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).
March 23, 1943: “Reading for the first time a fine book (Flaubert’s Sentimental Education) I am again impressed by the importance of satire as social history and my theory that what reviewers call satire is ‘whimsy’ and what they call realism is romanticism…. The only record of a civilization is satire—Petronius, Aristophanes, Flaubert.” April 2: “Cocktails with Bunny [Edmund Wilson]…. I find Bunny a great devotee of [Sentimental Education], though he feels it loses in translation, being, like poetry, built on the cadences of its own language….” Wilson then tells her that, from his own journal, he is about to extract “the greatest love story ever written’ in pornographic detail…. It was exhilarating to spend time again with a sharp, creative literary mind, a balance so necessary in the hoodlum world I live in.”
But there are clouds: Wilson wrote her a letter “depressing in its way. Men really dislike a literary woman (especially if she is good) and prefer not reading works of their women friends, hoping and even saying that they must be bad.” She was distressed at Wilson’s dim review of her best Ohio novel My Home is Far Away: “It is very discouraging to have someone (who actually has told me I’m infinitely better than John Marquand and equal to Sinclair Lewis at his best) do me so much genuine damage. I have enough damage done me already, merely by the desire to write….”
By 1945 Dawn is seriously on the warpath: “All relations with Bunny are dictated by him—he is the one to name the hour, the place, the subject of conversation…. He is mystified and annoyed by the simple process of creation; he is furious at the things he does not understand—furious, blind and bored. What he does not understand is all life that is not in print…. He wants to see his ladies alone so he can attack them… [tell] them that everything they like is impossible… He beams with joy and well-nourished nerves as he leaves, like a vampire returning from a juicy grave.”
But there were autumnal joys between the old friends. Wilson’s daughter, Rosalind, has said that of all the guests who stayed at Wilson’s family place in upstate New York, only Dawn knew how to sit comfortably on the porch, and do nothing but watch people pass. As Dawn remarks, “Bunny, Dos [Passos], etc., are so completely selfish that they allow it in others.” There is one splendid drunken quarrel in a cab: Dawn blasted Bunny’s wife Elena as a social climber, which, as Dawn promptly notes “all this wrong, because [the previous wife] Mary McCarthy was the climber…. Sudden silence in cab as I raged, then Bunny said ‘I wish you weren’t so jealous of me, Dawn. It makes it very hard for you.’ This was a wonderful switch, which I snatched at and said, ‘It’s because you keep me on that little back street and never let me meet your set and you’re always going back to your wife and I have never seen you except when you’re in town selling—’ ‘Yes I know it’s been hard on you, dear,’ he said. So we were saved from a real embarrassment.” (For those who don’t recognize the powerful scene they played, it is from the great best seller of the day Back Street by Fannie Hurst.)
Next day I was ashamed but hardly could call and apologize for murder. So I sent wire to him—“Darling, what happened to us? Was it my money or your music? Was it the Club? Where did we go wrong, dear? Aurore.” Today a postcard from him says “Dear Aurore. Perhaps it might be as well for us not to see each other for awhile. The strain of our relationship is becoming difficult. I am leaving for Boston tomorrow. Mille baisers—Raoul.”
They also conducted a correspondence in which she was the lofty Mrs. Humphrey Ward and he a seedy academic called Wigmore.
“There are so many kinds of fame for a writer that it is astonishing the number of us who never achieve one.” A lifetime of near-misses depressed but did not discourage her. Also, the examination of such monsters as her friend Hemingway made her suspect that the first requisite of earthly glory was a total lack of humor or (the same thing?) self-knowledge. “I tried once again to read Farewell to Arms and it seems as clumsily written as ever to me….” Of the protagonist of For Whom the Bell Tolls “a fictional movie hero in Spain with the language neither Spanish nor English. When someone wishes to write of this age—as I do and have done—critics shy off—the public shies off. ‘Where’s our Story Book?’ they cry…. This is obviously an age that Can’t Take It.” Dawn’s conclusion is that “Success is a knack—like a knack for weaving something out of a few strings—which for the rest of us are nothing but a few strings.” Nor was she about to ingratiate herself with book reviewers like the New York Herald Tribune’s Lewis Gannett, as serenely outside literature as his confrere in the daily New York Times, Orville Prescott, now divided into two halves of equally bewildered density.
At Margaret’s Lewis Gannett flung an affectionate arm around me and introduced me: “Dawn’s a good girl except she drinks too much and one of these days she’s going to do a good novel.” “If I did, you wouldn’t know it,” I said. “As for drinking too much you’ve never seen me at these parties in the last five years where you were drinking more than anyone. That’s why you can never be a writer or know good writing when you see it—generalizing about a person’s habits from public performances instead of private understanding.” He was mad. I lectured him that if ever I wrote something he considered “good,” I would know I was slipping. “Pas des mouches sur Dawn,” as Raoul would say.
