The Book Club

The Stoical Dawn Powell

Dear Lisa,

I think Dawn Powell would be delighted to know that her work means something to yet another novelist with such a sharp, funny, and clear-headed perspective on human dreams and human foibles. And how appropriate for us to be discussing a volume of letters in this format!

You ask me how “solid” the Powell revival is. Gosh, I wish I knew. I’d like to hope that she’ll sell out edition after edition for years to come, but I’m an old-fashioned journalist and allergic to hype. Moreover, I now have a vested interest in this matter–I’ve spent about seven years with this lady now–so I want to be objective in my prognostications.

We may be certain of a few things, the most important of which is that Powell will never be forgotten again. The days when I would enter secondhand stores, ask for one of her books, and have the proprietor tell me that he’d “never heard of Donald Powell” are gone for good. (So, alas, are the days when you would regularly run into Dawn’s novels at thrift sales and in the dustiest corners of secondhand book stores, priced at less than a dollar a volume–which is how I build up most of my collection.)

From this point on, anybody who undertakes any sort of American literary history will have to come to terms with Powell’s achievement–15 more-or-less mature novels; close to a dozen plays, hundreds of short stories, book reviews, and occasional pieces; a magnificent diary that spans 35 years; and well over a thousand letters. She’s a part of our history now, but also–in a manner that is quite unusual for an author dead more than three decades–part of our daily life, too.

One of the best things about the Powell revival is that it has been pretty much spontaneous–a sort of mass uprising of support. Her books sold so poorly when they were originally issued that she is, in some sense, brand new. We read her because she’s good company (the “death of the author” indeed!), and then we tell our friends, who spread the word. Powell needs no explication; rather, her wit makes us laugh, her characters are likely to be people we know (in their late-20th-century incarnations), and her honesty and emotional courage can take our mutual breath away. No rose-colored glasses for this woman.

You mention her “optimism”; I would prefer the word “cheer,” for I think Powell was deeply pessimistic in many ways–in the grand old Stoical manner–and that it was this pessimism that permitted her to throw herself into life and living with such abandon.

Do I make myself obscure? Then let me put it another way. Powell was absolutely anti-utopian–skeptical of politics, indifferent to religion, scornful of “happy endings” great and small, in marriages as in revolutions. At bottom, her view of the world is bleak, blunt, unsparing, and fundamentally tragic. She offers no great hopes, encourages no daydreams, realizes that life is at best a Sisyphean effort for serious people and that most of us will never get that rock halfway up the hill to begin with. And so she laughs (at least in part) because crying is a bore and a bring-down and does nobody any good. How much more sane–how much more adult–to accept one’s fate, get over it, buck up, and join the party. It’ll be closing time soon enough.

Which book to read first? The generic answer is A Time To Be Born (1942)–a dazzling and unsettling evocation of New York City on the verge of World War II, which grabs and holds from Paragraph 1. Still, in many ways, I think Turn, Magic Wheel (1936) is even more perfect–a fleet-footed satire of literary life and celebrity authors (namely Ernest H.), and one of Powell’s few “modernist” books. Then there is Come Back to Sorrento (1932), a simple, direct, and achingly beautiful study of two would-be artists in a stultifying small town that cannot comprehend their dreams and ambitions (Come Back to Sorrento, by the way, is one of the very few books written before the gay-lib movement that features homosexual characters and is neither a soggy plea for understanding, a mockery or hate tract, a clinical case study, or anything other than an intricate and compassionate rendering of some fellow human beings).

Powell’s own favorite among her books was Dance Night (1930), a grim slice of life set in a small Midwestern industrial city. My Home Is Far Away is a thinly disguised autobiographical novel about Powell’s near-Dickensian childhood and unspeakably horrible stepmother–very moving. Some day it will make a great movie (indeed–shameless plug here–my friend M. George Stevenson and I have finished a screenplay and are shopping it around).

Save The Diaries of Dawn Powell (1995) for last. I think this is her greatest achievement–Petronius meets Marcus Aurelius in mid-century New York–but it is best appreciated after some immersion in her life and work. My publishers will kill me if I don’t mention my own biography of D.P., new in paperback from Henry Holt Owl.

But I’ve hardly begun to answer your questions! I’ll try to do better next time.

Your pen pal,