The Reading Season: Dawn Powell, The American Writer

I’m going to talk about the writer Dawn Powell, but please, don’t hesitate to read my book – if you like coffee, or miss travel, you’ll love it – it’s called A European Odyssey; How a boxer’s daughter found grace.

In my book I take you everywhere, from Seattle, across Canada and all over Europe. You don’t even need to take a covid test or address the stress of modern airport drama. Apparently flyers are more violent than ever but I promise, you’ll be in safe hands reading my book, and traveling; both in the comfort of your own abode.

But if you’re just surfing, looking for a story I’ve got a good one.

Once upon a time there was a writer named Dawn Powell. She grew up in the middle of America, lost her mother at 6, moved in with her wicked stepmother who proceeded to burn all of Dawn’s stories at the tender age of 12. She ran away to New York, became the doyenne of Greenwich village, wrote many of the finest books rarely read and never looked back. The ending may not be happy but her books are awfully funny.

She wrote about New York in the 30’s and 40s when highballs were served before lunch. When everyone was on the make. Dawn Powell had wit like few others ever did. However, wit is a concept that can make Americans feel uncomfortable, so says Gore Vidal and he should know. He was prescient for 6 decades. And the only reason we know of Dawn Powell is because Vidal read all of Dawn Powell’s work and then wrote a very long essay about it. Her work was out of print until he re-discovered her. He also knew her personally, when he was very young.

Here’s an entry in Dawn Powell’s diary of her first meeting with Gore Vidal on February 7, 1957:

Dawn’s Diary:

Read Gore Vidal’s Messiah. More impressed by the writer than the book, which was engaging enough, but the trouble with being a clear, sharply cut, extraordinary individual with a rich articulate gift is that no characters can equal the author himself, whose muscular skill directs most complicated interplay of plots, guides contrapuntal themes with suave, veiled power and a doom-like rhythm that compels and lulls. A genuine novelist – power at the wheel, a rich, regal, original mind with unlimited treasures and the serene generosity of one who knows he will come into more and more. Something of Disraeli – a high, patrician, Solomon – like judgement and philosophic power, with wit, poetry and music. Not to fit in any fashion, but outlive them all, like the great ones.

Why oh why does my diary not read like this…

Anyway, Gore Vidal felt she was America’s finest comic writer and I agree with everything Gore Vidal ever said. In fact, Gore’s 4 favorite words were, “I told you so,” which helps diminish some of my self-pity.

Gore Vidal went on to act as America’s biographer for 6 decades and got it all right, and Dawn Powell was right about him.

In Vidal’s essay he writes “Powell was that unthinkable monster who felt no obligation to make a single let alone final down payment on love or family….” and this really upset the literati.

Powell’s wit, deployed by a woman, was delivered with surgical calm. What upset them even more was that she didn’t write about morally complex characters, she truly thought the middle class as funny as the rest. Dawn also found women as sordid and absurd as men. Gore wondered how she got to be so funny and decided part of the training was all those boarding houses she had to stay at while running away – those old broads in the middle of America were not easy to entertain, but Dawn held her own. New York was probably easy after that.

Dawn Powell not only had a sense of humor, she also read everything in the same way Gore Vidal read everything. It’s hard to recall but many Americans used to read deeply and completely, almost daily.

Gore Vidal thought she should have been as “widely read as Hemingway, or the early Fitzgerald, mid O’Hara or the very late Katherine Anne Porter.”

But really, it was her combination; wit, powerful intellect and imagination. Her contemporaries thought this should have been spent on serious characters, rather than you and me, and Gore suspects wit can give the game away. You can’t give the scam away, instead, do improv, the obvious, don’t think, think Trump.

“Dawn Powell for decades was on the verge of ceasing to be a cult,” Gore wrote “and becoming a major religion.” Despite efforts made by her contemporaries like Hemingway, she never became popular. Love is not her theme, the provincials who came to New York were….and she’s awfully funny. James Thurber once said, “She doesn’t deserve to be in the men’s room,” and Gore muses perhaps this was what it was all about.

Dawn Powell didn’t give women much to daydream about because she was writing about women as they were, not as a fantasy. This was the world before television. And Powell is happiest in the bar, where those highballs were served before noon. Yet Dawn does have a go at the serious people in ” A Time to Be Born”

In this novel, Gore Vidal says no one captures America the way she did, in the year right WW2. She often used the essay form to begin the novel. And here’s that essay, here’s Dawn as fine as anyone, so witty and sadly wise:

Time To Be Born

This was certainly no time for Vicky Haven to engage your thoughts, for you were concerned with great nations, with war itself. This was a time when the true signs of war were the lavish plumage of the women; Fifth Avenue dress shops and the finer restaurants were filled with these vanguards of war. Look at the jewels, the rare pelts, the gaudy birds on elaborate hairdress, and know that the war was here; already the women had inherited the earth. The ominous smell of gunpowder was matched by a rising cloud of Schiaparelli’s Shocking. The women were once more armed, and their happy voices sang of destruction to come. Off to the relief offices they rode in their beautiful new cars, off to knit, to sew, to take part in the charade, anything to help Lady Bertrand’s cause; off they rode in the new car, the new mink, the new emerald bracelet, the new electrically treated complexion, presented by or extorted from the loving hearted gentlemen who make both women and wars possible. Off to the front with a new permanent and enough specially blended night creams to last three months dashed the intrepid girl reporters. Unable to cope with competition on the home field, failing with the rhumbas and scree tests of peacetime, they quiver for the easy drama of the trenches; the can at least play lead in these amateur theatricals.

This was a time when the artists, the intellectuals, sat in cafes and in country homes and accused each other over their brandies or their California vintages of traitorous tendencies. This was a time for them to band together in mutual antagonism, a time to bury the professional hatchet, if possible in each other, a time to stare at their flower arrangements, children bathing, and privately to weep. “What good it it? Who cares now?” The poet, disgusted with the flight of skylarks in perfect sonnet form, declaimed the power of song against brutality and raised hollow voice in feeble proof. This not time for beauty, for love, or private future; this was the time for ideals and quick profits on them before the world returned to reality and the drabber opportunities. What good for new sopranos to sing “Vici d’arte, vice d’amore,” what good for eager young students to make their bows? There was no future; every one waited, marked time, waited. For what? On Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Fifth Street hundreds waited for a man on a hotel window ledge to hump; hundreds waited with craning necks and thirsty faces as if this single person’s final gesture would solve the riddle of the world. Civilization stood on a ledge, and in the tension of waiting it was a relief to have one little man jump.

And that’s just a tiny slice of Dawn Powell.

If that doesn’t inspire you; I give up.

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