The Country and the City

With her inclusion in The Library of America, the neglected novelist Dawn Powell has finally achieved literary canonization. Our critic assesses the contrasting worlds of Powell's fiction
More
  • Novels 1944-1962

    By Dawn Powell
    The Library of America, 1,068 and 969 pages, $35.00 each

In the course of her immortal essay "The Short Story, Through a Couple of the Ages," Dorothy Parker demolished half a dozen popular genres with some brilliantly funny imaginary first lines. Along with stories beginning "'Ho, Felipe, my horse, and pronto!'" Parker admitted, she "was always unable to do anything" with the sort of story that begins "Everyone in Our Village loved to go by Granny Wilkins' cottage ..."

Dawn Powell is customarily compared to Dorothy Parker. Diana Trilling said that Powell was the "answer to the old question 'Who really makes the jokes that Dorothy Parker gets the credit for?'" This comparison has turned into an automatic response on the rare occasions that Powell's name comes up. But anyone who reads Powell from beginning to end will find an inexplicably strange oeuvre—as if Parker had from time to time actually retreated from the highballs and the wisecracks and the Algonquin Hotel and written half a dozen novels in the purest Granny Wilkins vein.

Powell's novels fall into two groups so utterly unalike that it is hard to believe the books were written by the same person. In the fifteen novels she wrote from 1922 to 1962, two worlds, two entirely different ways of thinking and feeling, emerge. She is more celebrated, perhaps, for her New York novels: elaborately plotted, cynical comedies of bohemian life such as Turn, Magic Wheel (1936); The Happy Island (1938); and Angels on Toast (1940). They are exquisitely judged and timed celebrations of intoxication and poison, in which malice, ruthless ambition, or a fascinatingly odd sexual preference has a tendency to creep out after one late-night bourbon too many. Her drunk scenes (and it is tempting, in recollection, to think that the New York novels consist of almost nothing but drunk scenes) look like dispatches from a time between Prohibition and Jane Fonda, when America was not puritan, when excess could be celebrated, when intoxication was funny.

Many of the New York wits of the 1930s and 1940s retained some kind of tie to their provincial origins, and even Dorothy Parker wrote tales of pre-war respectability. But none pursued the genre of provincial longing with such earnestness as Dawn Powell, and to her blissful screwball comedies ("highball comedies" might be an apter term) one must add a series of sad Ohio pastorals of loneliness and innocence: The Bride's House (1929), Dance Night (1930), Come Back to Sorrento (1932). Some ingenuity is required to connect the two strands in Powell's work: occasionally an innocent, newly arrived in New York, evokes his provincial origins; sometimes a small-town aesthete will confess to longing for a great metropolis. It is not surprising that many of Powell's greatest admirers have resorted to writing off one group or the other of her novels and basing their admiration on only half of her work. It is said that pianists fall into one of two categories: those who can play the first movement of Beethoven's Sonata op. 111 and those who can play the second. Dawn Powell's readers, on the whole, can read either this sort of thing:

Now the evening fast train roared through Lamptown, its triumphant whistle soared over the factory siren, in its vanishing echoes the beginning of a song trembled, a song that belonged to far-off and tomorrow. Yes, yes, he would come away, Morry's heart answered, now he was ready.

Or this:

"Whatever mischief we got into this summer let's never do it again," he begged. "Did I tell you you never looked lovelier?"
It was a lie. Prudence's looks, he reflected with some surprise, were quite gone. She really looked as hard as nails, but then so did most women eventually.

Thus end Dance Night and The Happy Island, respectively. In a confrontation between sincerity and cynicism, the more disabused, experienced voice tends to win. How could a writer who sees through so much also be so earnest? How could Powell on the one hand so comprehensively rubbish the pretensions and delusions of romantic infatuation and nostalgia and on the other mount an unfailingly sympathetic exploration of longing and regret? The reader is faced, it sometimes seems, with two alternatives: to conclude that the Ohio novels were written with an entirely cynical pretense of sincerity, or to think that the New York novels, despite a brave show of hard-bitten wisecracking, are the work of a secret sentimentalist—as if Louisa May Alcott had put on a pinstripe suit and taken to cigars, drink, and adulterous relationships with cocktail pianists. Neither choice is entirely satisfactory—the beauty of the Ohio novels cannot be denied; the vicious intensity of the New York work is a performance but not an act. No, Powell must simply be read; she is contradictory but never incoherent, and if no label quite fits (the pre-war Anne Tyler? the American Anthony Powell? the literary Howard Hawks?), it is as well to reflect that not many good writers can be reduced to such formulas, and when a novelist is conspicuously too rich to be summed up in four words, that may be an inconvenience but it is not a demerit.

