Vladimir Pozner’s “The Disunited States”

Reviewed by Scott Borchert

Image of Vladimir Pozner’s “The Disunited States”

Imagine that you are asleep and then wrenched awake by the alarm on a clock radio, and the radio is tuned to the news, and the announcer is caught mid-sentence, running down the day’s events while you blink furiously and try to get your bearings. This is how Vladimir Pozner’s The Disunited States begins: with an ellipsis followed by a barrage of information. The day in question is September 21, 1936—seven years after the stock market crash of ’29, the bank runs, and the onset of the Great Depression. It is a day like countless others, and the morning, as Pozner describes it, “is gorged with strikes, conventions, deaths, speeches.” He is right (especially about the strikes), and this emphasis on social turmoil and public tribulation carries through the entire book as Pozner renders actual events and his own experiences into something like journalism-as-collage, or perhaps kaleidoscope.

There are coast-to-coast strikes and many deaths, including the suicides of unemployed workers, lynchings attempted and achieved, industrial accidents that are more like murders, police murders that are more like lynchings. There are speeches by communists and religious zealots and the Ku Klux Klan; there are conventions held by the Suspenders Manufacturers Union and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Pozner distills the contents of thirty newspapers to create the first chapter of The Disunited States, gathering up anecdotes and incidents from across the continent and setting them in breathless array. The effect is dazzling, if somewhat disorienting. Elsewhere in the book he draws on whatever material passes in front of him: the New York Times and the Daily Worker, advertisements of all kinds, scholarly studies, tickets to a dance hall, a movie star’s fan mail, subway posters, manuals from a hotel management firm and the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, billboards on a desert highway. He does not discriminate when it comes to source material; or, rather, he does, but he discriminates masterfully. Pozner knows how to deploy the things he scavenges, no matter how ephemeral or obscure they may be. The result is a frenetic portrait of the United States that he assembles bit by bit, fragment by fragment.

The Disunited States isn’t simply a collection of found texts, although it is a lumpy book, dominated by quotations and extracts. (A handful of chapters are given over entirely to a single person’s testimony.) While the book gathers together many voices, the central voice is Pozner’s: analytical, lyrical, humane, and outraged all at once. He is a French writer on the run from European fascism, settled in the US to write screenplays and to observe a society that repels and attracts him. His reflections, melded with those lumps of quoted text to form a cohesive whole, were published in France as Les États-Désunis. That was in 1938, and the book is only now returning to the land of its birth, in a lucid English translation by Alison Strayer, thanks to Seven Stories Press.

The Disunited States carries a good deal of historical interest—it’s a stew of primary sources and Depression-era minutiae, after all. But it is also weirdly, and dishearteningly, familiar. Open to any page and some event, some phenomenon will look as though Pozner plucked it from today’s headlines. Widespread joblessness? Grotesque inequality? Rampant gun violence? Black men killed by the police and vigilantes? The crude intertwining of religion and commerce? The drooling worship of entertainment icons? The deeply entrenched ideology that says, if you’re poor, it must be your own fault? All here—all still here.

This is a book that operates on micro- and macro-levels. There are the anecdotes and incidents, snippets of interviews and notebook fragments that Pozner uses to convey a sense of life in the mid-1930s United States. Pozner has a keen sense for the telling detail: in a Harlem café, there is a piano player who “doesn’t stop playing when drunken customers smash their champagne glasses on the keyboard, but simply changes octave to keep from cutting his fingers”; in Jersey City, a man three years unemployed finally lands a job unloading freight cars but drops dead ten minutes later, killed by an embolism “apparently brought on by emotion,” and his widow confirms that “her husband had been ‘terribly excited’ to learn that he’d been hired.” The seeds of a thousand novels lie in these pages, but Pozner does not linger, and you have just enough time to shake your head before he is on to the next arresting or heartbreaking or maddening scrap of information.

At the macro-level, The Disunited States aims to portray what its title suggests: a nation gripped by contradictions and convulsed by social unrest. Nearly every chapter gestures toward this understanding of life in the United States. Two chapters near the end of the book are especially compelling examples. In “The Beginning and End of the American Revolution,” Pozner travels to Boston and meets a friend, Professor Henry W. L. Dana, a consummate Yankee who lives in the house that belonged to his grandfather, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Together they visit historical sites and Pozner recounts the beginnings of the American Revolution, then juxtaposes this history with what, at that moment, is happening in Boston: a raucous state Senate meeting where people have assembled to shout their support for an anti-communist loyalty oath, administered to teachers. It is a familiar red-baiting scene, and here, in the cradle of the American Revolution, Pozner remarks that “From its glorious past, this crowd retains only the memory of witches burned near Boston two and a half centuries ago.” He ticks off stubborn facts: “Convicted for inciting soldiers to disobedience, the patriots of 1775, who distributed leaflets inviting English soldiers to desert. Convicted for armed resistance to police, the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord. Convicted of high treason, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.” Pozner, dismayed by so many Americans who are quick to forget their revolutionary heritage, shifts into the story of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti—but of course they are long dead, executed by the state of Massachusetts. He leaves Boston after an ambivalent meeting with Sacco’s family, but not before showing us a glimpse of picketing workers clashing with scabs and cops at the far end of the city. “Beginning and end, and beginning again,” he writes.

This chapter sets up the final chapter, “Real America.” It is one of the testimony chapters, and, like the others, it has no introduction and offers no context. You just have to read, and eventually you’ll figure out who is speaking. In this case, it is Aunt Molly Jackson, the labor militant and folksinger who emerged out of the Harlan County War, a period of naked class warfare between Kentucky coalminers trying to organize and mine owners dead-set on crushing the union. Jackson is a midwife and she boasts about never losing one of the nine hundred and eighteen babies she delivered; but while the miners are on strike, she watches thirty-seven children starve to death. She throws herself into the struggle. “I was a revolutionary and didn’t know it,” she says. “All my people were revolutionary and didn’t know it. Now the bosses called me a Red, and I said: ‘Well, well, if we are Red, it’s you who forced us into it by robbing us of all our rights.’” By the time Pozner finds her, Jackson is in exile from Kentucky, agitating on behalf of the miners and singing songs she wrote (which he quotes at length). Pozner closes The Disunited States by giving her the last word. It’s as though all the tension and power of this book come to rest in the final few sentences as Jackson recalls the miners’ war and lays bare the fundamental class antagonism at the core of American society. As stirring (or threatening) as her words must have been in 1938, they are even more so today, when, as this book reminds us, everything has changed and nothing has changed, and we continue to quarrel and agonize over the meaning of the “real America.”

Aunt Molly Jackson: “You remember the fifty guns and two machine guns that we took from the scabs that came to attack us in the mining town? They’ve never been found[,] those weapons. They’re hidden somewhere, well hidden and cared for and coddled and they are waiting for the revolution.”

That was a lifetime ago, and maybe Aunt Molly’s weapons are still out there, moldering in some lonely hollow. But what about today, in a United States that Pozner would have surely recognized? What scuttled hopes and righteous grievances, what rebel impulses and underground traditions, are squirreled away in the forgotten corners of America—still waiting?