Unger, Douglas 1952–
Unger, Douglas 1952–
PERSONAL: Born June 27, 1952, in Moscow, ID; son of Maurice Albert Unger (a lawyer and rancher) and Ruth Stoecker (a homemaker); married Amy Burk (an actress and director), May 10, 1980 (deceased, 2003); married Dr. Carola Raab (an assistant professor), May 17, 2005; children: Erin (stepdaughter). Ethnicity: "Caucasian/Other." Education: Attended Colegio San Miguel, Buenos Aires, Argentina, Bachillerato Nacional, 1969; attended Goethe Institute, Blaubeuren, Germany, Grundstufe II, 1971; University of Chicago, B.A., 1973; University of Iowa, Iowa Writers' Workshop, M.F.A., 1977; graduate study at Western Washington University. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Episcopal.
ADDRESSES: Home—2990 McLeod Dr., Las Vegas, NV 89121. Office—Department of English, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, 4505 Maryland Parkway, Las Vegas, NV 89154-5011. E-mail—[email protected]; [email protected]
CAREER: Writer and educator. Photojournalist in Chicago, associated with United Press International; Sheep rancher in South Dakota, 1970–73; commercial fisherman in Washington, 1978–82; Whatcom Community College, Bellingham, WA, instructor in elementary Spanish, 1979, instructor in English composition at a branch of the college (Lummi College of Fisheries), 1981; Western Washington University, Bellingham, instructor in theater and dance department, 1981–82; Syracuse University, Syracuse, NY, 1983–91, began as assistant professor, became associate professor of English; University of Nevada, Las Vegas, professor of English, 1991–, M.F.A. in Creative Writing International program, director, 1997–98, 2001–05. Guest faculty member in fiction at Warren Wilson College M.F.A. program in creative writing, 1988; faculty director of Studies Abroad Consortium at Western Universities Council, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico, 1992; Universidad del Pais Basco, San Sebastian, Spain, 2000; Fulbright lecturer at universities in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. Regular commentator for radio talk shows around the United States, including National Public Radio, 1985–88. International Institute of Modern Letters, Grants and Acquisitions director, 2001–06; Words without Borders, executive board member, 2004–; Point of Contact/Punta de Contacto, executive board member, 2005–. Story and screenplay consultant, American Harvest, broadcast on the Family Channel, 1987; and work for virtual reality experience for Luxor Resort and Casino, Circus, Circus, Inc., 1993.
MEMBER: PEN, Writers Guild of America.
AWARDS, HONORS: American Field Service scholarship, Americans Abroad Program, Argentina, 1969; Olga and Paul Menn Foundation Award for writing, University of Chicago, 1973; fellowship, Iowa Writers' Workshop, University of Iowa, 1975–76; best novel award, Society of Midland Authors, 1984, Pulitzer Prize finalist, 1985, Robert F. Kennedy award finalist, 1985, and Ernest Hemingway Award special citation from PEN, 1985, Governor's Writer's Award, Governor Booth Gardner, Washington state, 1996, all for Leaving the Land; honorary doctorate, Universidad Anahuac, Mexico City, Mexico, 1985; grants and lectureships, United States Information Agency, Arts Americas Program, 1985; fellowship, John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, 1985, for the writing of fiction; Fulbright Comparative Literature fellowship, 1989, for work in Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile; Nevada Hall of Fame Silver Pen Award, Library Association of the University of Nevada, 1996; residency fellowship, Fundacion Valparaiso, Mojacar, Spain, 1999; Nevada State Board of Regents Medal for Creative Activities, 2005.
Leaving the Land, Harper (New York, NY), 1984.
El Yanqui, Harper, 1986.
The Turkey War, Harper (New York, NY), 1988.
Voices from Silence, St. Martin's (New York, NY), 1995.
Looking for War: And Other Stories, Ontario Review Press (Princeton, NJ), 2004.
Also author of screenplays, including (with Raymond Carver) Talk about Love, New Horizons Entertainment, 1983, and The Disappeared (screenplay adaptation), Universal City Studios, 1996. Contributor to books and anthologies, including Raymond Carver: An Oral Biography, edited by Sam Halpern, University of Iowa Press (Iowa City), 1995, and The Peregrine Reader, edited by Mike Vause and Carl Porter, Gibbs-Smith (Salt Lake City), 1997. Contributor of essays and editorials to MacNeil/Lehrer News Hour, Public Broadcasting System (PBS), and to journals, including Latin American Studies Journal and Point of Contact: Inter-American Journal of Arts and Ideas. Contributor to periodicals, including Boston Globe, New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times Book Review, Paris Review, Vogue, Colorado Review, Idaho Review, Ontario Review, and Southwest Review.
