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Imprints Literary Supplement

A Time to Be Reborn

How Dawn Powell Came Back

By Heather Joslyn | Posted 10/13/1999

Every underappreciated writer should have a guardian angel like Tim Page.

Page, who won a Pulitzer Prize as The Washington Post's classical-music critic and now works for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, has watched over Dawn Powell's legacy for much of this decade—as her biographer, editor, and de facto agent. He cheerfully calls the job his "a second career."

He has been a driving force in the current resurgence of interest in Powell, but he rejects the notion that the novelist couldn't have come back from obscurity without his push.

"I certainly helped, but Dawn basically did this by herself," Page says. "If the work hadn't been so terrific and so appropriate to our time and place," he adds, it wouldn't have found an audience. Page also praises Vermont-based Steerforth Press for its commitment to reprinting Powell's work, beginning with the 1994 publication of a hardcover anthology, Dawn Powell at Her Best.

But it was Page who instigated Steerforth's efforts (11 of Powell's 16 novels are back in print, along with collections of her diaries, letters, plays, and short stories). He's also helped Powell's family gain control over her estate, including the rights to her work. The novelist, who died in 1965 at the age of 68, named a friend as her executor; as described in Page's biography Dawn Powell, her family claims the executor neglected her duties, providing little assistance for decades to those who sought to study or revive the writer's work. In the 1990s the family threatened legal action over the handling of the estate, and Powell's relations now owns all of her publishing rights.

In 1994, Page bought the bulk of Powell's papers for "substantially less than the price of a new car" and has been donating some of the writings each year to his alma mater, Columbia University. Her diaries—witty, insightful, at times heartbreaking—were part of those papers, and their publication by Steerforth in 1995 proved to be a landmark in the Powell revival. (A New York Times review called them "one of the outstanding literary finds of the last quarter-century.") Page calls Powell's diaries her "masterpiece": "If you put a gun to my head and asked me what's the best thing you've ever done, I'd say it was the diaries."

The Powell renaissance keeps growing, and is now expanding beyond the printed page. The movie rights to at least four of her novels have been snapped up, and a film of 1942's A Time to Be Born is now in production by the New York-based indie production house Redeemable Features. Page himself bought the option to Powell's fictionalized account of her childhood, My Home Is Far Away, and is currently shopping a screenplay adaptation he co-wrote with M. George Stevenson.

Page says he is now working to advance the revival of another forgotten writer. He's not yet ready to name the author on the record—publishing rights are still being ironed out—but allows that it's a woman whose work he sought out after reading Powell's praise of her. He seems to have begun looking back on his "second career" as a job well done and nearly completed.

"Dawn Powell is really entering the American pantheon," he says proudly. "You can't write about American literature these days without mentioning her."

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