It Doesn’t Mean What You Want It To Mean
Nothing about this case makes sense.
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is one of the most heralded, widely read and referenced books of all time. Not to spoil it for you, but it involves a mentally retarded character who accidentally commits a crime. So fine, the state of Texas referenced it in regards to the case of Marvin Wilson, who allegedly murdered a police informant back in 1992. The U.S government has banned the execution of mentally disabled prisoners. What’s the problem here?
That Texas went and, using the justification of Steinbeck’s novel, executed Marvin Wilson, who had an IQ of 61. Except that according to how what they said, they shouldn’t have executed him: “Most Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck’s Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt.” I’m not sure quite how, with an IQ of 61, Marvin Wilson does not qualify for a lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills or how Texas decided that he was not mentally disabled. These are not questions for a literary blog. All I can say is that I don’t think Texas prosecutors read Of Mice and Men closely enough.
Thomas Steinbeck, John’s son, agrees with me, saying he is appalled and his dad would be “deeply angry”. I don’t really know what I’m arguing here. That authors have the right to control how their work is used whether they’re alive or dead? (They don’t, and they shouldn’t.) That you should be careful how you’re using other people’s words, especially if you’re going to justify killing someone with them? Arguments about the death penalty aside, Steinbeck’s novel was used to send someone to an ultimate fate that according to the law he shouldn’t have received.
Darwin didn’t believe in Social Darwinism and its cousin, eugenics, as a tool to cull populations. The Beatles didn’t write Helter Skelter as music to inspire murders. And far be it for me to speak for the utterly complex, contradictory, Ayn Rand, but the avowed atheist and proponent of free expression would likely have trouble being embraced as the spokesperson of a party who stands for social conservatism as well as fiscal. We’d all agree that Brave New World and 1984 would be terrible templates for a society and should never be used as such. But if by chance they came to pass, we wouldn’t want Huxley’s and Orwell’s finely crafted words used against us. We want them used, as they were intended, as tool for exploration and enlightenment (and perhaps warning).
It’s a terrible thing to feel responsible for the tragic misinterpretation of your words, which is why most authors don’t. When asked, they instead express regret and refer blame to the reader who twisted their words. And authors certainly shouldn’t be responsible, nor should authors be barred from putting forth new theories or write less-than-admirable characters, for fear that they will be vehicles or role models to wrongdoing. Even characters who aren’t made to be evil can be taken out of context: Steinbeck’s Lennie, after all, is a very nice guy. Let’s think more deeply about how we use the words of our greatest writers. Otherwise, no one will ever want to ever want to write anything ever again.~Liz
This post originally appeared on the blog, Books on the Make.
Editor’s Note: Liz Baudler recently graduated from Columbia College with a Fiction Writing degree. She founded and used to edit The Toucan Literary Magazine. Now, she just contents herself with editing one publication, Transcendent Journeys. When she’s not glued to a computer researching literary controversies or reading books and chuckling, she likes to ride her bike, cook, and make money talking about animals at Brookfield Zoo.