“Trying times are no time to quit trying. The secret of success is to start from scratch and keep on scratching.” John Mason
May 27, 1936 – Salinas, California: It had been a tough week for John Steinbeck. He tried to be in good humor about it. He sat at his desk and reluctantly penned a letter to his literary agent, Elizabeth Otis, in New York.
“Dear Elizabeth, minor tragedy here. My Irish Setter pup, Toby, left alone one night made confetti of my latest manuscript. At least two months of work to be redone. I was pretty mad, but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically. I did not want to ruin a good dog for a manuscript that I’m not sure is good at all. I hope you are not angry.”
Steinbeck grew up in Salinas, California, in a fertile farm valley about 25 miles from the Pacific Ocean. After studying English literature at Stanford University for two years, he dropped out and took his dream to New York City. For two years, he supported himself by doing odd jobs while trying to write a best seller. In 1925, after failing to have any of his work published, Steinbeck headed back to California. He got a job as a tour guide and caretaker at Lake Tahoe and spent his evenings writing.
After watching their son struggle to make ends meet, Steinbeck’s parents allowed him to use a house they owned, gave him a loan so he didn’t have to work, and bought the paper for his hand-written manuscripts. Still, he struggled. Despite suffering from depression, Steinbeck published three books of fiction in the early 1930s. However, all of them failed to generate enough money to cover the small advances from his publisher.
In 1935, Steinbeck published Tortilla Flat, his first success. He was amazed by the book’s popularity. He told a friend, “I am curious how this second-rate book, written for relaxation, should cause such a fuss. People are taking it seriously.” Sales from the book enabled Steinbeck to pay off his bills and to buy Toby.
After Toby devoured the manuscript, the 34-year-old Steinbeck wasn’t sure if the book was even worth rewriting, but he needed the money. The power company was threatening to turn off his electricity. After moping around for a few weeks, Steinbeck decided to give the book another go.
He mailed a second letter to Elizabeth. He apologized again for Toby’s behavior and predicted it would take three or four months of hard work to complete the manuscript. By diligently writing 2,000 words a day, he finished the book in two months. Steinbeck crossed his fingers and put it in the mail.
Of Mice and Men, published on February 25, 1937, was Steinbeck’s break-through literary work. The critically acclaimed novel immediately made the bestseller list, sold more than 100,000 copies within a few months, and made a national book-of-the-month club. Steinbeck was asked to write a stage version of the book and the Broadway play based on the book received great reviews and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award.
Two years later, Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath, which is considered his finest work. It went immediately to the New York Times bestseller list, selling 430,000 copies in the first two months. Later that year, the book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was adapted into a movie starring Henry Fonda. The Grapes of Wrath has sold more than 14 million copies.
During his 30-year career, John Steinbeck wrote 27 books. In 1962, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for “his imaginative and realistic writing.” Ironically, Of Mice and Men was originally titled Something that Happened. The book theme centers around the fact that sometimes things happen outside our control. Things don’t always go according to plan, i.e., the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Sometimes the dog eats our book. Of his shredded manuscript, Steinbeck later joked, “I guess Toby was right.” The manuscript did need rewriting.