James Wolcott’s optimistic pronouncement three years ago that “the Dawn Powell boom is about to be heard again” has been followed by silence. According to Wolcott, Powell, the bard of midcentury Greenwich Village, was supposed to be the literary comeback story of the 1990s. Why the re-publication of several of her novels has failed to create a lasting commotion is a question that is worth pondering.
Here was a writer who could lampoon the bourgeoisie as well as Sinclair Lewis did, and she avoided Lewis’s satirical overkill. She conjured a world of East Coast socialites as engaging as that of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and she avoided Fitzgerald’s self-indulgent and hackneyed romantic situations. Her work brimmed with intelligence, honesty, and humor. True, it often broke down on the technical side. But then the malformed plot or the tiresome reappearance of the same personality under different names in many of a novelist’s works—these are faults that can be found aplenty in such canonized writers as, say, Ernest Hemingway. What Dawn Powell lacked that these other American authors had was affection for her characters. But we get ahead of ourselves. For this interesting but flawed novelist has so much to offer in the way of entertainment that we must set aside, for the moment, her corrosive cynicism about human nature to look at the inimitable New York world she created.
Powell’s great gifts as a comic novelist save her from an empty sophistication.
Powell’s great gifts as a comic novelist save her from an empty sophistication. Mimicking the social rhythms of the bars, business meetings, and dinner parties of postwar Manhattan, she maneuvers her characters into multiple relationships of a Rube Goldberg complexity. A Powell plot typically comes to a head when the author contrives to pull one lever—usually it is at a social gathering of some kind—so that we may watch the elaborate structure hilariously collapse. Few novelists have reproduced with such witty accuracy the precise moment when drunken recriminations break out and spoil the party, or when a couple of chic career women simultaneously realize that their friendship has depended upon a mutual willingness to pretend to care about what the other has to say.
The mortar holding Powell’s novelistic edifices together is equal parts alcohol and ambition, and the ambition is usually of the thwarted variety. For her “battered bon vivants,” as she calls them, excuses for failure flow during the cocktail hour along with the gin.
The Powellian map extends from Greenwich Village eastward to Washington Square and the area around New York University, with occasional forays into downtown, the Bowery, and the swanky apartments of uptown. Her characters are the worker bees of New York’s commercial-cultural hive: graphic artists, book illustrators, department-store managers with literary connections, newspapermen-turned-admen, intellectuals who pay the rent by editing the home-improvements section or the real-estate section of a glossy magazine. All of these people rub elbows with the bigshots of the Manhattan scene, the “success clique,” as one of Powell’s protagonists calls it.
The encounter between the famous and the nobodies is common in satirical writing; it is a situation that is easy to play for laughs. Powell does more, illuminating for us what we might call the conundrum of meritocracy and worldly success. It goes something like this: The aspiring artist is no fool; he knows that success will assuredly ruin his integrity and ultimately his work. Still he craves the laurels. Why? Because it rankles him to see them hogged by people less talented than he. How did these hogs get to be where they are? By engaging in the kind of ruthless and obsequious behavior that ruined whatever talent and integrity they began with . . . And around and around it goes.
Powell was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, in 1897. She grew up in small towns in the area, and headed east as soon as she could do so, in 1918. She arrived in New York as a member of the naval reserve but apparently the end of the Great War freed her from the navy before her service had really begun. Ensconced in what she was proud to consider the artsy unconventionality of Greenwich Village, she began publishing, in 1928, a series of novels about inhabitants of Ohio villages who dream of the big time but rarely get there.
Her Winesburgs (they have names like Lamptown, Dell River, and Birchfield) are generally as grim as Sherwood Anderson’s but nowhere near as believable or affecting. There are occasional flashes of brilliance in these works; but it is not until Powell’s people make the escape that she herself did that her storytelling rises above melodrama and the fun is allowed to begin.
Five of her New York novels were recently reissued, and of these The Locusts Have No King and A Time to Be Born seem to me her best.1
The Locusts Have No King (1948) is about what happens when unremunerated talent presses its nose against the glass door of success and, lo and behold, the door swings open. Frederick Olliver is a threadbare and largely unnoticed historian who disdains the high-society life enjoyed by his lover, a rich, famous, and unhappily married playwright named Lyle Gaynor.
Frederick and Lyle are something rare in Powell’s fiction: a compellingly rendered love match of two sympathetic characters. All is not well between them, of course, otherwise there would be no plot. While a series of artificially prolonged misunderstandings keeps Frederick and Lyle apart, Powell takes the reader on a tour of the postwar literary crowd.
