By John Steinbeck.
Penguin. 107 pp. $8.

John Steinbeck’s forlorn protagonists, Lennie and George, summon few comparisons in today’s landscape of mainstream literary fiction, overstocked with tales of redemption. The rapidly consolidating book business seems fixated on soft stories of hope, on the one hand, and celebrity memoirs and biographies, on the other. It’s easy to forget how many American classics are not fundamentally palliative in tone. (My loose definition of classic is broad and inclusive.) While visiting my parents recently, I spotted Of Mice and Men on their bookshelf and promptly buried my head in this raw, tightly crafted and disconsolate tale of human loneliness.

Originally published in 1937, Of Mice and Men opens with two men hunting for work along the California countryside. George is a sympathetic and alienated dreamer, while Lennie is a lumbering man of slow mind, an old-school “gentle giant.” In a bunk house filled with other rootless job-seekers, Lennie’s burden of simplemindedness leads him to commit a hideous crime. Much like the fate of Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son (published three years after Of Mice and Men), Lennie’s act thrusts him into a tremendous despair from which he must flee–though he cannot escape.

Neither Steinbeck nor Wright dwelled too much on themes of redemption and personal emancipation in these deeply provocative and disturbing novels. In Of Mice and Men, it is Crooks, a black stable hand living as an outcast among the white laborers, who most eloquently expresses a soul-stirring despondence:

“S’pose you didn’t have nobody. S’pose you couldn’t go into the bunk house and play rummy ’cause you was black. How’d you like that?… A guy needs somebody–to be near him…. A guy goes nuts if he ain’t got nobody…I tell ya a guy gets too lonely an’ he gets sick.”

The tragic realism in this and other American classics is becoming a rarity. In the book business of 2003, novelists delving into human sadness are routinely dismissed by agents and editors as “too dark.” This is a standard not borne by John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Langston Hughes, James Jones, Flannery O’Connor or Ernest Hemingway–all of whom wrote astonishingly sorrowful classics. And it is not just the literary establishment that is trying to whitewash the human psyche: During the 1990s, Of Mice and Men became one of the most banned books in high schools across America. In one highly publicized case, an Arizona principal yanked the novel from the English curriculum due to “profane language, moral statement, treatment of the retarded, and the violent ending.” This sounds like “opposition” presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman talking with First Librarian Laura Bush about the lyrical content of an Eminem album as war brews.