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

Miss Powell gets out of her backgrounds a humor and a fairy-tale poetry that have something in common with Dickens. Her quality is all her own: an odd blend of sharp sophistication with something childlike, surprised, and droll.

—Review of My Home is Far Away,
in the New Yorker


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


Weekend All Things Considered
She Took a Village By Richard Lingeman

Some critics found her waspish satires too stinging; they called her cruel and cynical or accused her of writing about dissolute and amoral people—the usual raps against a satirist. Yet Powell always imbued her characters with redeeming humanity. "Satire is people as they are," she said; "romanticism, people as they would like to be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out." Her satire was not fueled by moral or social outrage, like, say, Sinclair Lewis's; nor was she venting a Swiftian hatred of the damned human race. As she put it, "The artist who really loves people loves them so well the way they are he sees no need to disguise their characteristics—he loves them whole, without retouching... Yet the word always used for this unqualifying affection is 'cynicism.'"

But the critical lashings drew blood. On the eve of one publication day she wrote in her diary, "A new book coming out no longer rouses any hope. As the day approaches, I look at the book section and think with a sudden horror that this is the last Sunday I will be able to look at a book review without sick misgiving—no review, bad review, or the patronizing re view of another illiterate lady reviewer." At times she became so discouraged that she devoured a fan letter like a starving man a meal.

On top of her professional difficulties she had a tempest-tossed marriage to a man who drank even more than she did, which was a lot, according to this new biography by Tim Page (a Washington Post music critic). They had an autistic child who required expensive care. They went through rough patches financially, particularly after her husband retired and they were dependent on the kindness of friends. (Her last years were eased by an endowment from a wealthy patron.) But she continued to write as she pleased, building a body of distinguished work that won her a secure respect among contemporary literati, if not general readers. Her last novel, The Golden Spur, was nominated for a National Book Award, and her friend Edmund Wilson took the occasion of its publication to devote a long essay to her in The New Yorker.

Powell's posthumous reputation received a major boost from a 1987 article in The New York Review of Books by Gore Vidal, who knew her during the early fifties. On the strength of Vidal's advocacy a few of her novels were reissued in paperback, but they quickly slid into remainderdom.

 

Richard Lingeman; detail of Dance Night book jacket

 

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