The heartland

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July 1, 2013 · Posted in California Roads Scholar 

William Saroyan's house from 1921-1927. Courtesy Fresno County Historic Society


By Phyl Van Ammers


William Saroyan repeated a story in The Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills (1952), originally told to him by an Armenian actor at a picnic on Kings River in the summer of 1918.   The actor was almost eighty.  Saroyan had been ten. 

 “A hunter snared a bird which was so beautiful that the hunter said to himself, ‘It would be a sin to end the life of this creature.  I shall take it home, build it a wonderful cage, give it food and water, and I shall love it with all my heart, for I have never seen another bird like it.’”

The bird was unhappy and said every evening, “’Ahkh, Vahtahn’ (Oh, my country!’) “  So the hunter opened the cage, the bird flew out, and the hunter followed him until the bird “came to a place so desolate, hot, dry, rocky, and barren that it seemed to be the end of the world. “ 

 “….(T)he bird came to rest at last on a small dry tree full of thorns and small brittle leaves.  The bird then said to the hunter, ‘This is my country.’”

The Central Valley is humungous. It is 40 to 60 miles wide and stretches approximately 450 miles from northwest to southeast, inland from and parallel to the Pacific Ocean coast. It covers approximately 22,500 square miles — about 13.7% of California’s total land area.  It began underwater.

In Edendale (2013), an elderly Japanese-American poet on his way from Clearlake drives through the valley on the 5:

“Vertical posts strung with horizontal wire, telephone poles and transmission lines, rhomboid fields, fruit and nut trees planted in parallel lines sunk in rectangles of dark water and shadow, square boxes, silos, gas and water tanks, rectangle orange hotel roofs, triangle restaurant roofs, round creosote, square road signs.  You had to like premises and proofs.  You needed to appreciate the area of a rectangle as the base multiplied by the width and that the volume of a cylinder was pi times the radius squared times the height and that parallel lines met in infinity.

“He drove through the Kern alluvial fan in the great sedimentary trough of the Central Valley.  Five million years ago, the Great Central Valley was part of the Pacific Ocean.  Ground undulated at the bases of the surrounding mountain ranges.

“The tops of the ranges were once islands; the hills at the bases of the mountains were descents into the sea from the islands; and the valley had been covered with warm water.

“He pictured himself driving along the ancient sea bottom in a submarine: periwinkles, conches, whelks, a gastropod with long flattened foot and raspy tongue passed languorously.  Dolphins and whales broke the surface of the brilliant water.”

The Maidu and Yakut people lived in the Valley for at least 17,000 years before European contact and numbered about 20,000, based on Professor Kroeber’s estimates.

The following is one of the many Valley Indian stories collected by Alfred Kroeber at the beginning of the twentieth century.  This story reflects the Indians’ belief in the intelligence and supernatural power to all living and lifeless things, which was similar to the belief system of Neolithic human beings in Asia Minor up to about 11,000 years ago, and which contrasts vividly with early agriculture-based ideology (Man is the steward of the animal and plant world.) and explosively with industrial capitalism premised on the idea that promotion of self-interest is in itself a good.

“When the first person died Coyote was south of him, the meadowlark to the north.  Now the dead person began to stink.  Coyote said: ‘I think I will make him get up.’   The meadowlark said: ‘No, do not, there will be too many.  They will become so hungry they will eat each other.’  Coyote said: ‘That is nothing.  I do not like people to die.’  The meadowlark said, ‘No.  It is not well to have too many.  There will be others instead of those who die.  A man will have many children.  The old people will die but the young will live.’  Then Coyote said nothing more.  So from that time on people have always died.  Coyote said, ‘It is best to put them in the fire.’  And so the dead were burned.

Agriculture and the draining of lakes and rivers radically altered the habitats of the Valley. New species overtook the grassland.  Americans drained the vernal pools and cut down the riverbank woodlands.  The introduction of European invasive plant species and non-native diseases wreaked havoc on Native populations and diminished their ability to defend themselves against the Europeans.

The members of the 1772 Spanish expedition led by Captain Pedro Fages were the first non-Indians to view the Delta and the great Central Valley.  Diarist Fr. Juan Crespi wrote, “We set out from this valley and entered some medium-sized hills of pure earth and pasture.  We ascended a pass to its highest point in order to make observations, and we saw that the land opened into a great plain as level as the palm of the hand… all level land as far as the eye could reach.  Below the pass we beheld the estuary that we were following and saw that it was formed by two large rivers.”

