Of Mice and Men is set in the 1930s against the backdrop of the United States’ catastrophic economic downturn, known as the Great Depression. Amongst the worst-hit were the agricultural workers of the American West, many of whom were left homeless and wandering for work. Steinbeck, who lived in Salinas, California, was appalled by the terrible suffering of the homeless and starving families he saw around him. In a series of articles for the San Francisco News titled “The Harvest Gypsies,” he described the conditions in which homeless migrants lived and worked. Steinbeck saw California’s farmers, landowners, and bankers as partly to blame for the migrants’ suffering, due to their deliberate exploitation of the cheap labor provided by the migrant workers. He wrote Of Mice and Men in part to expose the role that the cruelty and indifference of landowners—represented in the novel by the boss and his son Curley—played in the suffering of homeless workers like George and Lennie. Of Mice and Men, together with The Grapes of Wrath, which Steinbeck wrote two years later, helped to persuade America’s political leaders to provide more aid to the people left destitute by the Depression.
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