Haslam talks about a classic Steinbeck novel

Amber Hayden

Robert Mullen, Sports Editor

The Norman Levan Center for the Humanities hosted award-winning author and Bakersfield native Gerald Haslam on Feb. 5, as the first part of a series of discussions and events in honor of the 75th anniversary of the publishing of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Haslam was at the center for a discussion about the novel, the migration, and John Steinbeck’s work and influence.
Between 60 and 70 people attended the 10 a.m. event, which started with an introduction of the speaker. Haslam then started off by dispelling some myths about the Dust Bowl and the novel, common knowledge that “isn’t actually knowledge, just common,” and then went into detail about the work itself and the author’s influence during that period.
Haslam noted that Steinbeck was the first person to really bring attention to the Dust Bowl issues of the Midwest and California to the nation as a whole.
“What [Steinbeck] really did was make people aware of it. That in the long run was good for the valley and good for California,” he said.
Haslam believes that Steinbeck was the key shaper of much of the public’s perception of those events, then and even to this day.
“I think that how we feel about the valley and how we feel about the migration, particularly here in Kern County, and particularly my generation and older, is very much shaped by John Steinbeck,” he said. “We may be defensive, we may be celebratory, but it’s shaped by what he did.”
While not many people may have the same reaction to “The Grapes of Wrath,” as a Kern County native, Haslam notes that Steinbeck’s novel is “read all over the world by people who don’t have any idea of the economics of Kern County or Salinas,” and believes that part of the reason that the novel was so successful is because of its rather simple theme.
“The characters [in the novel] survive by letting go of their individualism and caring for one another, and that’s really the message that one gets.”
Haslam became interested in Steinbeck’s work after first reading “The Grapes of Wrath.”
“It was about areas that I knew something about; when you’re working off Comanche road, you’re four miles from the Weedpatch camp.” He started writing while in high school and continued while in the army.
“I started writing for the newspaper at Garces,” he said. “I was writing sports. I wrote about teams that I played in, and I was always better as a writer than I was on the team. Even when I was in the army I wrote for the divisional newspaper after I got out of basic training.”
Haslam combined his love of writing with his interest in Steinbeck and the Central Valley to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at San Francisco State University in 1963 and 1965.
Jack Hernandez, the director of the Levan Center, was pleased with the turnout. Most of the audience members were from the community rather than BC students.
“This was a nice comfortable group, but if I had had a couple of classes of students come we would have been totally booked,” Hernandez said. “We started planning last fall and we set up a whole series.”
Haslam’s appearance was the first part of the series. Author Rock Wartzman will talk about the banning of “The Grapes of Wrath” in Kern County on Feb. 27, followed by a panel of BC professors talking about the history and economic impact of the Dust Bowl migration on March 25.
Haslam was born in Bakersfield and raised in Oildale; he attended Garces Memorial High School and graduated in 1955. He attended Bakersfield College from ’55-’56 before joining the army. While he regularly visits old friends in Bakersfield, Haslam now lives with his wife in Penngrove, Calif.