It is full of fakes like Tyson Bricker, “New York’s most publicized cultural leader.”
It is full of fakes like Tyson Bricker, “New York’s most publicized cultural leader.” Bricker made his name by writing introductions to the works of Jane Austen without ever producing his promised definitive study of her. Volumes of “Bricker’s Austen” fill the card catalogue of the New York Public Library “though he had not read her for twenty years and if he ever should do so again would be astonished at what he did not know about her, and at the number of sagacious things she had never said.”
Though an Austen fan, Bricker is no milksop. He is one of Powell’s sexual barracudas. They come in both male and female varieties, and they get more dangerous with age:
Tyson was fifty-two and had been spoiled by the war into believing that young girls really adored him. It still baffled him that the sweet kids who used to rhumba . . . with him at the Stork Club now called him up only to get jobs for their returning soldiers. It made him throw his weight very vigorously on the side of bigger armies and more wars.
Frederick Olliver so despises the self-promoting ways of the Bricker types that he even sabotages his own opportunities to get ahead (he is, at bottom, afraid that he deserves to be a failure). Ironically, the tasteless Bricker becomes impressed with the hack work Frederick is doing simply to keep body and soul together. On his own initiative Bricker sees to it that Frederick’s magnum opus is published, and its fabulous success turns Frederick into an intellectual star just as Lyle Gaynor’s Broadway career begins to falter. Powell gets some good mileage out of the couple’s see-sawing fortunes and she manipulates well a juicy cast of bit players; however, a melodramatic existentialist element finds its way into the novel and hobbles what would have been a first-rate screwball comedy.
The book’s strangely overreaching title and epigraph are emblematic of the problem. They come from Proverbs: “The locusts have no king, yet go they forth all of them by bands.” As a self-made New York sophisticate, Powell is hardly endorsing at face value this biblical teaching about the divine inspiration that moves creatures to organize themselves spontaneously. The suggestion is, rather, the opposite—Powell has caught the profundity bug and appears to be making a God-is-dead sort of statement about man’s search for meaning in an irrational universe.
The novel’s botched ending bears this interpretation out. The not-unsatisfying reunion of Lyle and Frederick should have ended after the kiss. Instead, the reunion is given tragic overtones. There are ominous news reports of the testing of the atom bomb off the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. As the radio announcer intones blackly over Lyle’s RCA Victor, Frederick, “filled with fear, . . . went over to Lyle and held her tightly. In a world of destruction one must hold fast to whatever fragments of love are left, for sometimes a mosaic can be more beautiful than an unbroken pattern.” End of novel. The playwright John Guare, who wrote the introduction to the new edition of The Locusts Have No King, pronounces this finale “a declaration of ironic wisdom and passionate insight” that is “magically devoid of any sentimentality.” Gore Vidal—although it was he who instigated the Dawn Powell revival—could nonetheless find his way to a more astringent verdict, one that hits nearer the mark: “We all tended to write this sort of thing immediately after Hiroshima, mon assassin.”
The novel’s botched ending bears this interpretation out.
Moments like that are blessedly rare in Powell’s fiction. The carnival atmosphere of her comedies is usually punctured not by Overwhelming Forces but by the human imperfections, large and small, that have kept satirists in business since the days of Petronius. It was, in fact, the Roman author’s Satyricon that Powell is said to have taken as an inspiration for her work. She is indeed expert at creating her own “Dinners with Trimalchio” where, just as in the original, rich men and women have license to bellow ignorant things (they are, after all, footing the bill) while the smarter nonentities at the table can only quip into their napkins.
Interestingly, Powell’s catalogue of human defects seldom involves deliberate misconduct. While everyone is racing for the laurels in these books, what we would expect in the way of tripping a fellow competitor almost never happens. People seldom intentionally do each other bad turns. When a rarity such as blackmail occurs, there is usually something whimsically G-rated about it. Even a rat like Tyson Bricker can turn out to be the angel of a deserving person’s success. This quality of madcap arbitrariness was aptly characterized by Edmund Wilson—in the only piece he ever published about his friend Dawn Powell—as a “fairyland strain of Welsh fantasy” that “instils into everything she writes a kind of kaleidoscopic liveliness that renders even her hardheadedness elusive.”
Regarding the battle of the sexes, one of Powell’s great themes, the picture is somewhat different. The sexual arena, as Powell portrays it, is much, much crueller than the fame derby. There is the Man’s Problem, which would later come to be referred to as “fear of intimacy.” Then, naturally, there is the Woman’s Problem, which is other women. A woman’s own steadfast affection is a given, but so is the fact that men are tomcats and hence prey to all the competition that is out there. As one of Powell’s ambivalent career girls wryly concludes, fidelity cannot be demanded of men: “You can’t do that when you’re trying to show how much more understanding you are than the other woman. . . . It’s no wonder a man takes advantage of it.”