Captain Fages wrote, “The natives, who live in spherical houses, are accustomed, in order to avoid the inconvenience attendant upon the rains when they are heavy, to move to drier land during the wet season; when this has passed they return to their dwellings.  The slope of the sierra, which lies toward Monterey is rather bare of trees, but abounds in seeds, and there are numerous villages near its streams.  The range where it extends inland from the other side of the river is very high, and its peaks are always covered with soil.  ….  The common Indians wear a small cloak, which reaches to the waist; in their hair they interweave cords or bands with beads, among the folds of which they bestow the trifles, which they need to carry with them.  The most common of these small articles is a small horn of the antelope containing tobacco for smoking, wrapped in leaves….They have stone mortars very like the mutates of this kingdom, jars of the same material, and trays of all sizes made of wood or reeds artistically decorated with fibrous roots of grass which always keep their natural color….”

California became a part of the United States in 1850, although many Americans continued to think of the eastern and middle states as “the States” for quite some time after that.   The following excerpt is from Up and Down California (1860-1864), by William Brewer, the journal entry for Monday, April 6, 1861, and it reveals the easterner’s perspective of the San Joaquin Valley (Brewer was born and grew up in upstate New York.):

“….Wednesday we came on to Fresno City – only eighteen miles, but there was no other stopping place for forty miles, so we had to stop.  The country had been growing more and more desolate.  We had left the trees behind at Hill’s, except occasional willows along the sloughs, and this day, for sixteen miles we rode over a plain of absolute desolation.  The vegetation that had grown up last year, the wet year, was dead, and this year none has started.  Sometimes no living thing cheered the eye, nothing in sight alive for miles…. Fresno ‘City’ consists of one large house, very dilapidated, one small ditto, one barn, one small dilapidated and empty warehouse, and a corral.  It is surrounded by swamps, now covered with rushes, the green of which was cheering to the eye after the desolation through which we had passed.  These swamps extend southeast to Tulare Lake.  We got into the place after much difficulty, but our animals had to content themselves with eating the coarse rushes that grew on the edges of the swamp….Thursday we came on to Kings River, forty miles.”

John Muir had a different take on the Valley, but he came through it in a wetter year and from the north:

On March 27, 1868, Muir arrived in San Francisco, having traveled by steamship from New York via Panama. He was thirty, had recently completed walking from Indiana to Florida, and wanted to see Yosemite. The typical traveler took a ferry from San Francisco to Stockton, a stage to Coulterville, and then completed the trip to Yosemite on horseback. John Muir chose to walk. He took a ferry to Oakland, then walked south through the Santa Clara Valley, over the Pacheco Pass, across the San Joaquin Valley to Snelling, up the foothills through Coulterville, and arrived in Yosemite Valley around May 22, 1868.

“…The valley of the San Joaquin is the floweriest piece of world I ever walked, one vast level, even flower-bed, a sheet of flowers, a smooth sea ruffled a little by the tree fringing of the river and here and there of smaller cross streams from the mountains. Florida is indeed a land of flowers, but for every flower creature that dwells in its most delightsome places more than a hundred are living here. Here, here is Florida. Here they are not sprinkled apart with grass between, as in our prairies, but grasses are sprinkled in the flowers; not, as in Cuba, flowers piled upon flowers heaped and gathered into deep, glowing masses, but side by side, flower to flower, petal to petal, touching but not entwined, branches weaving past and past each other, but free and separate, one smooth garment, mosses next the ground, grasses above, petaled flowers between.

“Before studying the flowers of this valley, and their sky and all of the furniture and sounds and adornments of their home, one can scarce believe that their vast assemblies are permanent, but rather that, actuated by some plant purpose, they had convened from every plain, and mountain, and meadow of their kingdom, and that the different coloring of patches, acres, and miles marked the bounds of the various tribe and family encampments. And now just stop and see what I gathered from a square yard opposite the Merced. I have no books and cannot give specific names….”  John Muir, letter to Mrs. Carr 1868.

The Valley produces twenty-five percent of the nation’s food on one percent of the nation’s farmland.   Before suburbanization of large areas of the Valley, the Valley produced a higher percentage of the nation’s food and its farm owners exported much of the produce and positively affected our balance of trade with other countries.   The Jeffersonian myth of the yeoman farmer does not noticeably play out in the Valley.