But then, “All my life has been spent killing geese that lay golden eggs and it’s a fine decent sport—superior to killing small birds, horses or lions.”
It was Dawn Powell’s fate to be a dinosaur shortly after the comet, or whatever it was, struck our culture, killing off the literary culture—a process still at work but no less inexorable—and replacing it with the Audiovisual, as they say at Film School. The Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Dreiser, and Powell American generation was the last to be central to the culture of that part of the world where Gutenberg reigned. By the next generation, it was clear to most of us that the novel had been superseded by the film while popular writing of the sort Dawn was reduced to turning out—stories and serials for slick mass magazines—has, in the last four decades, been replaced by television sitcoms and mini-series. Today few magazines publish fiction of any kind. Few people read fiction of any kind other than what those chains of book shops in the bright malls of America feel that the mallsters are capable of grasping, which is not very much beyond thinly disguised stories about showbiz celebrities, competing with tell-all biographies or autobiographies of the few people that television has acquainted our unread public with. For Dawn Powell’s generation, there was still the romantic, if somewhat sappy, notion of The Great American Novel that someone was bound to write—and altogether too many people did write. You were, if serious, a writer for life, with an ever-growing public if you were any good.
All that changed in the Fifties. Writers can still be minor celebrities, good to flesh out a talk show if they can be counted on not to say anything of interest. But the writer as definer of the prospect has no role at all in the “first world.” Our serious writers teach other serious writers who in turn teach them in classrooms. But for the bright inventive woman who kept these diaries the scene was no different from what it was for George Sand—a novel one year, a play the next year, and a life in the stream of her time. When she noted that the reader wants his simple-minded Story Book, she had not realized that the story had already started its leap from dull page to bright moving picture, and when she mourned that this is the age that Can’t Take It, she is quite right except that she thought the “it” was realistic observation—satire—that they couldn’t take when the “it” they can’t, and won’t, take is now literature itself.
The New York of the Golden Age (1945-1950) (the only period when we were not kept at war) glitters in her diary, as she reflects on all sorts of wonders and novelties and even genius. Among the wonders was John Latouche, a short chunky Irish wit (with the obligatory Jewish mother). Although himself an outlander (from Virginia) he was like Dawn herself, the personification of Manhattan, particularly its nightside, when ten thousand musicians in dives played songs for which he had written the lyrics—“Taking a Chance on Love,” “Cabin in the Sky,” “Lazy Afternoon” (written at my house on the Hudson one hot summer day). Latouche talked and talked and kept everyone excited and laughing. It was he who first talked to me of a writer with the unlikely name, Dawn Powell, who had just written a novel called The Locusts Have No King. I met Dawn with him. They looked alike except that he had bright blue eyes in his disproportionately large head, while hers were, I think, brown.
Latouche came out Saturday and Sunday and left me exhausted. He is so multi-gifted that he seems to leave people as worn as if they’d been to a circus, and while he shoots sparks in all directions, in the end it is the others who are depleted and he is renourished…. It is unconsciously deliberate on his part. He wants people not-to-do, just as he doesn’t-do. He likes their doing well—no envy there—but it’s actual doing he minds.
When I wrote a dozen plays for live television in one year—to survive—Latouche was deeply saddened—“Whoever suspected that you would end up as the Lope de Vega of television?”
March 11, 1954: Latouche’s Golden Apple opened at Phoenix—thoroughly fresh and delightful. At end, saw him by stairs in middle of cheers. He was weeping. “They’ve ruined my second act—they’ve ruined it—spoiled everything! Come downstairs and have champagne!” Down was a vast Sardi’s. Gore Vidal—Luciferian-looking young man who called a couple of times. Very gifted, brilliant, and fixed in facility as I am.
Thus, I first appear in her diaries; and though we saw each other far too seldom, the condition of an active life in the golden age, she—like Touche—made the weather for us all or, as she put it, “The way Latouche and I always knocked ourselves out to entertain morons. The more useless and blah they were, the harder we worked for their amusement—as if they were such a waste that only by converting these ciphers into something (in fact nothing more than audience) could they be endured.”
Then the memorable August 7, 1956: “Latouche died!—in Calais, Vermont. Luckily his opera ‘Baby Doe’ had been a great peak last month in Central City, a peak he might not pass. Incredible that this dynamo should unwind and I think I can guess how. Talentless but shrewd users pursued him always…trying to get him in a corner room, lock him up and get out the gold when he wanted only to talk all day and all night… I’m sure this was a desperate, hysterical escape from Lillian Hellman and others waiting for his output to finish up Candid.” He was thirty-nine.