Managing editor, Chicago Review, 1971–74; editorial assistant for Iowa Review, 1975; associate editor of Point of Contact, 1994–96; editor of annual anthology, Syracuse Poems and Stories, Syracuse University Press, 1985. Member of editorial board, University of Nevada Press, 1996–2000. Member of board, Glenn Schaeffer Institute of Modern Letters. Unger's works have been translated into foreign languages, including French.
WORK IN PROGRESS: The novels Healing Your Life and Last Blade of Grass.
SIDELIGHTS: Douglas Unger's first novel, Leaving the Land, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1985 and also earned a number of other notable recognitions. Set in Nowell, South Dakota, Leaving the Land chronicles three decades in the life of Marge Hogan, who lives on her family's farm. Beginning with World War II, the farmers around Nowell, who previously raised wheat and corn, are persuaded by the government to raise turkeys instead. A local company, Safebuy, is allowed a monopoly of the turkey market. At first the farmers, who secure bank loans to expand their farms, fare well in the turkey business. Eventually, however, they are forced to sell their lands after overproduction and falling prices prevent the farmers from paying their loans. Safebuy acquires these farms and then hires the former owners to work as managers. Production and profits continue to fall, though, since workers are unwilling to work sixteen-hour days on land that is not theirs. Families eventually move away, and Nowell becomes a virtual ghost town. At the end of the book, Marge, who has been one of the few to keep her land, bequeaths the property to her son, despite knowing that he has no desire to farm it.
Leaving the Land was well received by critics, who especially praised Unger's portrait of life in rural America. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Savkar Altinel called the book "beautiful and haunting" and admired its "marvelously sensitive depiction of both the Midwestern countryside … and human experiences." Other reviewers lauded Unger for depicting the human cost of corporate dominance of the agricultural industry at the expense of independent farmers. Novelist Anne Tyler, for instance, noted in the Washington Post Book World that the novel is "a finely conceived, lovingly constructed story that has a definite point to make about the death of the American small farm at the hands of big business." Newsweek contributor Walter Clemons summed up critical reaction to the book by writing that first-time novelist Unger "has made a powerful debut."
Unger also set his third novel, The Turkey War, in South Dakota. The 1988 novel illuminates an obscure part of American history—the forced labor of hundreds of German prisoners brought to America during World War II. Unger again portrays the turkey industry in Nowell, concentrating this time on the Nowell turkey plant, which is owned by the Safebuy company that Unger introduced in Leaving the Land. The German laborers, whose leader is a military commander named Harlmut von Ujatz, are supervised by Mose Johnson, the American foreman of the plant. At the beginning of their work the Germans are highly productive, but eventually they grow to resent the poor working conditions and organize a general strike. The plant is closed, the town's economy collapses, and people move away.
Reviewers of The Turkey War, who again praised Unger's ability to evoke the atmosphere of a Midwestern farm community, also commended the author for revealing a little-known period of American history. William O'Rourke, writing in the Chicago Tribune Books, noted that the novel "provides a clear, provocative chronicle of a time that should be remembered." Some critics expressed disappointment with Unger's characterization, however, suggesting that he concentrated too much on the figure of Mose Johnson and not enough on Johnson's rival, Harlmut von Ujatz. Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Art Seidenbaum, for instance, commented that "Mose Johnson never fully recognizes what moves his implacable opponent; neither, alas, does the reader." Still, Seidenbaum emphasized that "as an unearthing of forgotten special circumstance, the novel is excellent literary archeology."
Unger turned his attention away from the Midwest for his 1986 novel El Yanqui. Set in Argentina, the story is narrated by James, an American student who wins a scholarship to study in Buenos Aires in 1970 on the eve of the presidential election. After James makes a sexual advance toward a servant working at the religious school he is attending, the girl is sent away by the corrupt rector, while James is looked upon admiringly by the other boys. He is soon attracted to another woman, a member of a group of political radicals who oppose the Argentine military government and advocate the return of exiled president Juan Peron. During a Peronist demonstration, James is arrested and beaten while his new girlfriend mysteriously disappears, a victim of her political opponents. Jonathan Yardley noted in the Washington Post that "notwithstanding its considerable shortcomings," El Yanqui "is a pleasure to read."
El Yanqui is based, in part, on Unger's experiences as an exchange student living with an Argentine family in 1969 and 1970, a family that the United States government later declared to have "disappeared." Unger believed his foster family was a lost victim of the military regime that tormented Argentina from the mid-1970s into the 1980s. Happily, he reconnected with the family, however, in 1983, when he "received a censored letter from them," reported Rahel Musleah in the New York Times. El Yanqui's sequel, Voices from Silence, recounts their ordeal. Musleah wrote: "Based on interviews, archival research at [Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales] and Mr. Unger's personal experience as an exchange student … Voices from Silence is more fact than fiction. 'I call it a novel of witness. I promised my Argentine family I would tell their story,' he said in a phone interview."
