I read John Steinbeck’s The Red Pony in the eighth grade and didn’t think much of it. I was more interested in Vonnegut and Kerouac and Kafka and HS Thompson at the time, all of whom seemed more substantial and just plain cooler. The boyhood adventures recounted in The Red Pony seemed hokey to me, and perhaps because of the title, I came to conflate Steinbeck’s novella with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s Where the Red Fern Grows (ed. note: as gentle reader jd points out in the comments below, this is an error on Biblioklept’s part: it was actually Wilson Rawls who wrote Where the Red Fern Grows, Rawlings wrote The Yearling), which we also read that year, and which I also thought was interminably silly. Somehow, I managed to make it through both high school and college never reading anything by Steinbeck, and on the way, I also somehow managed to pick up the idea that he was an inferior or unimportant writer, unequal to Twain or Fitzgerald or Hemingway or Salinger, and certainly more boring than my beloved PK Dick and William Burroughs.
Fortunately, this ignorance was corrected the first year I started teaching high school. A more experienced teacher recommended that I read Of Mice and Men with my ninth graders. I probably wrinkled my nose at the idea (prejudiced as I was), but desperate to find a text that would engage them (as she swore up and down Of Mice and Men would), I gave it a shot.
The story of the child-like Lennie and his brother-keeper George hooked me from the first few paragraphs, and I, along with the students, became entranced, hooked on the book, unable to wait for the next day to read more. The next semester a new group of ninth graders and I worked our way through the book; a little more savvy now, I utilized Gary Sinise’s reading on audio book, possibly the best audio version of a book I’ve ever heard. He also directed and starred in a film version, with John Malkovich’s portrayal of mentally handicapped Lennie translating with realistic warmth and pathos. Sinise’s movie version is nearly perfect. By the fourth time I went through OMAM with the kids, I had introduced all kinds of different approaches to the text: gender readings, readings that focused on the disabled body, readings that troped against the book of Genesis and so on. I found that no matter how many times I read the text, I was never bored, and I always found something new in Steinbeck’s spare language. And it was–and is–Steinbeck’s measured and controlled prose that so impressed (impresses) me. Like Hemingway, Steinbeck eliminates everything extraneous, loading each word and sentence with significance; unlike Hemingway, Steinbeck’s writing shows a keen sensitivity toward persons besides macho white males.
I don’t teach ninth grade anymore, but I always slip a few Steinbeck readings into my AP Language and Composition course. Over the past few years, I’ve read a good deal of The Portable Steinbeck; if you want to boast a decent library of great American literature, this book is essential. Not only does it contain the whole of Of Mice and Men and The Red Pony, it also has carefully-chosen chapters from The Grapes of Wrath that manage to stand on their own (a testament to both editor Pascal Covici, Jr. as well as Steinbeck’s writing). Plus, look at that cover–very cool (I have a class set of these, and one student added a speech bubble to Steinbeck’s image with the text: “I’m a pimp”)
What prompted this post? Well, I have one tenth-grade section right now–World Literature–and I usually introduce some of the themes I like to cover over the course of the year–colonialism, cultural clash, etc. (we’ll read Achebe’s Things Fall Apart next)–with Steinbeck’s novella The Pearl, a beautiful and sad book that is often overlooked as a lesser work, childhood fare like The Red Pony (admittedly a lesser work). This morning, starting a new reading (sixth? seventh?) with a group of young kids all engaged in a story they didn’t think they wanted to read, I realized that I wanted to say this: Steinbeck is great. Steinbeck is great and that’s something I had to find out from a bunch of kids. Steinbeck is great and I almost didn’t know it because my prejudice prompted me overlook him. Steinbeck is great and I want you to read him. Go for it. You can find a used copy of Of Mice and Men anywhere. It’s about a hundred pages long. If you read a chapter a night, you’ll be done in less than a week. Take the Biblioklept challenge. If you don’t like it, let me know.