13 Things You Might Not Have Known About John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’

John Steinbeck’s dog Toby ate the first draft of the manuscript, leading the author to write a friend, “I’m not sure Toby didn’t know what he was doing.”
The cover of John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men.’
The cover of John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men.’ / Penguin Random House (book cover), Justin Dodd/Mental Floss (background)

You probably spent some time as a teenager reading John Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, published in February 1937. But even if you know all about Lennie and George’s heartbreaking pursuit of life, liberty, and a hutch full of rabbits, there are a few things about this iconic piece of literature that might not have been covered in English class. 

1. John Steinbeck worked the same gig as Lennie and George. 

John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck. / Hulton Deutsch/GettyImages

Although he was a Stanford University graduate and had published five books by the time he wrote Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck had more in common with his itinerant main characters than readers might have expected. “I was a bindle-stiff myself for quite a spell,” the author told The New York Times in 1937, employing the now archaic nickname for migrant workers. “I worked in the same country that the story is laid in.” With Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck wanted to tell the story of a community largely unheralded in literature and high culture. 

2. Lennie was based on a real person.

In the same New York Times article, Steinbeck recalled a fellow laborer on whom Lennie Small’s arc was based: “Lennie was a real person. He’s in an insane asylum in California right now. I worked alongside him for many weeks. He didn’t kill a girl. He killed a ranch foreman. Got sore because the boss had fired his pal and 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.” 

3. Steinbeck‘s dog ate a draft of the book.

Perhaps none too pleased with the ultimate fate of the canines featured in Of Mice and Men, Steinbeck’s dog, Toby, devoured an early draft of the story, which the author had written longhand on notepaper. “Minor tragedy stalked,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend in May 1936. “My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my manuscript book. Two months work to do over again. It set 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 manuscript I’m not sure is good at all. He only got an ordinary spanking … I’m not sure Toby didn’t know what he was doing when he ate the first draft. I have promoted Toby-dog to be a lieutenant-colonel in charge of literature. But as for the unpredictable literary enthusiasms of this country, I have little faith in them.”

4. The original title of Of Mice and Men was much more matter-of-fact.

Before he opted to make his title an homage to Scottish poet Robert Burns’s 1785 poem “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough,” Steinbeck considered a far more deliberate option: Something That Happened.

5. The poem Steinbeck’s book takes its title from isn’t quite how much people remember it.

Ask any American reader to identify the line of verse that inspired Steinbeck’s title, and you’ll more than likely hear, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” In fact, this is simply the English-language paraphrasing of the original Scottish poem, which reads, “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley.”

6. Of Mice and Men was arguably the first “play-novelette.” 

The stage intrigued Steinbeck as much as prose did, and the book shares similarities with both media. Like a theatrical piece, Of Mice and Men manifests in three acts. Its narration bears the character of stage direction, and its dialogue has the feel of something one might hear in a play. 

7. The novella was an early selection for the Book of the Month club.

In operation for 88 years between 1926 and 2014, the Book of the Month Club was the premier mail order book service operating in the United States. Before it was even officially published, Of Mice and Men was chosen for distribution by the organization and sold around 1000 copies a day for the first month.

8. Steinbeck won a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the stage production.

Lon Chaney, Jr. and Burgess Meredith in Of Mice and Men
Lon Chaney, Jr. and Burgess Meredith in ‘Of Mice and Men.’ / John Springer Collection/GettyImages

In May 1937, Of Mice and Men made its way to the stage, debuting at the Theater Union in San Francisco, where it was performed as written. In the introduction to the deluxe version of Of Mice and Men, author Susan Shillinglaw notes that “Steinbeck’s experiment with novel-as-script ... must be deemed a failure. When, a few weeks after publication, George Kaufman showed interest in producing Of Mice and Men on Broadway, he wrote to Steinbeck suggesting changes,” including that Curley’s wife, as he put it, “be drawn more fully.” The show opened on Broadway later that year and ran for more than 200 performances. Steinbeck accepted the 1937 New York Drama Critics’ Circle’s Best Play Award for the production. Of Mice and Men was also adapted into a movie starring Burgess Meredith as George and Lon Chaney Jr. as Lennie in 1939.

9. Of Mice and Men is one of the most commonly read books in American schools.

In the 1990s, the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature placed Steinbeck’s novella among the 10 most commonly taught books in public schools, Catholic schools, and independent high schools. 

10. It’s also one of the most challenged books.

Of Mice and Men proves that with such prevalence comes backlash. The novella ranked as the fifth most frequently challenged piece of literature on the American Library Association’s list of 100 Most Banned or Challenged Books between 2000 and 2009. 

11. The book has been opposed for some strange reasons.

By and large, the heat taken by Of Mice and Men has singled out the story’s strong language, sexual scenarios, and violence. But one organization in Chattanooga, Tennessee, was a little more creative, taking issue with the “anti-business attitude” it saw in Steinbeck’s text. The establishment also raised the issue that Steinbeck “was very questionable as to his patriotism.” 

12. Of Mice and Men played a big role on Looney Tunes.

Following the release of the 1939 film adaptation of the book, the Lennie character earned parody and homage alike in pop culture, most notably in Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes shorts. Lennie took form across the cartoon canon as a hound dog (“Of Fox and Hounds” in 1940 and “Lonesome Lenny” in 1946), an oversized cat (“Hoppy Go Lucky” in 1952 and “Cat-Tails for Two” in 1953), and a tremendous yeti (“The Abominable Snow Rabbit” in 1961 and “Spaced Out Bunny” in 1980), among other incarnations.

13. The house where Steinbeck wrote the book is now a landmark.

Between 1936 and 1938, Steinbeck and his wife Carol lived in a house on Greenwood Lane in Monte Sereno, California. (The house, a 1989 addition to the National Register of Historic Places [PDF], shouldn’t be confused with Steinbeck’s similarly recognized childhood home in nearby Salinas, California.) While in Monte Sereno, Steinbeck wrote both Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath

The same neighborhood where Steinbeck lived later inspired other 20th century artists: Monte Sereno was also the home of Beat Generation writer Neal Cassady and artist Thomas Kinkade

A version of this story ran in 2015; it has been updated for 2023.