The Diaries of Dawn Powell, 19311965
On November 5, 1987, after a year of reading the published works of Dawn Powell (1897–1965), I published my findings in these pages.1 There is now a somewhat blurred perception that she was always very much on the minds of such exciting critics and taste-makers as James Wolcott and John Updike, and that I had simply leapt onto a merrily moving bandwagon. Actually, all her books were out of print and her name was known only to those of us whose careers had overlapped hers. In the twenty-two years that had passed since her death, she had been thoroughly erased, as original writers so often are, in the United States of Amnesia. But then she had never had much success in her lifetime either. She was a wit, a satirist and a woman, a combination that did not enchant the bookchatterers of that era. Worst of all, she did not affirm warm mature family values. She herself was the principal third of an interesting ménage à trois in Greenwich Village; the other two thirds were her lifelong (his lifelong) husband, Joseph Gousha, and Coburn Gilman, a man about town and sometime magazine editor. All three were serious drinkers but then so was everyone else in those days when she could (with no irony) write a book about Manhattan and call it The Happy Island.
Since my description of Powell’s fifteen novels, she is now almost entirely in print, here and abroad, and some of her work is even, as she would say, compost for movies and television. As I contemplate Dawn’s posthumous victory, I feel incredibly smug: with sufficient diligence, bookchat can serve a purpose, indeed its only proper purpose: to persuade the few remaining voluntary readers to turn to a writer whom they have never heard of because authority for so long either ignored or disapproved of her. If I sound unduly proprietary, I am. Also, I liked not only the Powell novels but Dawn herself. (“Yes, I know I have the name of an unsuccessful stripper. It is my strong suit.”) She was the best company in the world, with a fine savage wit, “that Irish strain in me.” Now one Tim Page has taken on Powell’s case and he is busy editing and republishing her work, most lately the diaries that she kept off and on from 1931 to her death in 1965, aged sixty-eight. He has, he tells us, “algebraically tightened many of the entries.” Personally, I would have plane geometrically loosened them but then I am old school and would have kept some of the drunken entries. She is, he tells us, “one hell of a writer,” the ultimate canonical praise from the likes of John Crowe Ransom and the New Critics of yesteryear. But so she is, Tim, so she is.
Biographical data: Powell was born at Mt. Gilead, Ohio. Shunted about from relative to relative. Obliged to amuse the unamusable. When wicked stepmother destroys her writing, Dawn flees home. Works as a waitress. Eventually graduates from Lake Erie College and heads for New York City where she writes anything to live. But always remains a novelist, writing either of her Ohio home, always further and further away, or tales of Manhattan life.
Now the diaries. For me, it is like having her back to life—very small, very plump—seated at a banquette in the Blue Angel, a long thin shiny black-walled night club, known to our friend John Latouche (of whom more later) as Juliet’s Tomb, and presided over by its owner, Herbert Jacoby, a somber Frenchman who would introduce each comedy act with a melancholy sigh and then turn from Imogene Coca, let us say, with a look of absolute despair. Meanwhile, Dawn would be knocking back fiery waters and the wit would start to rise. It should be noted that she never complained to friends of her ongoing ill health, her retarded son, or chronic poverty. But occasionally in the diary she gives it to Fate for what Fate has done to her; yet at the end, she did have a degree of success with her last (and perhaps best) novels, The Golden Spur and The Wicked Pavilion. Astonishingly, she was nominated for a literary prize. She notes: “Will success spoil Dawn Powell? I don’t see why not. I’m no better than anybody else, never said so.” She failed to get the award.
Although Dawn was admired as a writer and bright companion by such contemporaries as Hemingway and Dos Passos, it was Edmund Wilson who helped her most, if a bit too late in the game. When finally he praised her in The New Yorker, he failed to elevate her to those heights where the important lady writers sunned themselves or, as Dawn characterized one lady writer with inherited money, “as she doesn’t work for her success, therefore has it, along with prestige, handed to her on a silver platter with warning to God, ‘Right Side Up.”’ In 1934 she contemplates three fashionables of the day: Nancy Hale, Louise Bogan, Kay Boyle:
I was impressed with how women now made their art serve their female purpose whereas once it warred with their femininity. Each page is squirming with sensitivity, every line—no matter how well disguised the heroine is—coyly reveals her exquisite taste, her delicate charm, her never-at-a-disadvantage body (which of course she cares nothing about and is always faintly amused at men’s frenzies over her perfect legs, breasts, etc.) What gallantry, what equalness to any situation in the home, the camp, the yacht, the trenches, the dives—what aristocrats these women writers are, whose pen advertises the superiority of their organs. Fit companions and opposites to the heman writers—Hemingway, Burnett, Cain—imitation he-manners whose words tersely proclaim their masculinity, every tight-lipped phrase shows the author’s guts, his decency, his ability to handle any situation—insurrection (he is an instinctive leader or else too superior to show it), shipwreck, liquor, women. Through the words shot out of the typewriter clip-clip one watches the play of his muscles; one sighs to lay one’s head upon that hairy shoulder.
