Queen of the Golden Age

The Diaries of Dawn Powell, 1931–1965

edited by Tim Page
Steerforth Press, 513 pp., $32.00

On November 5, 1987, after a year of reading the published works of Dawn Powell (1897–1965), I published my findings in these pages. 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 …

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Letters

The Angel in the Story June 6, 1996