The Disunited States by Vladimir Pozner Translated from the French by Alison Strayer
A rising sun crosses over the 3,000-mile stretch of the United States on September 21, 1936. Light penetrates night in a cascade defined in minutes, bringing each city to day as the sun marks its course from the Atlantic to the Pacific: 5:47 in Philadelphia, 6:24 in Cincinnati, 7:04 in Kansas City, 8:57 in San Francisco.
As life awakens across the country, so too do the never-ending struggles and banalities, triumphs and oppressions that define life in the United States during the 1930s.
The Louisiana Governor announces a regatta for southern state officials; West Virginia pipeline workers go on strike; a black boy is shot by police in St. Louis; the Grand Dragon of Ohio announces his KKK chapter’s electoral intentions – “We’ll limit ourselves to informing voters of the candidates’ religion,” he remarks.
Then, as the sun goes down, the concluding events of the day: A heart-broken woman in New York kills herself; FDR’s mother celebrates her 82nd Birthday with a family party; gamblers place bets on greyhounds in Dallas; the unemployed camp in Chicago city parks.
Thus begins The Disunited States – a highly artistic work of nonfiction by Vladimir Pozner, available to anglophone readers for the first time, courtesy of Seven Stories Press.
The opening chapter strings together actual news reports taken from 30 different US newspapers published on September 22, 1936. The effect is mesmerizing, as Pozner extracts the alienation, class antagonism, racism and sexism endemic to the 1930s through a variety of disparate yet illustrative events that reveal in a broad stoke the tragedy and chaos of the time period.
Pozner – a French socialist descendent from anti-Tsarist Russian émigrés – spent the 1930s exploring the political and social landscape of the United States. In some respects, his work follows Alexis de Tocqueville’s literary path. Just as the famous author of Democracy in America did a century before, Pozner probes mentality and experience of the US citizenry, delving into the civic life of the United States and engaging with average people as they carry on their quotidian existence.
Where de Tocqueville saw the democratic spirit of the country’s inhabitants, however, Pozner sees a people disenfranchised by their country, trounced economically and alienated socially.
The book’s style and structure are prescient, displaying an artistic sensibility that would not emerge as a movement until New Journalism appeared in the ’60s and ’70s. By transforming interviews into narrative form, interspersing third-party texts throughout his own, and endowing his subjects’ words with a poetic resonance, Pozner not only provides a compelling historical snapshot, but also a visceral and moving reading experience.
People’s Voices Preserved
Tying together interviews from a broad spectrum of US citizens, Pozner constructs – one seemingly disconnected piece at a time – a convincing portrait of oppression and social strife, augmented with his concise observations and citations from a broad array of writings.
Activists, progressives and the down-trodden make up the bulk of the book’s subjects. A labor activist in Kentucky – who acknowledges her Indian heritage but remarks that her true nationality is “a mixture of joy and sorrow” – recounts how her community was literally starved by company bosses, who sapped miners’ pay through service deductions for purchasing and repairing equipment. Workers thus immiserated by the burden of capital maintenance were unable to buy adequate foodstuffs, or even appropriate clothes for their children to attend school in the winter.
In Harlem, Pozner speaks with a number of black labor organizers and community leaders. He sits down with James Ford, the black vice presidential candidate for the Communist Party. “The Black suffers as a worker . . . He suffers as an unemployed person. He also suffers as a Black (sic). He pays more for everything he buys, he receives less for everything he provides,” Ford explains to Pozner, in a conversation on the poverty of New York’s black community. Ford proceeds to explain how this poverty is exacerbated by the rent gauging practiced by white landlords privy to the financial benefits of de facto segregation.
While the long-form, narrativized interviews – preserving voices that would otherwise be lost to history – comprise the book’s strongest contribution to literature of the period, Pozner occasions his own views, offering simple yet poignant observations.
He discusses race in particular with a perspicacity lacking in other progressive writers of the time period. Just as Pozner understands that the black boy shot in St. Louis – referenced in the book’s opening chapter – was a “target” in police’s eyes, another unnecessarily brutal police murder leads the author to a similar conclusion on the relationship between a militarized state and an oppressed minority. Discussing a man taken to a Birmingham hospital with fatal injuries:
Two police officers on routine patrol had tried to question the man. He didn’t stop. The police opened fire and wounded the black man in the head, arm, hip and leg. Shoot to kill.
Nothing is known about the man, not even his name, only his ability to be a target.
His uncensored take of the daily horrors experienced by African Americans stands in stark contrast with the infantile musings of elite opinion depicted in the book. On the days leading up to his move to Harlem, Pozner writes:
I entertained myself telling people I was going to live in Harlem. Here are some of the replies:
“They’ll never let you live with them.”
“You could stay at the Hotel Theresa in Central Harlem. They don’t let Negroes in (sic).”
“Be sure not to carry personal belongings. The bare minimum. Otherwise, they’ll clean you out.”
“Be careful: they all have syphilis.”
By juxtaposing the prejudiced misconceptions borne from white privilege with the actual experience of poor African Americans in Harlem, Pozner illustrates just how disunited the nation truly is.
The Deflation of the American Dream
On Wall Street, Pozner encounters a man selling shoestrings and inflatable globes. After years working in finance and saving money for his own business, the man – named John – peddles random goods to uninterested businessmen. He lost everything in the crash.
As John shares his story, Pozner describes the scene of suits scurrying around them: “This torrent that surges into and out of one skyscraper has the precise logic of inputs and outputs in accounting.”
The human manifestation of the “logic of inputs and outputs” is a core theme of the book. US citizens – sucked in by the mythic brand of rags-to-riches capitalism – are processed and chucked out, impoverished. Guaranteed the world, many end up losing it all, as John unwittingly demonstrates when – standing at the foot of the George Washington statue in front of Federal Hall – he shows Pozner the inflatable globe he is selling:
He brings it up to his mouth and puffs out his cheeks. He blows with all his might, grows pale with the effort, gulps some air and blows again. Between his gray lips, the bag swells, grows taut and round, hiding the man’s chin, nose and cheeks. I recognize Europe, the Atlantic, the entire Earth daubed in bright paint on the rubber sphere now bobbing over the tray of laces. Over the North Pole, two eyes look at me with hope, and in a voice half-pleading, half-ironic says:
“Five cents. It is not expensive, the world for five cents.”
…[U]nder the watchful eyes of guards armed with revolvers and the indifferent gave of Washington, I acquire the world. It deflates immediately . . .
The inequality, racism and state violence of the 1930s stand in stark contrast with the country’s self-perception as an exemplar of democracy. Scores of events remain undiscussed, squeezed out of the national narrative by the chauvinistic whitewashing of US history (few discuss, for example, how future military heroes Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArther and George S. Patton helped lead a violent assault against unemployed veterans camped outside the Capitol in 1932, leading to several deaths and thousands of injuries).
The Disunited States is a valuable addition to the period’s history, providing readers a people’s perspective of what was certainly one of the most tumultuous decades of the 20th century.