Powell was born in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, in 1896. The story of her early life, minimally embellished, can be found in her 1944 novel My Home Is Far Away. Her father was a shiftless operator who wandered the country selling anything from coffins to colognes. Her mother died when Dawn was seven; her father's second wife, a deeply unpleasant woman, abused Dawn and her two sisters. When, in 1910, she burned some of Dawn's notebooks, Dawn ran off to live with a sympathetic aunt, who allowed her to complete her education. In 1918 she moved to New York, where she got by as a typist and on freelance writing for magazines and (in the first episode in a long, problematic relationship with the film industry) by appearing as an extra in a movie called Footlights and Shadows. She married Joseph Gousha in 1920; the marriage proved shaky—both of them were given to adultery both casual and serious—but never quite broke down. In 1925 she published her first novel, Whither, which is never read now. Subsequent novels—She Walks in Beauty (1928), The Bride's House, Dance Night, and Come Back to Sorrento—are provincial romances; not until 1930 did she begin the first of a series of New York novels, Turn, Magic Wheel. After that My Home Is Far Away was her only return to the Ohio setting, and it is significantly different in tone from the novels of the first group. Her husband died—and her final novel, The Golden Spur, was published—in 1962; Powell died in 1965. For most of her life she had lived at the center of American literary affairs (though she never attained more than modest acclaim), and her diaries, published posthumously, proved to be a splendidly entertaining and scandalous source of gossip. Tim Page, who edited the diaries and has been stalwart in promoting Powell's superlatively cunning novels, wrote a fine biography (1998); that Powell has now risen to the eminence of The Library of America is owing almost entirely to his enthusiastic labors.

"If you can't say anything good about someone," Alice Roosevelt once said, "sit right here by me." It is hard to think of anything as relentlessly unforgiving as Powell's New York novels; even Swift had his Houyhnhnms. Powell's New York has the moral atmosphere of The Alchemist—human beings are divided into fools and knaves. Take the brilliantly funny scene early in The Happy Island (a novel mysteriously omitted from this collection), in which two women, mistresses of the same man, slide into helpless intimacy.

Jean powdered her nose. It was a fine large Roman nose and the midget puff from her quarter-size vanity seemed singularly inadequate.
"Prudence, you're wonderful," she said. "I couldn't be the way you are. I'd be terribly mad and jealous in your shoes but then I'm just plain female, and you're so modern and so clever. You are, Prudence, really, you're wonderful."
"Oh, come now," Prudence said with a graceful laugh. "You drink up your lunch there and see if you don't feel better."
Jean's nose wrinkled up ominously.
"You never cry, do you, Prudence?" she sighed. "I guess I'm just spineless."
"Now, Jean. Don't say that."
"It's true. I'm weak," she insisted, tears welling again in her lovely blue eyes, "I haven't the least resistance. I've always been that way. My own mother used to tell me so. 'Jeanie,' she'd say—I had a little green winter outfit, green broadcloth with bands of ermine and an ermine pompon on the bonnet; she sent to Paris for every stitch she put on me, particularly after Papa ran off with the telephone operator in Hyannis so we had to show a lot of swank just to make people forget, you know how summer Colonies are. And Mama never would use the telephone again! Literally! She even sent telegrams to people in the next house rather than touch the telephone. And then sending to Paris for my clothes, wasn't she foolish?"
Paris or Sears Roebuck, reflected Prudence, who cared?

It is difficult to see how the narrative could insult Jean more comprehensively, or find more-unpredictable ways to skewer her. The practiced reader of Powell will wince in particular at the unkind emphasis of "lovely blue eyes"; she is a writer, like George Eliot, in whose novels feminine pulchritude gets what it deserves. The disdainful epithet "pretty," accompanying Amanda Keeler's appearance in A Time to Be Born (1942), is like a knife going in. But Prudence, who has put herself in a deeply undignified position, is as much the subject of cold analysis as Jean; hers is an affectation of disenchantment, and not the real thing.

Eventually Powell began to observe sentiment and not to express it. Hence, I think, her strong interest in homosexuality, which she never described with the attendant plea-bargaining of the liberal novelists of the period. Powell saw the danger inherent in writing about a heterosexual passion—the majority of her readers might slide into sympathy, overlooking the carefully established forensic tone. A homosexual passion, on the other hand, was a perfect subject for detached analysis. Decker's loneliness in the lovely, melancholy Come Back to Sorrento is elaborately explored, but the possibilities for empathy are always scrupulously limited; and the homosexuals of the New York novels—"He could see that Van had worn out his brief popularity, for young Mr. Willy was openly sneering at his shoes"—are always objects, their shrill arias of reproach richly orchestrated. They are thoroughly understood by someone who finds them interesting, but portrayed in a way calculated to make the reader not care deeply about them. Caring is always optional in Powell's New York books; she would rather interest a reader than make him weep.

