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Imprints Literary Supplement

Bright Lights, Big City

Dawn Powell and the Glory of Revival

Peat Shaulis

Imprints Literary Supplement 1999

Our Favorite Things Writing about books for a living means reviewing new releases, covering publishing-house hijinks, an...

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By Heather Joslyn | Posted 10/13/1999

When Dawn Powell died in 1965, virtually all of her novels—scathing urban satires and unsentimental small-town tales praised by the likes of Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, and Ernest Hemingway—were out of print. Even when new, most of her 15 volumes sold poorly, rendering her a cult writer at best.

But from that low career ebb, a new wave of interest in Powell has rolled since 1987, when her chum Vidal penned an essay touting her forgotten brilliance for the New York Review of Books. Beginning in 1989, a small clutch of paperback reissues began to appear, though they were not part of a sustained reprint campaign.

Four years later, a recent Powell convert named Tim Page, then a music critic for New York Newsday, persuaded the Vermont-based Steerforth Press to produce a hardcover anthology of the novelist's work. Dawn Powell at Her Best, published in 1994, made a sterling case for the writer's importance to American letters and was critically acclaimed. The next year, Page edited Steerforth's The Diaries of Dawn Powell: 1931-65, which The New York Times Books Review named one of its Notable Books of 1995. Steerforth has steadily brought out handsome reissues of Powell's novels and short stories ever since; this month it publishes a new collection of her plays. Last year, Henry Holt published Page's biography of Powell, which comes out in paperback this month, as does Holt's hardcover collection of her letters. Now, more of Powell's work is in print than at any period during her lifetime.

Who was Dawn Powell? And why does she deserve a second chance?

Powell was a novelist best known for her stinging wit; if she had as reputation at all in the world beyond select New York literary circles, it was as a sort of Dorothy Parker with more stamina. But there was far more to Powell's work than zingy one-liners—and, as the reissues make clear, there was simply more work, period. As depicted in Page's bio, Powell's industry shamed less productive writers. Despite life-threatening health problems, recurrent money woes, an alcoholic husband, an autistic son, critical indifference, and paltry sales she soldiered on, churning out 15 novels—roughly one every other year during her peak period (from the early 1920s to the late '40s)—along with a few plays, short stories, and bales of freelance work.

She wouldn't be the subject of such a sustained revival effort, though, if she were merely prolific. Powell's work is both of and far ahead of her times. Her body of novels form a continuing social history of the American Century's first half, depicting how restless searchers left their flyspeck rural hometowns and flooded into their country's big cities, how they reinvented themselves there, and how they inevitably re-created the gossipy insularity of the villages they'd escaped inside the foreboding concrete canyons of their new frontier.

Her fiction splits into two parallel paths: the aching "Ohio novels" (exemplified by Dance Night, Come Back to Sorrento, and My Home Is Far Away) and the bubbly New York satires (such as Turn, Magic Wheel; A Time to Be Born; and The Locusts Have No King). Powell's life traveled the same forked road. Born in Ohio in 1897, she endured a rough childhood after her mother died when she was 6, boarding with relatives on isolated farms and in dingy factory towns. She and her two sisters eventually ran away in turn; Powell ultimately escaped to New York, where she lived the rest of her life, usually in her beloved Greenwich Village. "There's something about farm life that gives you the strength to run anywhere in the world," she once wrote.

As vividly as they evoke their settings—say, the rural Midwest at the dawn of the century, or Manhattan on the eve of Pearl Harbor—there's nothing about Powell's tales that feels antiquated. Their sensibility is modern, to such a degree that Page and other fans believe that's part of what relegated her to the margins in her prime. "Her sense of humor was a sense of humor that didn't become remotely mainstream until the 1950s," her biographer says, "when [the radio program] The Goon Show started in England and Mad magazine—of which Dawn was a fan—started here."

Powell's books are notable for their detachment from the mainstream mores of the times in which they were written. For example, sex in her work is neither intrinsically sacred nor profane—it is simply something that happens, and often between the most unlikely partners. She refrains from judging her characters, instead merely presenting them with intense bemusement and withering accuracy.

She was criticized in her time (and still is by some '90s readers) for her propensity for "unpleasant" characters, but they're not so much unpleasant as unvarnished. Her small-town portraits owe more to Edward Hopper than Norman Rockwell. Her big-city swells don't just utter precious witticisms between sips of martini; they exploit each other, bed-hop, and social-climb.

In 1936's hilarious Turn, Magic Wheel—perhaps the best of her New York novels, included with Dance Night in the 1994 anthology—Powell's "hero" is a parasitic novelist named Dennis Orphen who writes a too-thinly veiled roman à clef about his frequent companion, the ex-wife of a Hemingway-esque novelist, exposing to all of New York her pathetic certainty that the womanizing lout will one day return to her, even though he split 15 years ago. ("I did it for you," Dennis tells his pen's shattered victim, and he means it.) Yet it's through the abject Dennis that Powell expresses her credo, a thoroughly modern preference for telling it like it is:

If people, thought Dennis, only came right out and called each other an s.o.b. when they were just that, it would make the world a much finer place. It was these martyrs, these silent sufferers, these decent fine people, these chin-uppers that gave selfishness and crime its head start.

Later in that book, Powell draws an unlikely parallel between a status-obsessed society hostess and one of her party guests, a poor but strident Communist—each, she writes, is more comfortable with neat labels than unwieldy human beings. Her lack of allegiance to any ideology may have been another factor that marginalized her work. "The literary world in the 1930s was highly politicized," Page says, "and Dawn was never a part of that."

Oddly, feminist scholars have never championed Powell as an unsung heroine of women's lit. Page says he isn't surprised. The novelist "goofed on women as well as on men," he notes. "I think some feminists felt and still sort of feel that she was a turncoat. She didn't seem to think that a world run by women would be significantly better than one run by men."

With an oeuvre that covers the lives of farmers and dry-goods salesmen, flappers and beatniks, saucy nightclub chanteuses and stodgy publishing magnates, earnest Broadway playwrights and fey Village gigolos, Powell would surely have found something in our world to spark her imagination. And judging by the rich, honest work she left behind, the portrait she'd have drawn of us would have been wildly entertaining—if not always pretty.

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Living in Darkness (12/12/2001)
James Carr, 1942-2001

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