Minding Other People’s Business: On Dawn Powell

By Victoria PattersonApril 14, 2015

Minding Other People’s Business: On Dawn Powell

LAST YEAR, I bought Dawn Powell’s novel A Time to Be Born for less than two dollars from a used bookstore. I didn’t know much about Powell or her work, but I somehow knew her name. The opening paragraphs hooked me, as they captured the sense of World War II looming for Americans and set the scene at once broadly and intimately:

This was no time to cry over one broken heart. It was no time to worry about Vicky Haven or indeed any young lady crossed in love, for now the universe, nothing less, was your problem. You woke in the morning with the weight of doom on your head. You lay with eyes shut wondering why you dreaded the day; was it a debt, was it a lost love? — and then you remembered the nightmare. It was a dream, you said, nothing but a dream, and the covers were thrown aside, the dream was over, now for the day. Then, fully awake, you remembered that it was no dream. Paris was gone, London was under fire, the Atlantic was now a drop of water between the flame on one side and the waiting dynamite on the other […].

I finished the 300-plus-page novel — realistic, unsentimental, nonjudgmental, incisive, and funny — within days. Set in New York right before America’s entry into World War II, A Time to Be Born pivots around the character of Amanda Keeler Evans, who was modeled on Clare Booth Luce, the ambitious, beautiful journalist married to media titan Henry R. Luce, cofounder of Time magazine. Powell convincingly evokes the time and place, the complicated relationships and motives of men and women, the shifting power struggles of the ambitious, and the grand role of luck. Why, I wondered, wasn’t and isn’t she better known?

Impelled, I moved on to Turn, Magic Wheel. Powell herself believed this novel to be her “best, simplest, most original book,” and indeed, it has an appealing, breathless energy. Set in Manhattan, the humorous and melancholy novel introduces Dennis Orphen and Andrew Callingham, two novelists who will reappear in other books by Powell. While Orphen is partially a stand-in for Powell, Callingham — arrogant, macho, self-obsessed — is loosely based on Ernest Hemingway, who once deemed Powell his “favorite living writer.” She, in turn, repeatedly ridiculed him, his writing, and his mystique.

A social satirist in a league with Mark Twain, Powell never found a large audience, and her literary reputation seems perpetually on the brink of flourishing. In a 1987 essay for The New York Review of Books that helped get her books back in print, Gore Vidal wrote: “Powell was that unthinkable monster, a witty woman who felt no obligation to make a single, much less a final, down payment on Love or The Family.”

Throughout her career, Powell was compared to Dorothy Parker (Diana Trilling said that Powell made “the jokes that Dorothy Parker gets the credit for”), a comparison that bothered Powell, as her 40-plus years’ worth of disciplined work encompassed 16 novels (seven are set in her birth state of Ohio, and almost all of the others in New York City), over 100 short stories, articles, and 10 plays, not to mention her letters and diaries. (Though an accomplished poet, short story writer, screenwriter, and critic, Parker was not a novelist.)

Powell walks a line between empathy and anger (satire’s reliable fuel), most often coming down on the side of empathy. Even in her satirical mode, she is a steadfast realist.

[…] I merely add a dimension to a character, a dimension which gives the person substance and life but which readers often mistake for malice. For instance, take the funeral of a much-loved woman, a mother. Treating this romantically, one writes only of the sadness in the people’s hearts, their woe, their sense of deprivation, their remembrance of her. This is true, but it is not true as I would do it, with their private bickers over the will in the garage, as they all gorge themselves at the funeral meals, as the visiting sisters exchange recipes, confidences (for they haven’t seen each other in many years), as pet vanities emerge.

Yet in giving this picture, with no malice in mind, no desire to show the grievers up as villains, no wish more than to give people their full statures, one would be accused of “satire,” of “cynicism” instead of looking without blinders, blocks, ear mufflers, gags, at life. Satire is people as they are; romanticism, people as they would like to be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out.

