Steinbeck was a Depression novelist, and he saw it as his duty to “set down his time as nearly as he can understand it.” He does so in Of Mice and Men which portrays the corruption of the American dream during the 1930’s.
I have always thought Steinbeck tried to portray the American Dream simply as having something one could call one’s own, especially land. In talking to Candy, in the book, Crooks says, “Everybody wants a little bit of land, not much. Jus’ som’thin’ that was his. Som’thin’ he could live on and there couldn’t nobody throw him off of it.”
One can see this Dream thought out American literature. Jefferson’s replacement of Locke’s term ‘property’ for the phrase “Pursuit of happiness” is an early example. Jefferson broadened Locke’s idea, but Jefferson once wrote that land “is the focus in which [people] keep alive that sacred fire which otherwise might expire from the face of the Earth.” He was an agrarian who saw people who owned and labored on their own land as God’s chosen people.
One can trace this dream forward to Thoreau. Although he did not own Walden Pond he went there for two years to live off the land. The Transcendentalists like Emerson and Whitman and Thoreau all believed the Oversoul linked men to nature. Property has always been seen as a sacred right in American history and it is encoded into the Constitution.
It is this same dream that is held by Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men. It becomes the dream of everyone they tell. When George and Lenny were talking about their dream place “Old Candy turned slowly over. His eyes wide open.” Candy’s dog had just been shot and he was upset, but when George dreamed out loud Candy wanted a part of it, if only vicariously through their eyes.
They all just wanted to have their “own place where [they] belonged.” Crooks tells them that “If you…guys would want a hand to work for nothing- just his keep, why I’d come an lend a hand.”
In Of Mice and Men Steinbeck shows how this dream was corrupted and destroyed by the Great Depression. It was during the Depression that America ran out of land. Franklin Roosevelt wrote regarding an earlier mild depression that “Traditionally, when a depression came a new section of land was opened up in the West and even our temporary misfortune served our Manifest destiny. At the very worst there was always the possibility of climbing into a covered wagon and moving West.”
This was no longer possible because all the land was opened up and settled. Jefferson, as early as 1795 predicted that Americans would eventually run out of land and have to come up with other means of making a living.
America had been spoiled by prosperity. Walt Whitman wrote that “Long, to long America, Travelling roads all even and peaceful you learn’d from joys and prosperity only.” He recognized that America would not always prosper. Edward Bellamy, in Looking Backward, described American economic life at the turn of the century as a carriage. This carriage was pulled by the mass of humanity, driven by hunger, and the wealthy few rode on top.
Jefferson again sounds prophetic when he wrote that manufacturers (later industrialists) were “panders of vice , and the instrument by which the liberties of a country are overturned.” All this isn’t to say that capitalism is bad, but people were being made industrial surfs at the same time the land was drying up, and they had to, as Jefferson said, because they had eat.
It was a high time for some, the Charlies, Lorraines and Duncans of Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited” who rode drunk on tricycles in the streets and threw hundred dollar bills to band players, but when the stock market crashed all the personal wealth and corporations crashed and so did the nation’s economy. Without land, the people forced into industrial work had no jobs, no money and no way to get “a little piece of land.”
Steinbeck portrays all of this in Of Mice and Men. He portrays it by letting the dream come within the men’s grasp and then it gets destroyed. Steinbeck writes “They fell into silence. They looked at one another, amazed. This thing they had never really believed in was coming true.”
Even Crooks who says “I seen guys nearly crazy with loneliness for land, but ever’ time a whore house or a blackjack game took what it takes” became convinced. It was right there in their hands.
When Curly’s wife is found dead, the first concern of Candy and George is the dream. Candy asks George if they can still get their place and George answers “I think I knowed from the very first. I think I knowed we’d never do her.”
In a way when George shoots Lenny he is killing his dream and realizing that life will always be the way it is for men like him. For Lenny the dream never died, but it was an illusion he couldn’t see. Steinbeck seems to be saying that unless one can adapt to the reality that the American dream had become an illusion he will die like Lenny.