Frank Norris’s novel, The Octopus: A Story of California (1901), depicts the conflicts between the Southern Pacific Railroad, ranchers and the Rancher’s League in the San Joaquin Valley and is based on the Mussel Slough Tragedy of 1880, which left seven people dead.  Mussel Slough took its name from a slough that went from the Kings River to Tulare Lake.  Congress awarded the Southern Pacific Railroad odd-numbered lots, totaling 25,000 acres.  Settlers homesteaded the area and built houses and irrigated the farmland and expected to be able to buy the SP land, but SP raised the prices considerably.  The settlers attempted to pass a bill through Congress fixing the sale price at the $2.50 an acre that Congress had originally agreed to but it failed, partly through the influence of Governor Leland Stanford, who was also Southern Pacific’s president.  The railroad raised the sale price soon after that to $35 an acre.

Readers discovered Carey McWilliams’ Factories in the Field, University of California Press, 1939),  John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle (1936), and Steinbeck’s better known, Grapes of Wrath (1939) at about the same time.  Steinbeck, like Frank Norris, did not intend to write a political book.  Both Norris and Steinbeck saw the issues around migrant labor –then white migrant labor, often Okie and Arkie and Texan labor – as a human struggle, the struggle in Steinbeck’s case between different aspects of the self because he grew up in a farming area.  Norris saw the battle as that between large powerful forces and the individual.    McWilliams was a consciously political writer.  McWilliams wrote bluntly about “farm fascism” and “Gunkist oranges.”  Both McWilliams and Steinbeck sympathized with the small farmer and saw them as endangered by banks and corporate farms.   They also supported farmworker unions.   McWilliams’ focused as well on the power of racism, the history of which was then largely anti-Chinese racism, to subordinate workers in the industrialized farms.

People flowed to the Central Valley for work from other countries and from other states.   The writers were often either immigrants or the children of immigrants, and their ways of looking at life projects many rich cultural perspectives: New Yorkers, Swiss, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, Pilipino, Laotian, Hmong, Texie, Arkie, Okie, Mexican, Greek, Armenian.

Professor Peter L. Reich provides authority for the proposition that California’s civil law grew out of a flexible interpretation of Spanish, Mexican, partly seen through a prism of Louisiana’s interpretation of Spanish law.  Nonetheless, to this day there remains a conflict between the Spanish/Mexican property system and the American shift to private production, a legacy of the European enclosure acts that began in the seventeenth century.  He remarks that Carol Rose “considers the commons as a vital ‘social glue’ that keeps communities cohesive through joint economic and recreational activities, and which traditional societies protected from exhaustion via strict use limitations.”

Barrio Boy by Ernesto Galarza shows in part how recent immigrants from Mexico viewed American life in Sacramento, probably around 1915-1920.   Galarza’s boyhood perceptions illuminate the differences between the way the American city of Sacramento (“Sacrament” in Spanish) was designed, and the way his village in Mexico was designed.

“ Immediately we discovered that there were no mercados …. Neither was there a plaza, only parks which had no bandstands, no concerts every Thursday, no Judases exploding on Holy week, and no promenades of boys going one way and girls the other.  There were no parks in the barrio; and the ones uptown were cold and rainy in winter, and in summer there was no place to sit except on the grass.  When there were celebrations nobody set off rockets in the parks.  Sacramento did not have ….a plaza with the cathedral to one side and the Palacio de Gobierno on another…. Even in the alleys, where people knew one another better, the houses were fenced apart, without central courts to wash clothes, talk and play with the other children.  Like the city, the Sacramento barrio did not have a place which was the middle of things for everyone.”

Gerald Haslam – son of a Texas immigrant and grandson of Mexican immigrants – frequently refers to the epidemics of racism in the Central Valley, as well as to those who eschew any form of racism and to those who learn to get along in his fiction, some of which is in Haslam’s Valley (Heyday Books 1974).

