Thursday, April 22, 2010

Of Mice and Men

John Steinbeck was a major American writer, a winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a Nobel Prize for Literature, who gave us The Grapes of WrathEast of Eden, and Cannery Row, to name but a few of his notable works. Each of his novels captures the essence and atmosphere of a particular time and place, often exploring the hard lives of poorer Americans in difficult circumstances. His portraits of Americana have been bestsellers, have won numerous literary awards, and have been adapted to the cinema, television, and the stage. They are studied in high school and college literature courses throughout the U.S, and the English-speaking world. 

Not that any of that gives the censors even a moment's pause.

And so it goes with Of Mice and Men, a short yet deep work by a literary giant, available in paperback and library binding, Ebook format and audio, with optional Spark Notes and Cliff Notes. Educators find Of Mice and Men to be an excellent tool for teaching literature because it is clear yet profound, and because its lean simplicity makes it easy to show students how structure supports theme (see the discussion in H. N. Foerstel's Banned In the USA, pp. 197-199). Of course, it is banned, challenged, and censored. A lot. It held sixth position on the American Library Association's list of the top 100 challenged books for the decade 1990-1999, and moved up to fifth place for the decade 2000-2009.

I've just re-read Of Mice and Men, and found myself wondering what could possibly possess anyone to censor it. Most of us are familiar with the story, having seen one or another movie or TV version, even if we've never read it. Yes, it's depressing; it is a tragedy after all (note to censors: that's a genre of serious literature). It's a look into the character of men who are loners, fending for themselves without family or friends, a look into what happens when people who can't afford to dream dare to dream. The characters of the story are coarse, and they sometimes employ coarse language, though nowhere near as much as a portrayal of such characters might have included. Dated racial epithets are used, but form part of the realistic portrayal of a certain segment of American society in the 1930s. The violence in the story, far from extreme, is the result of circumstances, lack of opportunity, and personal responsibility. It is never glorified or exalted. References to sex are quite indirect.

D. B. Sova, in her volume on Literature Suppressed on Social Grounds, documents more than 35 challenges from 1974 through 2003, mostly revolving around the use of the book in English classes in grades 7 and higher. Typical complaints refer to profane language, racial slurs, and taking the Lord's name in vain. One can only assume that the occasional complaints of "lurid passages about sex" were made by individuals who simply had not read the book. In 1992, in Hamilton, Ohio, a group of parents actually counted 108 profanities and 12 racial slurs (different reviewers come of with different counts, since they don't agree with each other about which terms are or are not profane). A minister addressing the school board said the book should be burned. In 1994 a school superintendent in Putnam County, Tennessee, removed the book from classrooms. The school board in George County, Mississippi, voted to ban the book in 2002, and in 2003 the book was removed from all classrooms and school libraries in Lucedale, Mississippi.

The challenges continue unabated. A 2008 article in USA Today adds instances in Greencastle-Antrim (PA) schools in 2006, Newton (IA) schools in 2007, and Olathe (KS) schools in 2007. The Olathe school district voted to retain Of Mice and Men, ostensibly on the book's own merits. It is possible, though, that the Olathe board knew a bit more about Free Speech law than many school boards, their 1995 predecessors having had their wrists slapped by a US District Court after they removed copies of Annie on my Mind from the school library (Case v. Unified School District, 908 F.Supp. 864).

Objections to Of Mice and Men rarely come from teachers or librarians, people who actually know something about literature, the role of literature in education, and protections of Free Speech. One might make allowances for the occasional parent, not so enlightened, to raise an objection to this or any work. But Of Mice and Men is nowhere near as offensive as its frequent banning and attempted banning would suggest. We can conclude that this is one of those books that has got on some list of "inappropriate" books somewhere, and is then recycled from one non-reader to another non-reader, the blind leading to blind. A school board is supposed to know better than that. They're supposed to appreciate that great books have an important role in education, and they're supposed to know at least a little bit about Free Speech in schools. It is unethical and incompetent for a school board to kowtow to each and every illiterate cretin's request to reduce our children's education to milquetoasty pablum.

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