The Book Club

Books by and about Dawn Powell

Dear Tim,

I’m thrilled to speak to the undisputed president of the Dawn Powell Fan Club. We Dawnites ought to stick together. Sometimes a passion for Powell can still feel eccentric, like owning a hairless cat. When a first-edition Powell book goes up for auction on eBay, the same three or four of us bid; I’ve often thought we should join forces for some harmless price-fixing. Yet I’ve been told that thanks to you, the Dawn Powell revival is officially a done deal, her place at the table of American Lit all nicely set.

So my first question for you: How solid is the Powell revival? I certainly didn’t see anyone reading her at the beach this summer. Nor do many of my academic colleagues know her work. They’ve heard of her, though. “Which one should I read?” they ask suspiciously.

One of Powell’s problems, as she griped herself, is that she wrote so damn much. She failed to produce one Perfect Little Novel–a Great Gatsby–that college folk could plunk on their Greatest Books lists. Her New York novels give Jane Austen a run for her money as social satire, but then there are the elegaic Ohio books. For a while, reviewers tried to belittle her as a “regionalist” à la Flannery O’Connor.

Though Powell is incomparable, we’re already mired in comparisons. You must get mighty sick of the Dorothy Parker analogy. People like the idea of Dotty and Dawn mud-wrestling for the title of Funniest Woman. But I notice that in both the biography and your prefaces, you shy away from any feminist indignation on Powell’s behalf. May I do so, just for a sec?

The otherwise admiring review of the Letters in the daily New York Times complained that Powell failed to speak enough about the two world wars she lived through. Same dart that was aimed at Austen, who penned slight little “parlor room dramas” instead of addressing the Napoleonic Wars! Aside from the fact that the accusation is simply false–Powell strikes me as downright visionary about politics, portraying the American involvement in World War II in A Time To Be Born as a media war much like Grenada–it is yet another time-honored way of dismissing women’s work.

Ammo, as we all know, is important. Diapers and dresses are not. How I love listening to Powell mock Hemingway, in her Letters:

There was the writers’ conference with Mr. H. pumping all the way up from Bimini on water wings. … Ernest gave a good speech if that’s what you like and his sum total was war was pretty nice and a lot better than sitting around a hot hall and writers ought to all go to war and get killed and if they didn’t they were a big sissy. Then he went over to the Stork Club, followed by a pack of foxes.

Hemingway lived large for the PR men. But our myths of woman artists encourage living real small. Sylvia Plath, as we all know, had to wake up at dawn to pen her verse before tending to her babies. Austen, O’Connor, and Emily Dickinson were classic spinsters. They were so sexless, they were as good as men. (Or, as Powell would put it about a brilliant acquaintance, “She doesn’t know she is female, and if she should glance down in the shower and see a set of balls she would only think, Dear, dear, how dusty things get in New York. THIS DOES NOT MEAN I DO NOT ADMIRE HER MIND.”)

Powell, on the other hand, had a marriage, a child, lovers (male and female), loyal friends. She actually did live–and not just for the cameras. She had illness and struggle too, in spades, but what amazes me is the hardiness of her optimism, her resilience, her delight in the exchange of ideas, and her unshakable confidence in her own worth.

The feminist issues weren’t her only hurdle. There is the simple fact of her wit. Nobody loves a wise-ass. As we know from the Oscars, it’s the sanctimonious stuff that gets rewarded. Furthermore she wrote, scathingly, about class, and Americans have never liked to hear about class.

All of the above? None of the above? “The terrifying thing,” Powell noted, “is that it’s the wind and the time and the tide that decide your luck.” Do you think it is that arbitrary? A different turn of the magic wheel and it’d be a Dawn Powell novel having sold 50 million copies in 385 languages including Swahili, instead of The Old Man and the Sea?

Powell may be the patron saint of all writers laboring in obscurity. That’s partly what makes her revival so romantic. Aside from Nathaniel West and The Day of the Locust, though, this is it, right? You’re the 20th-Century Rediscovery Guy! I wonder if you think this kind of archaeology could happen again–to one of us nice mid-list novelists in, say, the year 2039–or whether that possibility has been blockbustered, conglomerized, and Barnes & Noble’d right out of existence.