Vidal quotes reviewer Frederic Morton as to why Powell wasn’t more popular:

Miss Powell does not possess the pure indignation that moves Evelyn Waugh to his absurdities and forced Orwell into his haunting contortions. Her verbal equipment is probably unsurpassed among writers of her genre — she views the antics of humanity with too surgical a calm.

Therefore social conservatives craving consequences and moral indignation (characters in a Powell novel often sex it up and drink alcohol copiously to little and no consequence) are disappointed. Idealistic feminists will likewise find little uplifting for, as Edmund Wilson noted, “the women who appear in her stories are likely to be as sordid and absurd as the men.”

Pulitzer Prize–winning music critic Tim Page is Powell’s self-appointed champion and is largely responsible for introducing Powell to today’s reading public. In 1995, borrowing $10,000 from his mother, Page purchased Powell’s diaries, letters, and papers for $35,000, then edited and published the diaries and letters. He also wrote a biography (Dawn Powell: A Biography, Henry Holt, 1998).

Powell died from colon cancer at 68 in 1965, during the week of the first great New York blackout. Powell had donated her body to the Cornell Department of Anatomy. Without informing her family that they had a choice in the matter of her burial, her literary executor gave permission for the rest of Powell’s remains to be interred (by Rikers Island convicts) in a mass grave on Hart Island alongside the city’s unclaimed homeless, prison inmates, stillborn babies, and criminally insane; the executor insisted that Powell would have preferred to be buried in New York.

To wrest control over Powell’s estate from the neglectful executor, Tim Page worked with Powell’s beloved cousin, Jack Sherman, a collaboration so amicable that Page named one of his sons after Sherman.

Powell was born in Ohio on November 28, 1896, the second of three daughters. Her childhood was Dickensian. Her mother died, most likely from a botched abortion, when Powell was six. Her stepmother was abusive and mentally ill. She burned Powell’s stories and wouldn’t permit her to attend high school. In self-preservation, and to continue her education, Powell ran away and moved in with a maternal aunt, Orpha May Steinbrueck, who ran a boarding house directly opposite the Shelby Junction train station. Orpha, independent-minded and unconventional, was a great influence on Powell, and surely inspired Powell’s surprisingly liberal views on sex.

In 1918, Powell graduated from college and moved to New York City. She never left, calling herself a “permanent visitor.” She fell in love with Joseph Gousha. (On their first date he invited her on a Staten Island ferry ride.) Gousha, a successful advertising executive, was also a severe alcoholic. Powell, too, was a heavy drinker. Both had affairs; the marriage was difficult, but they remained devoted through many troubles. After Gousha’s death in 1962, Powell noted in her diary: “As for his death, this is a curious thing to say but after 42 years of life together — much of it precarious and crushing — we have been through worse disasters together, and I’m sure Joe would feel the same way about me.”

Their son, Joseph R. Gousha Jr., or “Jojo,” had nearly died at birth. Falsely diagnosed as “retarded,” Jojo was highly intelligent (he memorized David Copperfield and liked Powell to read it to him), and most likely autistic (before autism was a diagnosis) and schizophrenic.

Jojo spent much of his life in hospitals and institutions; he once beat his mother severely. He was, as Page notes, “the great joy and the great tragedy of Dawn Powell’s life.”

Given such turbulence, it’s remarkable that Powell was able to produce work — and so prolifically. But writing was everything to Powell, as The Diaries of Dawn Powell (thank you, Tim Page) attests. The New York Times proclaimed her diaries to be “one of the outstanding literary finds of the last quarter-century […] a book in a thousand […] the acid vision that marks one of this country’s least recognized great novelists.”

In his introduction to The Diaries, Page notes that Powell most likely “had one eye on posterity” while writing them. In her will she named the diaries among the “unpublished documents […] manuscripts, papers, notations, letters, sketches and memoirs” that could be sold and published posthumously.

In 2012, Page tried to sell the diaries by private auction, with the stipulation that the materials be kept together, but there was an alarming lack of interest. In 2013, Page settled on a price with Columbia University Libraries (where the diaries had been held) to retain the collection permanently. The collection is now open to the public.

