By Dawn PowellThe 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.
"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.