Detachment yields the grandest results in My Home Is Far Away, Powell's return to the Ohio setting and in many ways her best book. It is a beautiful marriage of naive sentiment and worldly cynicism; despite its bluntly autobiographical nature, it explores alienation from feeling rather than feeling itself. Here, however, the exiles from conventional emotion are not clever Manhattanites but, with superb plausibility, children. The whole book is in a child's voice; the style becomes more complex as the children grow up, and it feels as truthful a piece of ventriloquism as the first chapters of David Copperfield. Children cannot be relied on to exhibit or feel the proper adult emotions, or to make the proper adult judgments. Marcia and her sister react with delight to the chaotic ménage of their rural aunt and uncle, whose idea of a respectable night in is a pie-eating race.

Uncle Louie always won because Aunt Betts got out of breath from laughing and had to unloose her belt, even her collar. One night they finished the cider barrel between them, drinking from the bung, and they must have had a race on the pantry too, for the fried squirrels and corn pudding were all gone by morning.

Most of the adults have learned to disapprove of such unrestrained pleasures, and know to cry at funerals; children do not, and their emotions are stranger, and truer.

The worst thing for Marcia about [her mother's] funeral was having to sit on Aunt Lizzie's slippery lap (it had no shelf at all) and seeing grown-up people cry. Now she had feelings, Marcia thought, when the quartette of Papa's brother Masons sang "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep," but it made her angry to have feelings and lose the strange sense of sorrow. She didn't like to see her father crying on Aunt Lois' shoulder, either, because feelings seemed to have made him forget that he didn't like Aunt Lois one bit.

The death of the heart appealed to Powell; she sometimes seems to have trembled on the verge of saying or implying that it might not be so very bad a thing to be free of desire or need. In some of her novels the dead heart belongs to an unfeeling child or a New York drunk; sometimes, as in the magnificent figure of the stepmother in My Home Is Far Away (a domestic tyrant Ivy Compton-Burnett might have envied), it comes from hypocrisy. "This was no time to cry over one broken heart," one of her novels begins. What the appropriate time would be Powell never revealed; she had more-important things to think about.

And what she distrusted most was articulate public emotion. A Time to Be Born is an astoundingly uncharitable portrayal of Clare Boothe Luce, under the name of Amanda Keeler.

It was an age of explosions, hurricanes, wrecks, strikes, lies, corruption, and unbridled female exploitation ... This was an age for Amanda Keelers to spring up by the dozen, level-eyed handsome young women with nothing to lose, least of all a heart, so there they were holding it aloft with spotlights playing on it from all corners of the world, a beautiful heart bleeding for war and woe at tremendous financial advantage.

Emotional confessions are just as deplorable: even poor, silly Marian Callingham, in Turn, Magic Wheel, dying of cancer and telling her husband's first wife all her secrets, can't quite bring out the author's sympathy. Rage, on the whole, is best: "Detestable Baby! Hateful Olive! Horrid House! Raw searing rage seethed through him ..." What true feelings there are in these books are locked up—like the manuscript of Dennis Orphen's novel in The Wicked Pavilion (1954), firmly sealed in the safe of a café.

One feels that for Powell the secrecy surrounding feelings was a source of energy. There is a suggestive conflation of secrecy and strength in The Locusts Have No King (1948).

Wherever he went that night people insisted on confiding in him. Perhaps some fear of his fellow-men gleamed in the young man's intense blue eyes that made them want to reassure him that they, too, were unarmed. Perhaps his eager haste suggested a mission of love, so circumstance must conspire mischievously with people to delay him.
It began when he stepped confidently into a taxi ...

The argument is explicit, but there is a half-conscious echo, too, between "confiding" and "confidently"; the distant etymological cousins become near cognates in Powell's work. From the possession of confidences flows confidence: the person confided in, the holder of a secret, gains strength. And that extends, one feels, to the novels, whose most powerful secrets are withheld from even the most sympathetic reader. Powell's diaries, strikingly, confide almost nothing to the page; she wrote very little about what must have been the most traumatic episodes of her life, and preferred not to share her innermost thoughts. Similarly, the novels, which are full of half-expressed anxieties about how a woman may speak and a half-expressed, anxious desire to speak out, find a sort of solution in the stylish verbal carapace of the wisecrack, the consolation of not feeling, the supreme satisfaction of deploring the emotionally incontinent.