The Diaries of Dawn Powell is my favorite of Powell’s books. Powell’s need to write, her grit, her piercing intelligence, and her humor are fiercely evident, and there’s also a satisfying dose of literary gossip. Here, she writes of the poet Genevieve Taggard:

[…] For years, G. was troubled by lack of humor and ponderous foot. A light conversation made her wretched, a twinkle in the eye made her aware of something going on that she was missing and, loud as she could laugh, she secretly feared her lack was conspicuous; strain as she could, she still missed everything and it depressed her.

But now, happy in marriage, secure in love, and conventional above all, she can say what’s so funny? and who cares?; recklessly she can be pompous and patronizingly pedagogic. She doesn’t need to see whimsy any more for she’s safe above it. […] Her clichés, her little pets that a sophisticated group of friends once shamed her into hiding, can all be brought out again, and she can stand bravely, self-righteously, up to twinkle or light word, and bludgeon it down with Integrity, Sincerity of Purpose, Honor. Happiness has given her a sword; respectability has given her the right to be stupid.

Powell’s social circle included Edmund Wilson, who often patronized her, and his daughter Rosalind Baker Wilson, who became Powell’s editor at Houghton Mifflin. Maxwell Perkins was her editor at Scribner’s; Powell named her cat after him, and appreciated her cat a great deal more. She knew John Dos Passos and Malcolm Cowley; she had an affair with John Lawson. However unreciprocally, Ernest Hemingway was her fan. (“I tried once again to read Farewell to Arms and it seems as clumsily written as ever to me […].”) She also socialized with Gerald and Sara Murphy, and E. E. Cummings. (“Cummings’ conversation [is] […] a parade of wonders and fantastic nonsense […] art and humor both vanish when pretty young girls ask him the meaning of his work — his explanations are […] pompous and flattened […].”)

Though most of her entries are seemingly impersonal — don’t expect confessions or emotional outpourings: Powell made a point not to dwell on her private life or the politics of the day — the diaries provide a candid and idiosyncratic portrait of their author. For all her caustic and sharp-witted observations, Powell won’t spell out fuck, using f—k. She worries about her weight, often writing down her current scale number. (Sadly, as she gets sick and nears death, the numbers finally decrease.) Powell had an unusual life philosophy, which she called the “Planetary theory”:

People — not the sun — revolve around each other, sometimes being in eclipse, sometimes in full blaze of sun, sometimes touching each other, then remote for eons. We are moved by magnetic forces beyond our control as if we were dolls; our reactions to each other are just that. Same way we are able to hook on to Infinite Power accidentally or in a particular point in orbit, of time or place. At certain times of life you are at peak power at midnight (if you only knew it), at dawn, at noon, at certain places, near water, near mountains […].

Powell had health troubles, and a steely survivor humor pervades the diaries. She lived with a rib-cracking tumor in her chest for over 20 years; she believed it was a “frustrated twin” trying to take over. Her hospital stays provided respites. Sure, her husband’s an alcoholic and they’re constantly on the precipice of poverty and homelessness — plus, her son’s institutionalized, she has no luck with the literary gods — but she can enjoy her time as a hospital patient, which is as close to being pampered as she can get.

Powell didn’t want a peaceful, contented life. She warned about “a certain brain fattening” that can take place, “an emotional smugness — generally called ‘balance’ or ‘control’ invariably associated with material security.” “Any barroom brawl,” she claimed, “is better than the persistent pinpricks of the happy little family.”

Happiness was counterproductive. “Here is the great temptation of all middle age — comfort and security — but the surest death to the artist if accepted wholly.”

Powell had keen insights into her fellow writers. She claimed that among novelists “only a small proportion are concerned with life, just as in medicine not all doctors care about preserving life.” She goes on:

Some novelists want to find life so they can jump on its back, after they’ve brought their characters alive, and ride it — Saul Bellow, for instance, and many men. They hang on their live characters like a child — take me, too, they cry and so they get to bordellos, bullrings, and the reader has to have the author between him and his live hero like an agent, always intruding with an explanation. Other novelists use atmosphere, background, as beaters hoping something alive will run him out of the bushes. Their story is the place — any life has to be pasted on. Other writers simply want the stage — they provide dummies as front heroes or heroines, stick them in the opera box and they, the writers, do all the performing — imitations, bird calls, acrobatics, magic, discourses showing their learning. If at any time a character starts breathing, the writer jumps on it and deadens it with anesthetic prose.

