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 has painted in sure, even strokes the dreary boarding houses, the roisterous saloons and poolrooms, the cheap factory girls, and the gaudy dance hall which make Lamptown.

— Review of Dance Night,
in The New York Times

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

Weekend All Things Considered
She Took a Village By Richard Lingeman

Page himself became interested in Powell after reading Wilson's essay in 1991. He wrote an article about the neglected writer, and it flushed out surviving friends and relations, whom he interviewed. In 1993, he persuaded Steerforth Press, a small publisher in Vermont, to bring out attractively bound paperback editions of her novels. By now eleven of them have appeared, along with two hardcovers, Dawn Powell at Her Best (containing two novels and several short stories) and The Diaries of Dawn Powell: 1931–1965. The latter provides a sharply observed picture of a writer's life and of the Manhattan literary scene she knew so well.

Powell's world was centered in the Village, roughly bounded on the west by the bars on Sixth Avenue above Eighth Street, the old Lafayette Hotel on Ninth Street (portrayed in her novel The Wicked Pavilion), the Brevoort on Fifth Avenue; and on the east by the Cedar Bar (the epicenter of the action in The Golden Spur), a hangout of her later years. On its northernmost reaches were the midtown business offices, advertising agencies—her husband, Joseph Gousha, worked thirty-five years on Madison Avenue—and the old-moneyed townhouses in the fifties. Her friends and drinking buddies included theatrical people like John LaTouche and Bobby Lewis; writers like John Dos Passos and Malcolm Cowley; women friends going back to college days and first jobs in New York; assorted poets and artists; gay men (to whom she was partial); and hard-drinking macho Abstract Expressionists at the Cedar. She and Gousha had an open marriage, and she took a number of lovers, including probably John Howard Lawson, later a member of the Hollywood Ten, whose Marxist theories of literature she rebelled against. (Politically she was all over the map: libertarian conservative, anti-McCarthyite, Stevensonian Democrat, anti-Vietnam War, an antifeminist who thought there should be a housewives' Uncle Tom's Cabin.)

She was the classic New Yorker from somewhere else—Ohio, in her case. She arrived in 1918, fresh out of Lake Erie College, a genteel young ladies' school in Painesville, Ohio, and stayed to become a self-styled "permanent visitor" who observed the natives with the sophistication of an insider and the wide-eyed innocence of an eternal small-towner.

If she never lost her capacity for wonder at New York, neither did she retain any illusions about the people who made up her world. The imperfect human specimens found in her New York novels were netted on field trips to salons and saloons. As Page writes, "Powell's approach to her New York satires was frankly journalistic. She was filled with contempt for writers who claimed they simply sat down at their typewriters and made everything up." She once said, "A writer's business is minding other people's business-all the vices of the village gossip are the virtues of the writer." But she observed and wrote with the uncensorious eyes of a worldly woman who is not affronted by tile tangled messes human beings get themselves into. Sex, for example, she wrote about as (in Page's words) "simply something that happened, and happened relatively often, with varying degrees of involvement and satisfaction for the participants."


Richard Lingeman; detail of Dance Night book jacket


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