Influential French novelist, screenwriter, pioneer in literary genre and Oscar nominee Vladimir Pozner came to the United States in the 1930s. He found the nation and its people in a state of profound material and spiritual crisis, and took it upon himself to chronicle the life of the worker, the striker, the politician, the starlet, the gangster, the everyman; to document the bitter, violent racism tearing our society asunder, the overwhelming despair permeating everyday life, and the unyielding human struggle against all that. Pozner writes about America and Americans with the searing criticism and deep compassion of an outsider who loves the country and its people far too much to render anything less than a brutally honest portrayal. Recalling Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Pozner shatters the rules of reportage to create a complete enduring and profound portrait.
In a cornfield in Summerville, West Virginia, the fourth crop has just been harvested. All around Gauley Bridge, earth was amply repaid with cadavers for the silica the men extracted; in the end, the dead, too, were just a byproduct of tunnel construction. There are new crosses in cemeteries in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Maryland and Delaware, but especially the southern states: Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Virginia, and the Carolinas. The last survivors of the two thousand tunnel builders are waiting their turn. They have lost half their body weight and move with great difficulty, scarcely able to breathe. At the bottom of the mine or the corner of a street, in a hospital bed or a cotton field, down to the last man they will strangle to death, and if we think of opening their chests, their lungs will appear compacted, petrified blocks of tumor and silica, Gauley Bridge tunnel silica.
That’s it for the men.
Now tell me if anyone in the world has shown more interest in the human race and the problems of the individual than the American businessman.
Excerpted from The Disunited States by Vladimir Pozner; translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer. Copyright © 2014 by Seven Stories Press. Excerpted by permission of Seven Stories Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
About Vladimir Pozner
VLADIMIR POZNER (1905–1992) was a French writer of Russian descent, whose prestigious career as a novelist took off in the 1930s with the publication of Tolstoï est Mort (Tolstoy is Dead) and Les mors aux dents (published in English as Bloody Baron: The Story of Ungern-Sternberg). A militant antifascist who took refuge in the U.S. during the war, Pozner worked as a Hollywood screenwriter, eventually befriending Bertolt Brecht and Charlie Chaplin, and writing the Oscar-winning script for The Dark Mirror, a film noir crime drama. Backpacker, raconteur, and pioneer of literary styles, Pozner dedicated his life to giving a testimony of his times.
About Alison Strayer
ALISON L. STRAYER is a Canadian writer and translator. Her work has been shortlisted for the Governor General's Award for Literature (for Jardin et prairie, a novel, 2000) and for Translation (Mavis Gallant's A Fairly Good Time, with G. Letarte, 2010), the Grand Prix Littéraire de la Ville de Montréal and the Prix France-Quebec. She lives in Paris.
"In 1936, Pozner travelled to the United States and wrote about what he found. The result is this brimming book of reportage, a cross between Studs Terkel and the New Journalism written years before either came around."—The New Yorker
"By dint of names, dates, and figures, of classified ads, of sundry facts, of statistics, of the confessions of great writers and of anonymous passersby, of quotations from small-town newspapers and from official discourses, Vladimir Pozner reconstructs, vibrantly, so terribly vibrantly and magnificently, the American civilization."—Les Lettres Françaises
"1936 was a hell of a year. James Agee living with cotton tenant farmers in Alabama for what became Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Louis Adamic toiling away on his epic, My America. John Dos Passos publishing Big Money, the last in his American trilogy series. And Vladimir Pozner working on The Disunited States. Pozner is a missing link in this body of vital literary documentation centered around that most amazing year in American history. But The Disunited States is not about a year or a nation frozen in time. It speaks to us today."—Dale Maharidge, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning And Their Children After Them.
"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."—Patrick Glennon, Truthout
"Translated into English for the first time, this outsider’s lyrical and perceptive portrait of America in the 1930s is an unearthed treasure. Pozner, a French novelist and screenwriter, captures the essence of a nation of contradictions at a moment of economic and spiritual crisis uncannily reminiscent of our times. Much of the book – including the extraordinary tour-de-force that is the first chapter – is drawn from local newspaper accounts. At times, the distance between our lives and those Pozner describes seems to dissolve, and we’re suddenly face to face with real human beings whose hopes and heartbreaks are strangely close to us."—Plough