The diaries reveal Powell’s disillusionment with the literary world. “A new book coming out no longer rouses any hope,” she wrote. Yet for all her struggles and discouragement, she had a dogged work ethic and an optimism that came from the writing itself, specifically from the novels, her favorite form. In them, she was fascinated by the “factor of luck in art — the confidence, super cock-sureness of early success, accidentally being friends with powers-soon-to-be, learning early the manner of success. I have always felt that the manner of success came first — the inside later, if at all.” She believed:

The ones originally praised for some mediocrity continue to receive bouquets and gold medals since the critics do not want to admit they were ever wrong. Fate balances this careful nursing of her pets by an equally steady lambasting of her bastards. There seems to be no creeping out one door and coming in another one disguised as a pet.

Hemingway was an example:

There are two things essential to best creative work — one is overweening egotism (a quality seldom allied with any sense of humor); the second, exaggerated public reception. […] So a person like Hemingway — indeed, most of those I recall as being overpraised in their beginnings — are protected from annihilation and self-corrosion until they sometimes accomplish that which they are already credited with having done.

Powell was aware of her male colleagues’ advantages, and often these men were her friends. “In order for a genius to be a genius,” she wrote, “he must have a selfless slave between him and the world […]. For women this protection is impossible.” She observed, clearly from personal experience: “One reason women (and some men) writers are kept back is that they spend their brains and heart on writing but their fighting ability they must use for others — to protect, advance, heal, feed, support.”

After her close friend Edmund “Bunny” Wilson gave her a dismissive review, she wrote, “Men really dislike a literary woman (especially if she is good) and prefer not reading works of their women friends, hoping and even saying they must be bad.”

When Malcolm Cowley reviewed her novel in the New York Evening Post, she observed that it was a “sample of Old Friend T.T.B.F (Trying to be Fair).”

In other words, the kind male — not at all secure in his own fame — viewing with not too mixed feelings a female friend receiving high praise and not from him. He wishes book were not so good so he could praise it wholeheartedly without inner uneasiness — he would like to stand up for it against a world of detractors and for this he had girded up his ballpoint. But his defense is not required and he is bewildered, unprepared for any other role.

Powell knew her work deserved more attention. Still, she remained loyal to Bunny and Cowley. She had a stoic acceptance of others and of herself, and a no-nonsense attitude about everyday life.

As a writer, I found myself responding to Powell’s diaries more than her novels. Frank, funny, sad, and intense, Powell had bad luck, and there’s no denying that she received less attention than her male colleagues. But there’s also no denying that Powell contributed to her difficulties: her borderline alcoholism, for instance, and her romanticizing of a problematic life. She mistrusted and confused contentment and stability for complacency.

Powell’s struggle for parity with male writers feels sadly up-to-date. And there’s the hugely inspirational fact of her endurance. Regardless of all discouragement and bad luck, she kept writing.

Unpretentious, realistic, keen, merciless, unsentimental, humorous, and ultimately empathetic, her diaries seem to say, “We’re all fools: you, me, all of us together, none better than the other.” And yet Powell’s curiosity and interest in her fellow creatures remained undiminished to the end. In one of her last entries, she wrote, “I contend that a writer’s business is minding other people’s business.” Thankfully, that’s exactly what Powell did.


Victoria Patterson is the author of Drift, a book of stories, and three novels: This Vacant Paradise, The Peerless Four, and the forthcoming The Little Brother.

LARB Contributor

Victoria Patterson is the author of Drift, a book of stories, and three novels: This Vacant Paradise, The Peerless Four, and The Little Brother. Her second collection of stories, The Secret Habit of Sorrow, published July 2018.


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