The Book Club

Dawn of an Icon?

Dear Tim,

You’re right. There is not A Dawn for All Seasons. If novels were furniture, I would not try to sell her to people who insist on Mission, or Shaker. To some, her work will feel too busy and gewgawed-up. A smart reader I know snarled, “Her stuff feels so dated.” I didn’t even bother to rush to the defense. (By the way, that was one of my favorite letters–the one where Powell complains about the challenge of working with timely material. “When I started that book the hero could get a telephone call for a nickel … I would read over a chapter and think of my vast teenage reading public saying, ‘What’s a nickel, mommy?’”)

Part of me, I admit, doesn’t want to share her. It’s like having a newspaper broadcast the address of your favorite quiet little restaurant. Hard not to wince at the notion of belonging to a Dawn cult.

The novelist Tom Mallon, who has written a book on diaries and is working on a book about letters, e-mailed me: “I like Dawn Powell, though she’s now one of those writers in the curious position of being known more for her life than her work. I’ve read or browsed more of the letters and diaries and biography than I have her books. As Paul Bowles is supposed to have said about his rediscovery as an old man: ‘It’s too much too late.’” The Bowles analogy is an interesting one. He was hipper than the hippies who embraced him, and the charm is that he got there first. Similarly, Powell seems to have understood things about the culture–about ambition, about sexual politics–ahead of her time.

I have mixed feelings about a writer’s becoming iconographic in this way. My first reaction is to fear it’s the death of a writer once he’s in a position to do his own Gap ads (what product does John Irving model: Rolexes?). On the other hand, maybe it’s a good thing, if it eventually leads people to the work. You lure college coeds in black with nose rings to Plath through The Bell Jar and the hullabaloo over her marriage to Hughes, and sooner or later they’re going to actually confront the ferocious, complex poems. (And by the way, Plath, too, is often funny. Almost typed “hysterically” funny; the etymology of that word reminds us about the problems of being a witty woman.)

Generally, I’m not very interested in what writers are “really” like. I know a slew of ‘em, and can attest that there’s no “irony” in a writer’s being better–or at least different–on the page than in person. All of us are. That’s what motivates us to write, after all: the rifts between our actual lives and the much richer imagined possibilities. So I don’t generally enjoy writers’ biographies. Like Powell, who admitted that she probably knew John Dos Passos too intimately to evaluate his work, it often sours things for me to have insider information about a writer’s inspirations or source material. Just as an example: I almost wish I didn’t know that the inscription Emma Bovary put on the walking stick she gave to her lover, Rodolphe, was stolen verbatim from a gift that Gustave Flaubert got himself, from his lover Louise Colet. Gus was a boor and a hick and probably deserved his horrible syphilitic death. Nevertheless, Madame Bovary is a great book.

My anti-biography bias confessed, I’d also say that Powell’s life and art seem unusually seamless. You meet the same cleareyed, jaunty, generous, doleful, complicated people in many of her characters that she offers in person. Or at least as close to “in person” as letters and diaries can get us. It’s hard to say this without embarrassment, so Girl Scout-y does it sound, but she’s as close as I’ve found to a Role Model. (Must be a common sentiment among her minions. Gerald Howard called his excellent piece about her in Salon “How Dawn Powell Can Save Your Life.”)

I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. I would ask you to fax me through a sample of Dawn’s handwriting, so I could do some amateur graphology. But maybe that’s too hagiographic, too Elvis- or Princess Diana-adoring, even for this fan. Anyhow, I know you’re on the road, with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. How a music guy became this involved with a novelist is a very intriguing question that we never got to here. But I trust that your outsider status would have pleased her enormously.