The Book Club

Life on the Page and Off

The simple honest American believes in looking life straight in the TV and no nonsense. There is less and less connection between what he’s doing and seeing and being and “Real Life,” because what’s really happening is the lie.
Dawn Powell, 1957

Dear Tim,

Presumably, we have now taken care of “Who the Hell Is Dawn Powell.” Most of the country’s readers of literary fiction still don’t know, which is why the articles and reviews all need to cover the identical ground–revealing how you heroically rescued her papers from the moldy basement–thus making it possible for potential readers to weary of the Powell Phenomenon before they even get to her work. And since her ideal readers are, I suspect, the people most churlishly resistant to hype, I fear we may see the eensiest backlash soon.

Let us admit that the Letters are not the best introduction to Powell. Reading the letters of someone whose accomplishments you admire is voyeuristic in the best sense (as opposed to reading a stranger’s mail, which is a peep-show). But for fans, her letters are delicious. Such wonderful balancing acts of literary bravura and homey friendship. They made me rue the triumph of e-mail–a sugar-rush, with no nutritional value. Hardly any of the writers I know go to this much trouble online. In fact, I’m not sure you can.

Right from the beginning, from her first college letters home, Powell seemed to be writing for posterity. She made sure that each bulletin from the front of her life was whole, vivid, shimmering, and immediate, a perfect vignette. (Of course, I don’t know how much of that effect is due to your editing, but I assume that, like a good hairdresser, you won’t tell.) Not too perfect, though–no grandstanding. Though we don’t have the other side, we can tell that she listened. The letters really make you feel as if you’re settling down at the bar with her and you’re so excited to see each other that you start talking right away, before the drinks arrive, before you even take off your coats.

After reading her great letters to the critic Edmund Wilson, I cracked out the Wilson-Nabokov correspondence. Compared with Dawn, even Vladimir feels droning and nerdy. “Dear Bunny,” Nabokov wrote, “that was indeed funny–our writing to each other on the same day and both referring to Pushkin’s atheism.” Har har. Powell seemed to abhor pretension above practically anything. I love her mocking eggheads at jazz clubs (“I do enjoy the intelligentsia’s pretending they know a horn from a harp while the musicians pretend they know a book from a bookie”). I love her mocking the French (“I really dislike the pallid, watery-eyed, churchly old-whore sentimentality of their limpid pastoral novels”).

There’s gossip galore here, but I’m fascinated by how much she left out. You feel these wells of mystery and secrecy in her. Hardly a word of complaint about her travails with her autistic son. (A heartbreaking story, and I must say, I bitch more about having to help my son with his homework than she does about narrowly saving her boy from an experimental lobotomy at Johns Hopkins.) Hardly a word about her courtship with Joseph Gousha–they meet offstage and zip, they’re off to marry–or about the nature of their subsequent disagreements. And then, of course, there’s the Mystery of the Missing Jack Lawson, the playwright with whom you claim she was hot-and-heavy and whom she barely mentions (even to herself, in her diaries). You suggest they destroyed all trace of the affair, by mutual decision.

Do I wish we still had Powell’s letters to Lawson? Only partly. Partly I admire that this woman seemed to really understand the difference between public and private life. Despite the mountains of verbiage, she had a private life. I’m thinking, here, of that line in the documentary about Madonna, where Warren Beatty snipes at her, “If the camera isn’t running, do you exist?” Powell most decidedly existed, off the page as well as on. And I think she perceived–ahead of her time–the complicated ways in which most people don’t exist. They turn into their own ad campaigns.

Who the hell is Lawson, anyhow, and did he deserve this woman’s admiration? It’s fun that he has slunk back into history, while she has risen up. These letters remind us that, although “underappreciated” in her own time, Powell was hardly slaving away in monkish anonymity. She knew Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Dylan Thomas. She drank with Sam Beckett in Paris. She judged a Barnard fiction competition with Saul Bellow, and at Yaddo, when she had bad nosebleeds, it was John Cheever who came to her rescue. During her Hollywood sojourn, she narrowly missed doing the screenplay work on The Wizard of Oz.

It feels like a good life, actually. Far from perfect. But not Van Gogh, either. Not Proust in the cork-lined room. “I am not afraid,” she told her diary, “of criticism or death or pain.” That’s what you feel most in her, I think: her fearlessness.

I had the same peculiar aching feeling finishing this book of letters that I do at the end of her novels. That I don’t want it to end. That I miss her. So I can’t even imagine how you feel, after shadow-dancing with her for so long. Any biographer, of course, carries on a love affair with a ghost. But you were so close–you just missed her!