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Powell’s People

In response to:

Dawn Powell, the American Writer from the November 5, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

In his lengthy, ill-written essay on Dawn Powell [NYR, November 5, 1987] Gore Vidal makes the following reference to me:

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?

From this passage, together with a single empty sentence at the end of Vidal’s piece, it is obviously impossible to know that I reviewed not one but two novels by Miss Powell in my years as fiction critic of The Nation. The Locusts Have No King was the second of these. Six years earlier, in The Nation of September 19, 1942, I reviewed Miss Powell’s A Time to Be Born. Here is what I said of it:

And then there is Dawn Powell, who is of course no first novelist and should require no introduction to Nation readers. Miss Powell is one of the wittiest women around and our best answer to the familiar question, “Who really says the funny things for which Dorothy Parker gets credit?” The central figure of A Time to Be Born—certainly not to be called its heroine—is the fabulous Amanda Keeler Evans, blond, beautiful, author of a successful novel and wife of a publishing power. The world is her oyster; she knows exactly what she wants—everything—and she is in a fair way to getting it. The war, on which she is solemnly articulate, is the perfect break for Amanda’s career. A ruthless debunking and the quintessence of unashamed cattiness, Miss Powell’s novel is an instance of female venom made into a social force-for-good. She cries out to be quoted, and not just one or two sentences at a time…but paragraphs and pages. Her description of the women’s magazine formula for how to cure a broken heart, her picture of women girding themselves for war or her analysis of contemporary literary trends are not only funny, they convince us of the educated no-nonsense intelligence that lies behind them. It all adds up to a first-rate satiric talent; one wonders what went wrong for A Time to Be Born to fall apart as it does in the middle. Perhaps it is because there is no longer a proper satiric tradition for Miss Powell to work in that she loses heart and dubs in the kind of love story—nice little small-town girl wins away the big tough newspaperman from the glamorous beauty—that she would herself be the first to ridicule. At any rate, the wee drop of cynicism she introduces into this love potion doesn’t make it easier to swallow.

So much for my inability to recognise Miss Powell’s wit and for La Vidal’s willingness fairly to represent another person’s views!

But what interests me beyond Vidal’s misrepresentation of my response to Miss Powell is the introduction of Columbia and Lionel Trilling’s novel, The Middle of the Journey, into his remarks about me. I am aware of no connection between Miss Powell’s work and Columbia professors—though there is of course an association between me and Lionel Trilling. If Vidal, who is himself thought of as a political novelist, questions the merits of my husband’s political novel, why does he not argue that matter openly instead of indulging in this kind of parenthetical malice?

Diana Trilling

New York City

Gore Vidal replies:

It is with true excitement that I read Diana Trilling’s long-lost review, which, like a dozen madeleines—a gross of Hydrox cookies—has so sprung open the floodgate of memories that I can see again, like so many numinous ghosts of Bookchat Past, O. Prescott, L. Garnett, C. Boutell; and I remember how we rushed out once a month to buy—was it Mademoiselle?—to read Le Trilling’s bookchat, with its “wee drop of cynicism” combined with the laser-beam intelligence that vividly showed us A Time to Be Born “fall[ing] apart in the middle”—of the journey? Surely I did not “misrepresent” Ms. Trilling. She felt that Powell’s witty books finally fail because she did not write about tony people; yet when I described A Time to Be Born, all about the Henry Luces and other top people, I said that Powell was, at least in this book, “having a fling at those seriously important people Diana Trilling felt that she was not up to writing about.”

The critic now dismisses my bull’s-eye speculation, my leap in the dark, with the phrase that it was just “a single empty sentence at the end of Vidal’s piece.” What a sly boots!

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