Dawn Powell, the American Writer

Dawn Powell
Dawn Powell; drawing by David Levine


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…

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