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Dawn Powell, the American Writer


Once upon a time, New York City was as delightful a place to live in as to visit. There were many amenities, as they say in brochures. One was something called Broadway, where dozens of plays opened each season, and thousands of people came to see them in an area which today resembles downtown Calcutta without, alas, that subcontinental city’s deltine charm and intellectual rigor.

One evening back there in once upon a time (February 7, 1957, to be exact) my first play opened at the Booth Theatre. Traditionally, the playwright was invisible to the audience: one hid out in a nearby bar, listening to the sweet nasalities of Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand” from a glowing jukebox. But when the curtain fell on this particular night, I went into the crowded lobby to collect someone. Overcoat collar high about my face, I moved invisibly through the crowd, or so I thought. Suddenly a voice boomed–tolled across the lobby. “Gore!” I stopped; everyone stopped. From the cloakroom, a small round figure, rather like a Civil War cannon ball, hurtled toward me and collided. As I looked down into that familiar round face with its snub nose and shining bloodshot eyes, I heard, the entire crowded lobby heard: “How could you do this? How could you sell out like this? To Broadway! To Commercialism! How could you give up The Novel? Give up the security. The security of knowing that every two years, there will be—like clockwork—that five hundred dollar advance!” Thirty years later, the voice still echoes in my mind, and I think fondly of its owner, our best comic novelist. “The field,” I can hear Dawn Powell snarl, “is not exactly overcrowded.”

On the night that Visit to a Small Planet opened, Dawn Powell was fifty-nine years old. She had published fourteen novels, evenly divided between accounts of her native Midwest (and how the hell to get out of there and make it to New York) and the highly comic New York novels, centered on Greenwich Village, where she lived most of her adult life. Some twenty-three years earlier, the Theater Guild had produced Powell’s comedy Jig Saw (one of her many unsuccessful attempts to sell out to Commercialism) but there was third act trouble and despite Spring Byington and Ernest Truex, the play closed after forty-nine performances.

For decades Dawn Powell was always just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion. But despite the work of such dedicated cultists as Edmund Wilson and Matthew Josephson, John dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, Dawn Powell never became the popular writer that she ought to have been. In those days, with a bit of luck, a good writer eventually attracted voluntary readers, and became popular. Today, of course, “popular” means bad writing that is widely read while good writing is that which is taught to involuntary readers. Powell failed on both counts. She needs no interpretation while in her lifetime she should have been as widely read as, say, Hemingway or the early Fitzgerald or the mid O’Hara or even the late, far too late, Katherine Anne Porter. But Powell was that unthinkable monster, a witty woman who felt no obligation to make a single, much less final, down payment on Love or The Family; she saw life with a bright Petronian neutrality, and every host at life’s feast was a potential Trimalchio to be sent up.

In the few interviews that Powell gave, she often mentions, surprisingly for an American, much less a woman of her time and place, The Satyricon as her favorite novel. This sort of thing was not acceptable then any more than it is now. Descriptions of warm mature heterosexual love were—and are—woman’s writerly task, and the truly serious writers really, heart-breakingly, flunk the course while the pop ones pass with bright honors. Although Powell received very little serious critical attention (to the extent that there has ever been much in our heavily moralizing culture), when she did get reviewed by a really serious person like Diana Trilling (The Nation, May 29, 1948), La Trilling warns us that the book at hand is no good because of “the discrepancy between the power of mind revealed on every page of her novel [The Locusts Have No King] and the insignificance of the human beings upon which she directs her excellent intelligence.” Trilling does acknowledge the formidable intelligence but because Powell does not deal with Morally Complex People (full professors at Columbia in mid journey?), “the novel as a whole…fails to sustain the excitement promised by its best moments.”

Apparently, a novel to be serious must be about very serious even solemn people rendered in a very solemn even serious manner. Wit? What is that? But then we all know that power of mind and intelligence count for as little in the American novel as they do in American life. Fortunately neither appears with sufficient regularity to distress our solemn middle-class middlebrows as they trudge ever onward to some Scarsdale of the mind, where the red light blinks and blinks at pier’s end and the fields of the republic rush forward ever faster like a rug rolling up.

