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The Reluctant Celebrity:
How one little book ruined John Steinbeck's life
By Neil Ferron

John Steinbeck

“I was recognized in San Francisco the other day and it made me sick to my stomach.”
— John Steinbeck

Before the publication of Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck lived a frugal life with his first wife, Carol Henning, occupying a family cottage in Pacific Grove, California, and living off of a small inheritance from his recently deceased father. Despite the poverty, Steinbeck enjoyed this lifestyle—it afforded him ample time and space to work on his novels. He even found a certain freedom in his financial state, joking with his friend and fellow writer Louis Paul, “I wish I could send you a copy of Tortilla Flat but I haven’t any. Couldn’t you steal one? If you buy one you will be the first genuine purchaser I know.”

As a child, Steinbeck lived a similarly frugal lifestyle. "We were poor people with a hell of a lot of land,” he wrote. “Which made us think we were rich people.” While his mother held a steady position as a schoolteacher, his father went through many jobs: manager of a Sperry flour plant, the owner of a feed and grain store, and finally the treasurer of Monterey County.

In his young adult life, Steinbeck followed after his father, frequently leaving his studies at Stanford to take odd jobs as a painter, a fruit-picker, and a night watchman at Spreckels Sugar Company. After dropping out, he spent a short stint as a laborer on the construction of Madison Square Garden.

When he finished Of Mice and Men in 1936, Steinbeck assumed he would see the same meager response he had received from his first novels. He wrote to Paul, “Finished my new little book and sent it off a week and a half ago and of course have heard nothing from it. I don’t know whether it is any good or not.”  (At one point, his dog had eaten half the manuscript. He wrote to his literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, “My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my manuscript…. 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 [manuscript] I’m not sure is good at all.”)

And then Of Mice and Men was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club. Almost overnight, Steinbeck was nationally distributed and widely heralded. He met this early success with a kind of unassuming wonderment. He wrote to Otis, “Of course this selection is gratifying but also it is frightening. I shall never learn to conceive of money in larger quantities than two dollars.”

But as the book’s sales grew, Steinbeck found himself inundated with fan mail and requests from publishers. Film studios wanted to fly him to Los Angeles and New York. Steinbeck developed a strong distaste for this newfound celebrity. When Otis asked him for a bio, he replied: “Factual material is this. Born Salinas, California, 1902. Died -- ?” If she needed more, he would allow her to add the following: “Educated Salinas and Stanford and not too pleased with the job of either.” He begrudgingly hired someone to screen his mail and stopped his publisher from circulating his portrait.

The stage adaptation of Of Mice and Men proved to be another source of unwanted attention and obligation. While Steinbeck was humbled to have George Kaufmann, the most prominent dramatist at the time, adapt the novella to the stage, he couldn’t understand why Kaufmann was offended when Steinbeck did not attend opening night.

He wrote to Otis, “I wouldn’t go six thousand miles to see the opening of the second coming of Christ. Why is it so damned important?”

When the production won the Critic’s Circle award, he wrote a self-deprecating thank-you telegram. The first line read: “I have always considered critics and authors natural enemies.” When Steinbeck found out the Critic’s Circle did not appreciate his response, he wrote: “What in the world will I do with a plaque? Melt it down and buy a pair of shoes for someone.”

During his early rise to celebrity, Steinbeck found respite in one piece of fan mail. He wrote to Otis: “This morning I got the swellest letter of my life. From a man named Lemuel Gadberry, believe it or not, and he says he bought [Of Mice and Men] and feels that he not only has been degraded in reading it but that he was cheated out of two dollars. I have just written him a long letter praising his high soul and offering to return his two dollars.”

Steinbeck went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 for The Grapes of Wrath and a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962.