to rise and invested heavily in the market. After a prolonged period of mass speculation and market volatility, stock market prices faltered in the fall of 1929; panicked investors rushed to sell. On “Black Tuesday,” October 29, 1929, The New York Times headline ran, “Stock Prices Slump $14,000,000,000 in Nation-Wide Stampede to Unload; Bankers to Support Market Today.” Efforts to shore up the losses failed; the U.S. stock market collapsed, sending shock waves throughout the country and the global financial system. Thousands of banks across the nation failed, and people’s life savings were lost. By 1930, over 3 million people in the United States were unemployed.
“Any lack of confidence in the economic future…in the United States is foolish.”
President Herbert Hoover, November 1929
In the rural Great Plains states, farm prices began to collapse long before the rest of the economy. During World War I, the federal government had actively encouraged farmers to overplant in aid of the war effort. Rather than
rotating crops, farmers dedicated all of their resources to wheat and cotton production in response to the demands and gains of wartime. When possible, farmers purchased the new, expensive gasoline-powered tractors. With the mechanization of farm machines, productivity increased; fewer laborers were needed to bring in a harvest in less time. As a 1918 Moline Universal Tractor ad boasted, “It Solves the Farm Help Problem.” Crop yield increased, lowering prices. When the war ended and the demand for wheat plummeted, many farmers, seemingly forgotten by the federal government once the necessity of their service was past, fell into irrecoverable debt. Families who had lived in the Great Plains region for generations could not pay their mortgages and lost their homes and farms. Tenant farmers who had rented out smaller parcels of land from landowners were evicted.
“They seen they could make so much more money by farming all of their land and running the little farmer off”
As cultivation in the Great Plains expanded into more marginal land, prairie grasses that served to retain moisture in dry periods and preserve topsoil fell under the plough. As severe drought conditions set in on the region, dust storms blew tons of soil from the land and destroyed millions of acres of wheat. In journalist Avis D. Carlson’s account, “We live with the dust, eat it, sleep with it, watch it strip us of possessions and the hope of possessions.” Forced by poverty and the threat of starvation, thousands of people migrated to California and other parts of the country in a desperate quest for work and a home for their families.
“People has got to stop somewhere. Even a bird has got a nest.”
Migrant saying on a city dump,
In California, there was already a large itinerant labor force: bindle stiffs traveling by foot and railroad from job to job. As the mechanization of farm machines continued, the traditional family farms were increasingly falling away, bought up by large land companies. Agriculture transformed into agribusiness, further threatening the already piecemeal livelihoods of these migrant workers. In 1935, the mechanical combine could singly execute the tasks of cutting, threshing, separating, and cleaning the grain, nullifying the need for threshing teams and multiple farm machines. By 1938, mechanical combines allowed five men to do the work of 350.
“I’m less than a farm implement”
Migrant Worker in “Working” by Studs Terkel
From 1933 to 1937, unemployment rates had fallen significantly but spiked drastically again when Roosevelt reduced New Deal emergency relief and public works spending in an effort to balance the budget. In 1938, in response to the recession, FDR appealed to Congress to authorize billions of dollars in stimulus spending. However, it was the U.S. entrance into World War II in 1941 which ultimately revitalized industry and agriculture in support of the war effort, bringing an end to the Great Depression.
My land I’ll defend with my life if it be;
Cause my pastures of plenty must
always be free.
“Pastures Of Plenty,”
words & music by Woody Guthrie