Author's son outraged by use of Steinbeck character in execution case

Legendary novelist John Steinbeck would have been outraged over how the Texas authorities are using his character Lennie Small, his son Thomas says (Associated Press)

First aired on As It Happens (09/08/12)

The son of American author John Steinbeck has expressed his disgust over how the Texas judiciary system uses the famous character Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men to help determine whether a criminal is mentally competent enough to face the death penalty. In the novel, Small is described as a physically imposing giant of a man who was kind-hearted but intellectually disabled. When Small accidentally kills the wife of his boss's son, his longtime friend and guardian makes the difficult decision to shoot him instead of letting a mob get to him.

Texas measures mental incompetency using standards developed by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. These standards were inspired by Steinbeck's character in that they try to determine whether a criminal should be exempt from execution because they lack reasoning ability and adaptive skills, as did Lennie Small.

The issue came up last week when Marvin Wilson, a man whose IQ was in the low 60s, lost his appeal for a stay of execution based on the Lennie Small criteria and was executed.

"I thought it had to be a joke," Steinbeck's son Thomas said recently on As It Happens. "I thought it was a piece of absurdity, until I found out it was true, and then it made me desperately angry. It's an insult to John Steinbeck, it's an insult to his writing, and it's an insult to our intelligence."

The young Steinbeck, also an author and a journalist, has lived in Texas and said he was used to the state's "bizarre idea of justice" but was shocked at how his father's character was being appropriated. Lennie Small was meant to be a literary device "to talk about loyalty," not to be a benchmark used for determining whether the death penalty applies, Steinbeck said.

He said he doesn't know if the family estate can do anything to stop the practice -- that's something that could only be determined by consulting a lawyer -- but he does know how his father would have reacted upon hearing of this.

"My reaction is rather, shall we say, mellow compared to his. He would have absolutely hit the ceiling. My father was basically a very, very gentle soul, but you didn't want to make him angry, and this would have made him very, very, very angry."