William Saroyan’s parents came from Bitlis in the Ottoman Empire.  He was born in 1908 in Fresno.  After his father died when he was three, his mother placed him, his brother and his sister in an Oakland orphanage.  When he returned to Fresno, he had to relearn his first language.  In a sense, his earlier writing is comparable to the writing of other children of immigrants to the valley, including Maxine Hong Kingston, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, Alan Chong Lau and Richard Rodriguez, among many, in that these stories portray the contrast between cultures.  “The Summer of the Beautiful White Horse,” published within the collection My Name is Aram (1940) tells the story about a nine year old boy and his cousin, who steal a horse and after a time return it.  The family assumes the older boy is demented but he is demented on purpose in order to act with greater freedom.  His “The Pomegranate Tree” is a fable about a boy who helps his uncle create a magical orchard outside of Fresno that symbolizes hope set against the reality of a hostile environment.  The uncle loses everything, and the orchard returns to desert.  That is the end of the story.  Years later, in 1940, the writer Saroyan takes his small son from their expensive rented house in Beverly Hills to the location of the story.  At the end of it, the little boy insists on leaving behind a wizened pomegranate.  The writer Saroyan pretends he does not understand the gesture, but within the child’s gesture is a tiny symbol of hope set against reality.

Saroyan is one of the world’s best writers.  He deliberately creates a cosmology of Armenians against the world in his earlier writing to show in relief all of the tragedy and humor of being alive.  Slowly, he grew into an explosive writing about his own enormous passion and energy that corresponds to nothing else except possibly Jack Kerouac’s writing only Saroyan is the more profound writer.  His gift dwindled like his uncle’s irrigation scheme over time as he lost touch, as Steinbeck did, with the world he sprang from.

In Saroyan’s story I repeat at the beginning of this essay, the actor telling the bird story sat in the shade of a sycamore.  A wealthy dealer in paintings and rare art objects wanted to know why, of all the places in the world, he had chosen Fresno to spend his last years.  The actor tells this well-known Anatolian story, only Saroyan didn’t know it was well-known or that it was Anatolian because he was a Californian who believed his family came from the country of Armenia.   His parents came from Bitlis, which is in Eastern Anatolia, which has been in the Republic of Turkey since 1924, when there was a Republic of Turkey.  Before that for about four hundred years, Bitlis was in the Ottoman Empire.  For about six hundred years before that it was a part of the Byzantine Empire.  There had been a kingdom of Armenia before that.

The bird story is an old story.  “Ahch Vatan,” which the bird keeps saying to the hunter, may be related to the Turkish words, Ahch Vatan, which mean Oh, my country, or, more accurately, something like Ahch, COUNTRY because to say vatanim — my country in Turkish — would be redundant.  The country is your place, your home and, you don’t need to say that it is, although you may have to say “Ahch.”   To the Fresno Armenians Saroyan wrote about, the homeland was Fresno, which was their Armenia – a place that had not existed in the place they thought that it did for about a thousand years, unless they mean a place that has many Armenians, which could mean that Vatan is Bitlis in Turkey and is Glendale, California and parts of East Hollywood.  The courthouse in Glendale is hung with signs in Armenian.   More Armenian students attend California State University Northridge than attend the University of Yerevan.   “Armenia” in Saroyan’s writing was the lost home, and so he wrote for all of the dispossessed.

Bitlis is 15 km from Lake Van, in the steep-sided valley of the Bitlis River, a tributary of the Tigris. (See, Calonne, David Stephen. “The Mulberry-Scented Air of Baghesht: Saroyan’s Quest for Bitlis” in Armenian Baghesh/Bitlis and Taron/Mush, pp. 207-223.).  Van was an important Armenian center during the second century BC, when it was part of the Armenian kingdom. Throughout 1895–96, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire suffered in a wave of violence commonly known as the Hamidian massacres. Although Van largely avoided massacres in 1895, the Ottomans sent a military expedition in June 1896. Armenians initially defended themselves in Van, but upon agreeing to disarm in exchange for safety, massacres continued, culminating in the death of over 20,000 Armenians.  Saroyan’s parents immigrated to America around that time.

The only writer in the world that I am aware of who writes with equal humor, power and bitterness as Saroyan wrote  — Tolstoy wasn’t funny, Mark Twain and Gogol were not as deep –is the Kurdish author Yaşar Kemal, (born Kemal Sadık Gökçeli in 1923 in Gökçedam in Southern Turkey). Yaşar Kemal also had been very poor as a child, also did not have a traditional education.  His parents had come from Van, on the eastern shore of Lake Van.  Kemal continues to advocate for the dispossessed.

