In the first decade of the twentieth century, young John displayed a passion for reading and writing which his mother, a former schoolteacher, also shared. John and his family lived in Salinas, California, a small valley town with rich, fertile soil. As a teenager in the late 1910s, John spent his summers working on local ranches harvesting grapes, sugar beets, and a variety of root vegetables alongside migrant farmers. One day, John worked alongside a certain migrant farmer just as he had for the previous several weeks. The migrant farmer was angry at the ranch foreman because the foreman had fired his friend. When the foreman came near John and the migrant farmer, The farmer “stuck a pitchfork right through his stomach. I hate to tell you how many times. I saw him do it. We couldn’t stop him until it was too late.” The migrant farmer ended up in an insane asylum.
Fifteen years later, John used his experiences working with migrant farmers as the basis for a novella in which two displaced migrant ranch workers search for new opportunities in California during the Great Depression. John carefully crafted his novella. Rather than using a typewriter, John hand-wrote every word of the novella. Finally, in the last week of May 1936, after months of laboring over each word, John finished his novella of which he gave the somewhat lackluster title, “Something That Happened.”
Then, on May 27, 1936, John wrote a letter to his editor. “Minor tragedy stalked,” he said. “My setter pup [Toby], left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my book. Two months work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft.”
“I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I didn’t want to ruin a good dog for a ms [manuscript]. I’m not sure it is good at all. He only got an ordinary spanking with his punishment flyswatter. But there’s the work to do over from the start. I’m not sure Toby didn’t know what he was doing when he ate the first draft.” John jokingly wrote, “I have promoted Toby-dog to be lieutenant colonel in charge of literature.”
When John finished rewriting his manuscript, he sent it to his editor. In late 1936, his editor sent him a telegram which explained that his novella would be the featured book for March 1937’s Book-of-the-Month Club. Most authors would have been overjoyed with the achievement, but not John. He wanted to succeed with his writing, of course, but he hated publicity. His editor anxiously awaited his reply which he expected to receive within minutes. Minutes turned into hours, and hours turned into days. Finally, two weeks later, the editor received a postcard from John on which he had scribbled, “What does it mean?”
When John began to write the novella, he could not have imagined how successful the book would become. It received the greatest positive response in his writing career to that point. Fanny Butcher, a Chicago Tribune book critic, wrote that John’s novella was “so movingly, so factually that only when its last page is finished does the reader realize what a remarkable literary feat the author has performed. Brutality and tenderness mingle in these strangely moving pages” which included “language that gentle ears would never hear.” The critic explained, “The reader is fascinated by a certainty of approaching doom.” Fred T. March wrote in the New York Times, “In sure, raucous, vulgar Americanism, [the author] has touched the quick in his little story.”
John’s novella became required reading in many schools in the English speaking world because it exemplified what life was like for migrant workers during the Great Depression. In the novella, John “described brutal times in brutal terms.” In the decades after the novella was first published, John’s book frequently began to appear on lists of banned books because of the “brutal terms,” – blasphemous and vulgar language. Other popular titles which appeared on lists of banned books included Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye,” and, more recently, J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series. John’s novella is included in the American Library Association’s list of the Most Challenged Books of the 21stcentury and John is listed among the most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century.
Despite attempts to have John’s book banned, it is considered a literary classic. In 1962, John won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his “realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humor and keen social perception.” On October 25, 2023, Bonhams auction house sold a small fragment of John’s original draft which was destroyed by his dog, Toby, for $12,800. That chewed fragment was part of the classic novella originally called “Something That Happened,” which, just before publishing, the author, John Steinbeck, renamed “Of Mice and Men.”
1. The Des Moines Register, March 14, 1937, p.35.
2. Argus-Leader, October 26, 1983, p.9.
3. Fort Worth Star-Telegram, June 20, 2001, p.65.
4. Mount Desert Islander, September 28, 2006, p.23.
5. Creamer, Ella. 2023. “Of Mice and Men First-Draft Fragment Torn up by Steinbeck’s Dog Goes to Auction.” The Guardian, September 29, 2023, sec. Books. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2023/sep/29/john-steinbeck-of-mice-and-men-draft-eaten-by-dog-up-for-auction.
6. “John Steinbeck’s Sword and First Draft Fragment of ‘of Mice and Men’ Eaten by His Dog to Auction.” n.d.Www.finebooksmagazine.com. Accessed November 12, 2023. https://www.finebooksmagazine.com/fine-books-news/john-steinbecks-sword-and-first-draft-fragment-mice-and-men-eaten-his-dog-auction#:~:text=The%20sale%20features%20a%20fragment.
7. “Bonhams: John Steinbeck the Mary Steinbeck Dekker Family Collection.” n.d. www.bonhams.com. Accessed November 12, 2023. https://www.bonhams.com/auction/29062/john-steinbeck-the-mary-steinbeck-dekker-family-collection/.
8. American Library Association. 2013. “Banned & Challenged Classics.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues. March 26, 2013.https://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks/classics.
9. The Nobel Prize in Literature 1962. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2023. Sun. 12 Nov 2023.https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1962/summary/