"Straddling the line between fiction and documentary, [Voices from Silence] chronicles one family's search for the truth following the suppression and genocide of thousands of people known as the 'disappeared ones,'" commented Musleah. New York Times Book Review contributor Thomas Mallon suggested that to get the story's "full resonance" one must read its predecessor, El Yanqui. Picking up the story fifteen years after the conclusion of El Yanqui, Voices from Silence follows Diego, a U.S. journalist, who once was an exchange student. "The adult Diego has returned to revisit his Argentine family, who have been decimated by the dirty war," stated Mallon. Calling the book "powerful," a Publishers Weekly contributor felt the book was highly realistic and wrote that both books, when taken together, form "a moving experience."
"Unger's Argentina is a place of multiple torments, many of them warring within individuals," analyzed Mallon. Comparing Voices from Silence and El Yanqui, Mallon asserted that "the language of this sequel tends to be more piously rhetorical" and "[Unger's] latter day incarnation is more narrator than character." Nevertheless, Mallon felt that Unger's protagonist does show signs of growth and "he keeps the courage of his own well-earned pessimism straight through to the end of his tale, without reconsiderations or apologies." Mallon believed that the Argentina Unger presented appears "like history that is still news."
Unger published a story collection, Looking for War: And Other Stories, in 2004. In an interview with Jarret Keene on the Las Vegas CityLife Web site, Unger noted: "I don't know how to talk about stories, really. You get an idea, the idea simmers for a while, and then one day it becomes something that's writeable. I suppose I have five or six story ideas that are stewing in my subconscious for long periods of time—sometimes years—before one finally comes to the surface." In the novella "Looking for War," the author presents a character's reminiscences of war prompted by a question at a dinner party. In his interview with Keene, Unger noted that "Looking for War" is "an anti-war story, and I wrote it in five days, right after our war with Afghanistan began. Not that I wasn't in favor of that military action. I just had a visceral reaction to war in general." The collection's short stories include "The Writer's Widow," which a Publishers Weekly contributor called "a delicious send-up of the complicated etiquette that rules the writing world." The author also includes autobiographical tales with his stories "Autobiography" and "Matisse." A Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that the "characters … demand attention with their colorful flourishes and voices." Noting that some of the stories are "crisply written," a contributor to Kirkus Reviews also commented: "The past lies heavy on these eight stories: old wars, old deceptions, old childhood traumas."
Unger once told CA: "I am active on issues, especially those involving Latin America, since a substantial part of my education took place in Argentina. I am also concerned with the preservation of the small farming system, or family farms, all over the world, again because of my early agricultural background. I've written books with both these interests at heart. I am fluent in Spanish and sometimes translate, am competent in German, and have a slow reading knowledge of Russian. I continue to travel throughout South America, lecturing at universities, and throughout Europe. In pursuit of this multinational interest, I'm one of the co-founders and co-directors of the new MFA International in Creative Writing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and work actively with Freedom to Write and City of Asylum projects around the world."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 34, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1985.
McQuade, Molly, editor, An Unsentimental Education: Writers and Chicago, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1995, pp. 217-235.
Morris, Gregory L., editor, Talking up a Storm: Voices of the New West, University of Nebraska Press (Lincoln, NE), 1995, pp. 227-241.
Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2004, review of Looking for War: And Other Stories, p. 201.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 27, 1988, Art Seidenbaum, review of The Turkey War.
Newsweek, December 17, 1984, Walter Clemons, review of Leaving the Land.
New York Times, January 28, 1996, Rahel Musleah, "Straddling the Line between Fiction and Documentary in a Novel," p. 8.
New York Times Book Review, February 5, 1984; September 17, 1995, Thomas Mallon, "Strangled by History: The Custodians of Argentina's Past Go to Work on the National Memory," p. 2.
Publishers Weekly, June 3, 1995, review of Voices from Silence; May 10, 2004, review of Looking for War, p. 37.
Times Literary Supplement, December 21, 1984, Savkar Altinel, review of Leaving the Land.
Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), November 13, 1988, William O'Rourke, review of The Turkey War.
Washington Post, October 15, 1986, Jonathan Yardley, review of El Yanqui; December 10, 1995, "Informed Opinions: Experts Pick Their Favorites."
Washington Post Book World, March 25, 1984, Anne Tyler, review of Leaving the Land.
Douglas Unger Home Page, http://www.douglasunger.com (May 31, 2006).
Las Vegas CityLife, http://www.lvcitylife.com/ (February 6, 2004), Jarret Keene, "The Art of Writing War: CityLife Chats with UNLV Professor Douglas Unger about His Latest Release."
University of Nevada Las Vegas English Department Web site, http://english.unlv.edu/ (May 31, 2006), faculty profile of author.