The Kurdish and Armenian vatan is also the heart of the modern Republic of Turkey.  Its predecessor the Ottoman Empire and that empire’s predecessor the Byzantine Empire controlled lands comprised of many ethnic people.  The Ottoman language was a compromise between Turkish, Arabic and Farsi.  In 1924, Kemal Ataturk purified the language and attempted to eliminate foreign words and was to a degree successful.  Anatolia, the Anadolu or full-of-mother in Turkish, has been occupied for many thousands of years.  The Trojans may have been Celts.  Hittites occupied the south.  Urfa may be the Biblical Ur, where Abraham father of the Jews was born.  The Garden of Eden was located between the Tigres and Euphrates Rivers.  Some scholars believe “The Fall” in Genesis is the story of the time when human beings in the western world decided to abandon hunting and gathering and collaboration with nature to become stewards of plants and animals, which led to agriculture.   The remains of the proto agricultural city Çatal Höyük are in AnatoliaGöbekli Tepe – near Urfa — was an early Neolothic temple that predated Stonehenge by 6,000 years, Both Saroyan and Kemal tapped into very ancient human cultures in their writing.

When Saroyan returned from the orphanage in Oakland, Fresno had 25,000 residents.  Armenians comprised 5,000 of those people.  In Bicycle Rider in Beverly Hills, he wrote:

“Water to an Armenian is a holy thing, like fire.  A farmer watering his plants, trees, or vines is taking part in a rite which has profound meaning and satisfaction for him.  The farmers of Fresno went to the headgates of the irrigation ditches, or to the banks of the San Joaquin River or the Kings River for their Sunday picnics.  They had to see the water where it was most abundant.  They had to be near it.

“Plans for going to The River were made by every family all week, and then early Sunday morning, or immediately after church, the family got into the horse-drawn carriage or into the automobile and drove there to spend the day looking at the water, smelling it, hearing it.

“Going to The River was like going back to Armenia, or back to the days of youth. The mingling of excitement and peace at the river’s side was continuous, the kids dancing at the sight of the swift-flowing water, running to dive into it and swim, the old people just sitting and being alive in a place that was like their own country to them.”

James D. Houston writes in, “In Search of Oildorado,”

“Water is one of the three resources that have shaped Kern County.  Oil and country music are the other two.  The water is imported from rivers farther north.  The music is what you might call a hybrid product, transplanted southwestern and Okie energy finding new roots here, giving Bakersfield its nickname, Nashville West.  The oil, however, is indigenous.  While the guitars and the fiddles and the gospel quartets float through the airways a few feet above the ground, and while the piped-in water taps the riches in the first foot of earth, thousands and thousands of wells suck up the riches further down, planted there fifty or sixty million years ago when uncountable generations of plankton sifted downward through the fathoms of this one-time inland sea and left tiny skeletons behind to be transformed into crude.”

In “The Horned Toad,” Gerald Haslam described his Mexican great-grandmother’s encounter with the small horned toad the child Gerald carried in his pocket, which he had found in an empty lot.   About his neighborhood, he said:

“During those years in Oildale, the mid-1940s, I needed only to walk across the street to find a patch of virgin desert.  Neighborhood kids called it simply ‘the vacant lot,’ less than an acre without houses or sidewalks.  ….(O)urs was rich soil formed by that same Kern River as it ground Sierra granite and turned it into coarse sand, then carried it down into the valley and deposited it over millennia long its many changes of channels.  The ants that built miniature volcanoes on the vacant lots left piles of tiny stones with telltale markings of black on white.  Deeper than ants could dig were pools of petroleum that led to many fortunes and lured men like my father from Texas.  The dry hills to the east and north sprouted forests of wooden derricks.”

In 1970, when the last comprehensive testing was done, geologists learned the valley floor had subsided from one to 28 feet because of overdraws on groundwater.   Today, California’s farmworker communities are plagued by contaminated drinking water.  Twenty percent of small public water systems in Tulare County are unable to meet safe nitrate level standards — a grim result of more than half a century in which chemical fertilizers, animal wastes, and pesticides have infiltrated water systems — and overuse means less dilution of naturally occurring arsenic levels.  Nitrates have been linked to thyroid disease and make infants susceptible to “blue baby syndrome,” a potentially fatal condition that interferes with the blood’s capacity to carry oxygen. Children tell each other, “No tomes el agua!”

 Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion in Salyer Land Co. v. Tulare Lake Basin Water Storage District (1973), 410 U.S. 719, exempted water storage districts from the “one person one vote” rule that until then was an established fourteenth amendment equal protection principle — even when the voters were not residents of the area.

“ In the beginning, the task of reclaiming this area was left to the unaided efforts of the people who found their way by painful effort to its inhospitable solitudes. These western pioneers, emulating the spirit of so many others who had gone before them in similar ventures, faced the difficult problem of wresting a living and creating homes from the raw elements about them, and threw down the gage of battle to the forces of nature. With imperfect tools, they built dams, excavated canals, constructed ditches, plowed and cultivated the soil, and transformed dry and desolate lands into green fields and leafy orchards. . . .’

Whatever Justice Rehnquist meant by this passage, his rhetoric did not support the majority decision.    The power of large corporate landowners dwarfed that of the small landowners in Water Storage District elections.

In 1981, two-thirds of the acreage irrigated by the State Water Project in Tulare, Kings and Kern Counties was owned by eight “farmers”:  Chevron USA (37,793 acres), Tejon Ranch (35, 897 acres), Getty Oil (35, 384 acres), Shell Oil (31, 995 acres), Prudential Insurance (25, 105 acres, a foreign conglomerate (24,663 acres), Tenneco Corporation (20, 180 acres), and Southern Pacific Railroad (16,528 acres).

 Coastal residents — if they think about the Valley at all — think of it as either somewhere around Salinas (which is near Monterey on the coast) or as inert dead space through which they travel from time to time on their way to real places.   As my taciturn stepfather said, “The difference between driving through the valley on the 99 and driving the 5 is that on the 99 you sometimes see something.”

In summer, the valley is an inferno.  Sacramento native Joan Didion wrote that the Great Central Valley is “so hot that the air shimmers and the grass bleaches white and the blinds stay drawn all day, so hot that August comes on not like a month but like an affliction.”   It is flat as if an outraged god slammed his anvil down on it.

Many farmworkers in their middle years show signs of Parkinson’s disease, probably caused by the fungicide Benomyl, and the pesticides paraquat, maneb and ziram, which lead to the death of high numbers of dopaminergic neurons.

Kevin Starr, in Coast of Dreams, writes that in the 1980s Fresno’s population expanded 63 percent.  “….(A)cre after acre of prime farmland was paved over to create housing and malls, malls and housing….Gang activity and drive-by shootings rivaled those of Los Angeles.  Entire neighborhoods now featured barred windows and iron security doors.”  There was a high rise in welfare dependency. Tracy, Madera, Modesto and Stockton soon followed this pattern but Fresno was the worst.  Eastern valley communities lacked high schools and clean drinking water.  The Amtrak conductor announced the train’s approach to Fresno with the words, “Freeesno.  Number two in the nation.”  I asked him as he passed my seat later, “Number two in what?”  “The number two worst city in America,” he said, but polls had actually shown Fresno as number one.

Leonard Gardner’s short story, “Christ Has Returned to Earth and Preaches Here Nightly” (published in The Paris Review, 1965)  catches the scent of lost souls in the valley.

Gardner wrote, “Once during that week he had almost been successful, but his passenger had passed out before he could take her anywhere.  He had driven around as long as he could, waiting for her to revive, but as he had to drive a tractor early the next morning, he left her on the lawn in front of the library.  Ernest had thought of leaving her in the car overnight to enjoy during his lunch hour in the fields; however, he had feared he might end up having to marry her, if she knew where he lived.  Such things were known to happen in Tracy, as his father often warned him.  His father himself had been discovered in front of his future in-laws’ house one bright morning, asleep on the back seat of a model A Ford in only a pair of high-top shoes without socks (it was summer) beside the girl who was now the cranky, round shouldered, double chinned television fan for whom Ernest bought bubble-bath on Mother’s Day….”

Gerald Haslam, in “Oildale”:

“In the court of $225-a-month houses across the street from my folks’ place, I see fair-skinned young men with long, unkempt hair, bearded, disheveled, angry after three beers at a world that does not offer them well-paid jobs or much prestige but does provide drug dealers to rip them off and does provide candy-bar and soda-pop lunches.  They carry homemade tattoos on their knuckles, and their shoulders are splendid with murals of nude women on horses, but few high school diplomas grace their mantels: School sucks, man.  If asked, they will often reveal that they are about to tell someone off or to kick someone’s ass.”