Powell herself occasionally betrays bewilderment at the misreading of her work. She is aware, of course, that the American novel is a middlebrow middle-class affair and that the reader/writer must be as one in pompous self-regard. “There is so great a premium on dullness,” she wrote sadly (Robert van Gelder, Writers and Writing, Scribner’s, 1946), “that it seems stupid to pass it up.” She also remarks that

it is considered jolly and good-humored to point out the oddities of the poor or of the rich. The frailties of millionaires or garbage collectors can be made to seem amusing to persons who are not millionaires or garbage collectors. Their ways of speech, their personal habits, the peculiarities of their thinking are considered fair game. I go outside the rules with my stuff because I can’t help believing that the middle class is funny, too.

Well, she was warned by four decades of book chatterers.

My favorite was the considered judgment of one Frederic Morton (The New York Times, September 12, 1954):

But what appears most fundamentally lacking is the sense of outrage which serves as an engine to even the most sophisticated [sic] satirist. Miss Powell does not possess the pure indignation that moves Evelyn Waugh to his absurdities and forced Orwell into his haunting contortions. Her verbal equipment is probably unsurpassed among writers of her genre—but she views the antics of humanity with too surgical a calm.

It should be noted that Mr. Morton was the author of the powerful, purely indignant, and phenomenally compassionate novel, Asphalt and Desire. In general, Powell’s books usually excited this sort of commentary (Waugh indignant? Orwell hauntingly contorted?). The fact is that Americans have never been able to deal with wit. Wit gives away the scam. Wit blows the cool of those who are forever expressing a sense of hoked-up outrage. Wit, deployed by a woman with surgical calm, is a brutal assault upon nature—that is, Man. Attis, take arms!

Finally, as the shadows lengthened across the greensward, Edmund Wilson got around to his old friend (November 17, 1962) in The New Yorker. One reason, he tells us, why Powell has so little appeal to those Americans who read novels is that: “She does nothing to stimulate feminine day-dreams [Sexist times!]. The woman reader can find no comfort in identifying herself with Miss Powell’s heroines. The women who appear in her stories are likely to be as sordid and absurd as the men.” This sexual parity was—is—unusual. But now, closer to century’s end than 1962, Powell’s sordid, absurd ladies seem like so many Mmes. de Stael compared to our latter-day viragos.

Wilson also noted Powell’s originality: “Love is not Miss Powell’s theme. Her real theme is the provincial in New York who has come on from the Middle West and acclimatized himself (or herself) to the city and made himself a permanent place there, without ever, however, losing his fascinated sense of an alien and anarchic society.” This is very much to the (very badly written) point. Wilson finds her novels “among the most amusing being written, and in this respect quite on a level with those of Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, and Muriel Spark.” Wilson’s review was of her last book, The Golden Spur; three years later she was dead of breast cancer. “Thanks a lot, Bunny,” one can hear her mutter as this belated floral wreath came flying through her transom.

Summer, Sunday afternoon. Circa 1950. Dawn Powell’s duplex living room at 35 East Ninth Street. The hostess presides over an elliptical aquarium filled with gin: a popular drink of the period known as the martini. In attendance, Coby—just Coby to me for years, her cavalier servente; he is neatly turned out in a blue blazer; rosy-faced; sleek silver hair combed straight back. Coby can talk with charm on any subject. The fact that he might be Dawn’s lover has never crossed my mind. They are so old. A handsome young poet lies on the floor, literally at the feet of E.E. Cummings and his wife Marion, who ignore him. Dawn casts an occasional maternal eye in the boy’s direction; but the eye is more that of the mother of a cat or a dog, apt to make a nuisance. Conversation flows. Gin flows. Marion Cummings is beautiful; so indeed is her husband, his eyes a faded denim blue. Coby is in great form. Though often his own subject, he records not boring triumphs but improbable disasters. He is always broke, and a once distinguished wardrobe is now in the hands of those gay receivers, his landladies. On this afternoon, at home, Dawn is demure; thoughtful. “Why,” she suddenly asks, eyes on the long body beside the coffee table, “do they never have floors of their own to sleep on?”

Cummings explains that since the poet lives in Philadelphia he is too far from his own floor to sleep on it. Not long after, the young poet and I paid a call on the Cummingses. We were greeted at the door by an edgy Marion. “I’m afraid you can’t come in.” Behind her an unearthly high scream sounded. “Dylan Thomas just died,” she explained. “Is that Mr. Cummings screaming?” asked the poet politely, as the keening began on an even higher note. “No,” said Marion. “That is not Mr. Cummings. That is Mrs. Thomas.”

But for the moment, in my memory, the poet is forever asleep on the floor while on a balcony high up in the second story of Dawn’s living room, a gray blurred figure appears and stares down at us. “Who,” I ask, “is that?”

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