These are funny, smart books; their distrust of the naive wish to be explicit propels them into a rewarding vein of aesthetically rich implication and suggestion and emotional ambiguity; and behind it all, one slowly comes to feel, is the pain that started when Powell's stepmother found her frank youthful notebooks and burned them. Thereafter Powell would lock her feelings in the safe of a café; she wanted to be successful, but on some level in these books is a strong desire not to be loved. The novels are full of female voices choked and unheard; Connie, in Come Back to Sorrento, "might have gone into grand opera, perhaps," but is exiled to the Chekhovian province of Ohio; nearly the first thing Jen, in Dance Night, says is "I've got to talk to somebody, haven't I?" And Powell choked her own voice: brilliant as they are, her novels pursue a manner that might have been calculated to deter nine out of ten readers.

The easiest and most commonplace way to mask oneself is, of course, to get very drunk, and one of the most astonishing things about Powell's novels is their unprecedented, fabulous crapulence. The scale of the drinking in any of the New York novels defies belief; they are as liquid in the memory as an Esther Williams movie. Angels on Toast begins with Lou and Jay drinking in a train compartment; after meeting with Judge Harrod ("I seldom drink in the afternoon, hmm,"), they go to the club car for another drink, and so on into the night before meeting up in the morning for an "eye-opener." The second Lou arrives in New York, "they stopped in the New Yorker for a quick shot to brace their nerves." Later, Lou calls in at Ebie's apartment ("They had a few highballs and by the time they got out of the apartment it was too late to take in a show ..."). They go out and come back ("We drank a whole bottle of Hennessey after we got back here, you know"). The next day Lou calls Jay over to the Waldorf to discuss business over cocktails. By page twenty-five of Angels on Toast the reader is open-mouthed with incredulity; fifty pages later he is practically ready to sign the Pledge—and all this heroic behavior continues, unabated, to the end.

Sadly, years of public-health announcements have probably done in that great staple of comic invention, the drunk scene. I once presented a class of serious-minded creative-writing students with the scene in Randall Jarrell's Pictures From an Institution in which Gertrude drinks an enormous glass of Jack Daniel's "in three swallows" before trying to talk ("At first it was hard for her to pronounce some of the words"). I was startled to find that most of them thought it was intended to excite sympathy for Gertrude; not one of them recognized it as comic in intention. Powell's drunk scenes would survive even if no one thought they were funny, because underneath them is a terrible truth about her characters: like her, they would always rather talk from behind a mask than not at all. In a sense the poignancy and cruelty of that encounter between Prudence and Jean in The Happy Island is disguised by its brilliant hilarity. Take that away, and what is left is what was always there: the bleak sight of two women unable to talk, most halting when they believe themselves to be at their most open.

Powell is a supremely deserving candidate for admission to The Library of America, a writer of consistent and startling pleasure, cruelty, and ingenuity. Next to her the celebrated wits of the Algonquin look self-conscious and willful, their exercises in pathos whiny and thin. Powell's hardness was genuine, and the pain beneath it profoundly troubling. She will, perhaps, never be a general taste; a publisher once told me that the two adjectives that will automatically reduce sales if used on a dust jacket are "clever" and "elegant"—which pretty well does for Powell, who was never anything else. Despite her expressed wish for a grand success, something in her did not want to be loved or even, perhaps, much read. If ever she aspired to write—in the words of Randall Jarrell—"a plot that would bear up under the weight of hundreds of thousands of readers, a plot that higher critics could call crude and that bewitched families could pad over in house-slippers," she had abandoned that ambition by the time she wrote the first of her New York novels.

But Powell belongs on the shelf with the masters of the novel—with those, like Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green, whom every serious novelist must and will read. And her influence shows in a series of brilliant pupils. The unique balance between rapture and heroic, abusive metaphor in Randall Jarrell's Pictures From an Institution, one of the greatest American novels of the twentieth century, was made possible by The Happy Island; the stupendous, concrete satires of William Gaddis are Powell on a cosmic scale; and sometimes, as in the following passage by Lorrie Moore (from the short story "Agnes of Iowa"), who is, I think, the best of living American writers, there is something that can only be an homage to Powell's beautiful, profound, largely unread body of work.

"Where am I from?" Agnes said it softly. "Iowa." She had a tendency not to speak up.
"Where?" The woman scowled, bewildered.
"Iowa," Agnes repeated loudly.
The woman in black touched Agnes's wrist and leaned in confidentially. She moved her mouth in a concerned and exaggerated way, like a facial exercise. "No, dear," she said. "Here we say O-hi-o."

The veneration and study of those novelists who revere Powell will be enough to ensure a permanent place for her; an age, like ours, that has lost the taste for satire, that cannot see why getting drunk could ever be funny, that is shocked (my creative-writing class again) by The Dunciad, may not find these glittering exercises in causing offense entirely to its taste, but they will never prove less than salutary. And I cannot imagine a reasonable reader who does not from time to time prefer a novelist who would rather twist your wrist than feel your pain.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What's the Number One Thing We Could Do to Improve City Life?

A group of journalists, professors, and non-profit leaders predict the future of livable, walkable cities


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In