The Book Club

Compassionate Pessimism

Dear Lisa–

I think it is silly to think of a backlash against a woman who has, to date, sold no more than 25,000 copies of any of her books. There are a lot of better things to put energy into than chopping down the work of a writer who worked at the trade honorably and industriously for 50-odd years without getting any of the recognition many of us believe she richly deserved. Why don’t her supposed detractors go beat up on Disney for a while?

My attitude toward any backlash is that those of us who love Powell have her now–some 15 books in print–and those who don’t can simply avoid her, the way, say, that I avoid Allen Ginsberg and Walt Whitman. I know people who are deeply moved by both of these writers–and more power to them–but they’re simply not for me. Different strokes and all that. The world is full of a number of things …

My own obscure favorites include the first books of Honor Tracy (Irish-born satirist who makes Evelyn Waugh’s work taste like the milk of human kindness), the dark early writing of Sigrid Undset (before her religious conversion, which radically changed her style), and the best novels of manners by John Marquand–all of which are largely unknown to contemporary readers (particularly young ones). Who else has created such a splendid “unreliable narrator” as Horatio Willing, the pompous ass who “narrates” Marquand’s The Late George Apley?

I enjoy literary biography but don’t think that it is essential to enjoyment of the work. Gustav Mahler gave titles to every movement in his 100-minute Symphony No. 3, then took them all out, saying that no work of art was any good unless it could stand on its own. I suppose that is true–although I confess an occasional difficulty with important artists whose personalities repel me. (Rousseau and Brecht will do for starters; for me, they reek of totalitarianism. But would I feel that way if I didn’t know their life stories? Probably.)

Still, I do think that Powell’s personality has had a lot to do with her revival. For those of us who love her, she seems a wise, funny, unpretentious, and compassionate friend, one blessed with a decidedly wicked sense of humor. We like her company. She seems smart and civilized. She never lectures us; she is never a scold or an “uplifter”; she never exalts some mythical Humanity over the day-to-day struggles of ordinary human beings, who are all, of course, making the same mistakes over and over again. As W. Jackson Bate–my choice for the ultimate literary biographer of our time–wrote of Samuel Johnson, Powell’s work would allow us to construct a vastly pessimistic vision of the human condition. And yet we leave her with gratitude and cheer, with the sense that somebody has understood us–and, much of the time, had a little fun with us, too.

To sum up–Powell may never be for everybody, but she is one of those artists who will always be very much for some people. I don’t find her any more dated than Petronius: With either author, you have but to play around with the settings and circumstances a little and you have what Mad magazine used to call “the usual gang of idiots” gloriously presented with a calm, amused, but unsparing eye. May the frolic continue.

It’s been a pleasure getting to know you (in this distinctly ‘90s fashion), and I look forward to kicking this whole matter around over a bottle of wine some day. Good luck in all you do–and thanks for what you’ve already done for Dawn Powell.