Of Mice and Men and Migrant Farm Workers of the Great Depression
by Matthew Clements
John Steinbeck’s famous hobos, George and Lennie, bring the migrant farm experience of the Great Depression to life in the celebrated classic of American literature, Of Mice and Men. Part of the huge grain growing industry of the American west, Depression Era itinerant farm workers like George and Lennie, mostly single men, traveled by boxcar from farm to farm in search of work and ever since have populated the landscape of the American cultural milieu. Depictions of these hobos are found in many varieties of art, from paintings, photography, music, and literature. This lesson explores the various representations of depression era migrant farm workers and compares them to migrant farm workers of today.
This lesson should take about three class periods.
- Students will be able to identify and understand the lifestyle of migrant farm workers during the Great Depression.
- Students will be able to understand common characteristics of the hobo experience from various depictions of migrant farm workers in art.
- Students will be able to use primary and secondary sources to explain the migrant worker’s lifestyle.
- Students will be able to compare the lifestyle of depression era migrant farm workers to the lifestyle of today’s migrant farm workers.
- Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck (any edition)
- "The Hobo’s Lullaby" lyrics, Woody Guthrie, Woody Guthrie Official Site
- "The Hobo’s Lullaby" audio, YouTube.com
- Large sheet of easel paper
After reading Of Mice and Men, explain that migrant farm workers like George and Lennie have been depicted in many varieties of art, and were known by many nicknames like hobos, bindle stiffs, and boxcar Willies. Tell the students we are going to listen to one such depiction in song. Distribute the lyrics to "The Hobo’s Lullaby" by Woody Guthrie and have students listen to the song at least once.
Have students compare the hobo lifestyle depicted in the song to George and Lennie. Write the comparisons on the board, which should include but is not limited to A) drifting from town to town, B) worn clothing, C) not thinking about the future but living month to month, and D) worrying about being in trouble with the law.
Divide students into groups of about four students. Each group will use the Internet to research the lifestyle of migrant farm workers, and will create an aesthetically appealing poster on large sheets of easel paper. Each group’s visual must include the following:
- Three unique facts about the lifestyle of a hobo during the Great Depression
- An interesting quotation from Of Mice and Men that demonstrates the typical migrant worker’s lifestyle
- An image of a hobo found on the Internet (This could be a photo, a painting, a cartoon, etc.)
- Three interesting facts about migrant farm workers in America today
Each group should have access to the Internet, a large sheet of easel paper, markers, tape, and scissors. Each student in the group should be responsible for finding one of the four requirements for the visual.
Have each group present its visual to the class. Each student in the group needs to participate in the presentation. During each presentation, ensure that a range of ideas about hobo lifestyle is discussed, as well as several pertinent quotations from Of Mice and Men. Most importantly, have each group compare today’s migrant farm workers to the Great Depression’s hobos and to George and Lennie.
- Write a compare/contrast essay on migrant farm workers of today, during the Great Depression, and in Of Mice and Men.
- Bring in audio and lyrics to several more "hobo songs" from artists such as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Johnny Cash.
- Analyze other passages of literature depicting hobo or migrant farm worker lifestyle, such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.