The LOA Edition
Dawn Powell The Library of America Her Life Her Work Commentary
Essays: Edmund Wilson Gore Vidal Richard Lingeman James Gibbons
Commentary and Criticism: In Her Time

A ruthless debunking and the quintessence of cattiness, Miss Powell's A Time to be Born is at least one instance in which female venom becomes a special force for good. She cries out to be quoted, not one sentence at a time, but whole paragraphs and pages; it all adds up to a first-rate satiric talent.

—Diana Trilling, The Nation


More Commentary
NPR Interviews Powell's Editor, Tim Page*


Weekend All Things Considered
The Novels of Dawn Powell By James Gibbons

We are at the moment in the middle of a Dawn Powell revival; the last fifteen years have seen the phoenix-like rise of her reputation out of the ashes of oblivion. The story of Powell's emergence since her death in 1965 as an important, or at least a more conspicuous, figure is one of luck, timing, and the advocacy of two of Powell's admirers, Gore Vidal and Tim Page. Fifteen years ago, none of the novels were in print and Powell was little more than an easily missed entry in reference books on American literature. Then, in 1987, Vidal published a lengthy evaluation in The New York Review of Books entitled, "Dawn Powell: The American Writer." The revival began soon thereafter, with the reissue of five Powell novels in the late 1980s and early 1990s. These editions went out of print quickly, however, and it was only when Tim Page, the music critic for the Washington Post, became devoted to Powell that her cause gained its necessary momentum. With Page's assistance, Steerforth Press has published sixteen Powell titles under its imprint in the last seven years, including an edited version of the diaries after the belated release of Powell's papers. Page has also written the first biography of Powell and edited a selection of her letters, released in 1999.

An Ohio-born novelist who came to New York in 1918 at the age of twenty-one, Powell setttled in Greenwich Village for the rest of her life, a "permanent visitor," to use her own phrase. Acclaimed among those who knew her for her wit, she frequented bohemian circles and cultivated a glamorous and extended circle of friends—the index to her diaries reads like a directory of New York cultural life in the middle decades of the century. Among those closest to her were John Dos Passos, Malcolm Cowley, Gerald and Sara Murphy, and Hemingway's second wife Virginia Pfeiffer (Hemingway, with characteristic insincerity, once called Powell his favorite writer). Her life had its share of tragedies. She drank heavily; had a difficult—and open—marriage; lived with a mysterious tumor on her heart for twenty years, which afflicted her with intermittent pain and forebodings of sudden death; bore an autistic son, whose care despite Powell's love was at times an intolerable strain; and lived precariously in hotels for a span of her later life. She was buried on Hart Island, New York City's potter's field. Her life's work consists of fourteen novels, nine plays, numerous short stories and reviews, and one of the remarkable American diaries of the century.

She wrote almost exclusively about the two places she knew intimately, Ohio and New York City. The generally somber Ohio novels evoke a stifling, small-town midwestern life; the New York books, in contrast, are shrewd, high-spirited satires of Manhattan, paced to the city's jagged syncopations. The split in Powell's work is roughly chronological, with five of the six Ohio novels written between 1928 and 1934, when she felt, according to a 1932 diary entry, that her "whole success [was] in emotions and sensitive grades." By the mid-1930s, after a frustrating if modestly successful debut as a comic playwright on Broadway with plays like Big Night (1932) and Jig-Saw (1934), Powell turned away from the lyricism of novels like The Bride's House and The Tenth Moon (recently reissued by Steerforth under Powell's preferred title, Come Back to Sorrento) and reinvented herself as a novelist, publishing seven Manhattan satires between 1935 and 1962. (She returned to the Ohio setting for the 1944 novel My Home Is Far Away.) The New York novels attracted the small but devoted following, both here and in England, that Powell enjoyed during her lifetime.

 

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