The following are state prisons in the Central Valley:  Avenal, California State Prison, Corcoran, California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Corcoran, Central California Women’s Facility, Deuel Vocational Institution, Folsom State Prison, Kern Valley State Prison, North Kern State Prison, Pleasant Valley State Prison, Valley State Prison, Wasco State Prison.   There is a United States Penitentiary in Atwater and a Federal Correctional Institution in Mendota.  California’s Three Strikes law, harsh mandatory sentencing, the War Against Drugs, and the prison guard lobby have ensured overcrowded prisons.



 “Fat City”, a film shot about Stockton directed by John Huston, based on a book by Leonard Gardner.

“Grapes of Wrath,” directed by John Ford.   This is a 1940 film starring Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine and Charley Grapewin.

“The Human Comedy,” a 1943 film staring Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, James Craig and Marsha Hunt.   Mickey Rooney (improbably) plays the Saroyan avatar Homer Macauley who lives in small town Ithaca.

“The Time of Your Life” (1948)

“Valentino Returns.” 1989 Film adaptation of the Leonard Gardner short story “Christ Has Returned to Earth.”

Travel locations:

Google maps the Joad family’s itinerary as shown in The Grapes of Wrath: Text and Criticism, edited by Peter Lisca with Kevin Hearle, New York, Penguin 1997.   The Joads come into California at Needles, following historic Route 66 through the Tehachapi mountains from the Mojave to Bakersfield, from Bakersfield to the government migrant worker camp at Weedpatch,   The Joads stay in Hooverville, live at the Hooper Ranch in Pixley, which is on the 99.  The end of the journey is in a boxcar camp beside a stream.  Tom hides in a culvert near there.  Their journey ends here.  According to Google maps, the location on the creek that enters the Elk Bayou Regional Park, which is on Hosfield Drive, Tulare.

If you have to go through the Central Valley take Amtrak’s San Joaquin train.    It is air-conditioned.    It is easy to use the bathrooms.

MegaBus leaves the Bay area from West Oakland and from San Jose and goes through the Central Valley to Los Angeles and stops at Union Station, which is worth seeing.   MegaBus is cheaper than Amtrak.   If you sit in the second level, you can watch the sky through the glass ceiling.

William Saroyan’s home from 1921 to 1927 is at 3204 East El Monte Way, Fresno.  Local Historic Register of Places #185.

William Saroyan grave is at the Ararat Cemeter located at 1929 W. Belmont Avenue, Fresno.

Visit the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, although Salinas is not in the Central Valley because the events described in John Steinbeck’s In Dubious Battle and in his Grapes of Wrath occurred in the Central Valley.


 Brewer’s Up And Down California wasn’t published until after his death.  The complete text is available for free on-line.   (

Ernesto Galarza, Barrio Boy (1971, University of Notre Dame Press)

Gerald Haslam, The Other California, University of Nevada Press (1994).

California Heartland, Writing from the Great Central Valley, edited by

Gerald W. Haslam and James D. Houston (Capra Press 1978) essays, stories and poems that every California roads scholar should read before setting out on a trip through the valley.

Free on-line:  “Indian myths of South Central California” on, by A. L. Kroeber, University of California Berkeley, 1907.

A. L. Kroeber, The Religion of the Indians of California.

 Kroeber, A. L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 78. Washington, D.C.

Peter Reich, “Dismantling the Pueblo: Hispanic Municipal Land Rights in California 1850, The American Journal of Legal History, October 2001, Volume XLV, Number 4.

Peter L. Reich, “Siete Partidas in My Saddlebags: The Transmission of Hispanic Law from Antebellum Louisiana to Texas and California,” Tulane European & Civil Law Forum, Volume 22, 2007, copyright by Tulane Law School.

William E. Justice, editor, foreword by Herbert Gold, He Flies Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease, a William Saroyan Reader (Heyday Books 2008).

California Childhood (Creative Arts Book Company Berkeley 1988) edited by Gary Soto.

Highway 99 – a literary journey through California’s Great Central Valley, edited by Stan Yogi and published by Heyday Books in conjunction with California Council for the Humanities (1996).





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