In later years Dawn reviewed books, shrewdly if somewhat wearily, in Mademoiselle. Although like every regular reviewer she was pretty much stuck with the daily output (Capote? “The Southern white trash and crème de menthe school as against the old mint julep school”) but her own views on literature, particularly the superiority of Petronian satire to everything else in the prose line, are interesting. ” ‘Realism’ is the only completely vague word. ‘Satire’ is the technical word for writing of people as they are; ‘romantic’ the other extreme of people as they are; ‘romantic’ the other extreme of people as they are to themselves—but both of these are the truth. The ability to put in motive is called satire; the ability to put in vision is romanticism.” She duly noted that the rich and the poor could be satirized with impunity (because they were—then—so few and never read books?) but “The middle class is witproofed…. If there is to be satire it must not bite at the bread-winner.” And “the human comedy is always tragic but since its ingredients are always tragic but since its ingredients are always the same—dupe, fox, straight, like burlesque skits—the repetition through the ages is comedy.”
Powell seems to have got the point to Edith Wharton long before others did. In 1951, “Read Edith Wharton’s The Reef and struggling with Wings of the Dove by James simultaneously. Curiously alike, but she is so superior in this. Odd, her reputation for ‘moralizing novels’ when it was her age which read its own moralizing into her. Not one word could be called moralizing—no villains, no heroes in the noble sense. Villainy is done by a group of characters behaving in the only way they, in all honesty, feel they can decently behave…. I must write to Sophy Viner, I woke up thinking. I must tell her—tell her what? She never existed. What a precise miracle of illusion Edith Wharton created—never showing Sophy’s room, giving her only one dress, one cloak, describing her only as fresh-faced—but she is real.”
Dawn is very much on to Mary McCarthy: “Read Mary McCarthy’s piece—another beginning of novel…. These last two starts are invigorating—like a brisk whiff of the stable on a clear wintry day. She has her two manners—her lace-curtain Irish, almost unbelievably genteel lady scholar torn between desire to be Blue Stocking without losing her Ladyship; and then her shanty Irish where she relaxes, whamming away at her characters like a Queen of the Roller Derby, groin-kicking, Shin-knifing, belly-butting, flailing away with skates and all arms at her characters and jump on them with a hoarse whoop of glee when they are felled.”
Finally, she comes to James through that curiously enchanting nouvelle, The Reverberator, so prescient in its grasp of the general horror of publicity at the dawn of the age of the tabloid newspapers now metastasized into air itself. “James’s work nearly always stirs the writing imagination. Some object to ‘involuted writing,’ ‘obtuseness’—but none of this is irrelevant. He is like a sculptor in wood, chopping his own trees, hacking and sawing to get to the exact core of his design, examining each branch and bit of sap for its effect on the inner meat. He is after his story for truth’s sake, not yours. He is not a tailor, whipping up a pretty costume for your delight. Authors have been stealing his plots for years not because they are inventions (which always wear out with me) but because they are imperishable human truths. That is why he is caviar for the wise and old and experienced—nothing false.”
A few months before death, Dawn wrote a definite non-Valentine to the rising generation of American writers.
Most important thing for novelist is curiosity and how curious that so many of them lack it. They seem self-absorbed, family-absorbed, success-absorbed, but the new social-climbing writer professes indifference to the couple across the aisle, the noise from the next apartment—as if a gentleman does not concern himself with things not his business.
I contend that a writer’s business is minding other people’s business…. The new writers disdain human curiosity; they wish only to explore and describe their own psyches; they are too egotistical and snobbish to interest themselves in neighbors. The urge to write now is no longer the love of story-telling or even the love of applause for a neat turn or dramatic twist. It is the urge to show off, the author as hero is a big sex success and leaves them gasping. The book’s drive is only the desire to strip the writer’s remembered woes and wrongs and show his superiority to the reader—not to communicate with him or entertain.
Since then, of course, text and context have been replaced by Theory, and Author—he dead. Dawn, if alive, would have been one of the first to make it to the Internet as rollicking Queen of the Cyber Punks, carefully digging potholes in the Information Highway.
In 1962 Joe Gousha dies, painfully, of cirrhosis. Dawn writes: “As for his death, this is a curious thing to say but after 42 years of life together—much of it precarious and crushing—we have been through worse disasters together, and I’m sure Joe would feel the same way about me.” The next-to-last entry in the diaries records that “Bunny came in” Raoul faithful to the end to his Aurore. She died November 14, 1965, at St. Luke’s Hospital. “I cannot exist without the oxygen of laughter,” she wrote not long before the end. One might add that those who can (or must) exist without are—what else?—a sad lot.