“Started job with Paramount doing over ‘Quarantine’ at $1000 a week.” Plus ça change, as they say at the Beaux Arts. Dawn found the girls every bit as hilarious as the boys. This even-handedness is not the surest path to popularity.
“Happiness as a rule brings out the worst in people’s characters. No longer afraid, they radiantly flaunt their smugness, small vices and worst sentimentalities…Happiness has given [X] a sword; respectability has given her the right to be stupid.” Although many of Dawn’s novels deal with “career” women in New York who need each other for company between marriages and love affairs, Dawn is constantly suspicious of girlfriends. “Always be kind to strangers,” she told Elaine Dundy at my house when they first met. “It’s the friends to beware of.” In the diaries she notes: “I am perpetually surprised at my own stupidity about women and cannot really blame men for the same lack of perception.” But Dawn, though stringent, lacks all malice even when she zeroes in on someone she truly dislikes. She does a splendid send-up of Clare Boothe Luce, in A Time To Be Born, which “I have been denying for years…I insist it was a composite (or compost) but then I find a memo from 1939—’Why not do novel on Clare Luce?’ Who can I believe—me or myself?”
There are few intimate revelations in the diaries. There is a hint that she and the Communist playwright John Howard Lawson once had an affair but one doubts that with the other points to her triangle—Joe and Coby—they would have bothered much with sex when wit and work and the company of each other and the passing parade of the Village was more than enough to occupy them. One is astonished at the amount of work that Dawn was obliged to do in order to pay for the institutionalized son, with not much help from Joe, himself feckless in money matters. She even made an obligatory trip or two to Hollywood to write for movies. Of Hollywood: “The climate picks you up and throws you down in the most amazing way.” That was about it. She endures a production or two in the theater, dealing, usually unhappily, with the Group Theater and the Theater Guild. Except for Robert Lewis, a director very much on her wavelength, Dawn found the Strasbergs and Clurmans and Crawfords pretty lethal in their egotism and pomposity while actors regard “the author and his work as nasty stumbling blocks between them and the public.” She was a good comic playwright who had the bad luck to fall into the hands of the Group Theater at its most didactic. After she saw what they had done to one of her plays, she hoped that they would get their heavy hands on Shaw and Pirandello and reduce those masters to agitprop sermons.
Quite by chance, Dawn was at the center of the American Communist world. Friends of all sorts figure in the left, including a wealthy woman called Margaret de Silver, mistress of the Italian anti-fascist (and later murdered) Carlo Tresca. It was De Silver who came to Dawn’s aid when she and Joe had been literally evicted from their apartment and left, along with their furniture, on the sidewalk. De Silver promptly created a trust fund for the retarded son. Dawn herself was apolitical. “Roosevelt dies,” is a single entry in the diary: that was that.
In 1931 Dawn met Edmund Wilson and they remained friends, with the odd up and even down, for thirty-four years. Lately, Wilson is being mysteriously attacked by peripheral literary folk as a drunken bully and general lout. It is true that the MLA disliked him as much as he did them, but at least there are good reasons on both sides, which he spelled out in a splendid work of demolition.2 The current attacks on Wilson may simply by dismissed as “mere English”: unfocused malice, combined with a well-earned sense of inferiority when faced with any powerful wide-ranging mind.
It seems unlikely that Dawn was one of the femmes fatales des lettres of the sort that Wilson was often drawn to. Two brilliant, tubby little creatures, deeply involved in literature of every kind, were bound to be companions rather than lovers. She made him laugh. He made her think. Sometimes it was the other way around, which could make him irritable; and make her sharp. Wilson was a man of the previous century and the idea of a brilliant woman as an equal was always intriguing (he married one, after all, Mary McCarthy, and duly suffered) but somehow against nature. On the other hand, he was that unusual phenomenon, the born teacher who never stops learning new things about everything, from the Iroquois Indians to the intricacies of Hungarian grammar. Inevitably their interests often overlapped (though not I suspect on the Iroquois).
The New York Review, November 5, 1987.↩
"The Fruits of the MLA: I. Their Wedding Journey" (The New York Review, September 26; 1968); "II. Mark Twain" (October 10, 1968).↩