The women of her 1942 novel A Time to Be Born, two escapees from Lakeville, Ohio, set their caps for the same Manhattan man. Amanda Keeler Evans and Vicky Haven form a sort of matching set of Midwestern pilgrims: one is naughty and the other nice. Amanda has bluffed her way into becoming a certified bigshot and she invites her mild-mannered hometown friend, Vicky, to follow her to New York and be her protégée. A distinctly Frederick Olliverish, down-on-his-luck writer becomes the bone of contention between them.
A Time to Be Born offers (besides another of Powell’s ghastly choices of title) a number of charms. Chief among them is the Elroy family, one of the funniest upperclass WASP families in American fiction. The Elroys are right out of The Philadelphia Story—not ice-cold Calvinists who keep their conflicts carefully bottled up but talky plutocrats who squabble publicly, giving embarrassed newcomers an instant picture of who hates whom and why.
Vicky Haven is the latest innocent bystander to be drawn in. The Elroys only invite Vicky to their spacious Upper East Side apartment so they can pump her for gossip about her glittery friend Amanda, a fast-track journalist and author. The widow Elroy and two bickering Elroy daughters chat Vicky up while scholarly Uncle Rockman Elroy, a most reluctant head of household, distractedly hums snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan and gets sozzled on highballs.
Vicky Haven is the latest innocent bystander to be drawn in.
“Tuffy” Elroy, an ugly-duckling debutante more sexually precocious than her older, prettier sister, informs Vicky that her sister is about to marry “the all-time low in the male animal. . . . If he can even braid a basket, I’ll eat it.” Upon hearing this remark
Mrs. Elroy frowned sternly at her younger daughter. She had always considered it a pretty woman’s right to be a fiend . . . but to balance this state of society it was up to the plain girls to rigorously uphold the banner of breeding and constant good nature. Unfortunately Tuffy had never seen eye to eye with her on this and had the audacity to have all the selfishness and ill-temper of a belle.
In the matter of who gets the guy (Ken Saunders, the Frederick Olliverish writer), we sense that—as should be the case in a comedy—nice is destined to defeat naughty. Vicky Haven amuses us most when we notice that, like all of Powell’s morally superior female characters, she protects her own romantic interests with about as much ferocity as Antonio protects his wealth in The Merchant of Venice. But as a goody-goody Vicky is rather wooden, and her triumph does not absorb us much.
The downfall of Amanda Keeler Evans is, on the contrary, compelling. Amanda owes her illustrious career to her publishing-magnate husband and to her credo that “The tragedy of the attic poets, Keats, Shelley, Burns, was not that they died young but that they were obliged by poverty to do all their own writing.” Powell will let us have no illusions: Amanda is not an innocent corrupted by the big city but one who arrived there guileful enough to ascend to the top. Justice arrives in due course. Among the misfortunes that befall Amanda is her abortion of a child fathered by Ken Saunders.
The abortion interlude is interesting. Vicky, as Amanda’s only female friend, accompanies the latter through her ordeal. Vicky’s depressing waiting-room narration is a suitably indirect way to handle a sordid incident in a light novel. Powell has here let the grim realities of life obtrude in a way that is totally credible. We are even moved to sympathy for Amanda, rascal though she is. One assumes it was fairly daring to give even a second-hand account of an event like this in a novel written in the early 1940s.
Feminists may adduce such items as proof that Powell is one of their own. Enhancing their case would be the male characters in these books. The ones who are not macho child-men tend to be either craven heterosexuals or repellent homosexuals.
And certainly the frequency with which wronged wives buckle under the unfairness of their situation suggests a view of marriage that is critical, even radically so. In Angels on Toast (the least accomplished of the five reissued books, first published in 1940), the miserable Mary Donovan wishes she could commit indiscretions to rival her husband’s—if only she could persuade herself to like sex. Powell’s way of curing a wife of her tortured virtue is to have her crack up and commit implausible acts of revenge against the husband and/or herself. This is what happens in Angels on Toast as well as at the climax of one of Powell’s Ohio novels, Dance Night (1930), where the wife murders her philandering mate. In A Time to Be Born, the upper-class matron from whom Amanda Keeler Evans originally stole Mr. Evans is such a polite chump that she does not even permit herself to be angry at the theft. The effect of all that pent-up resentment is that the first Mrs. Evans is eventually dragged into a sanitarium wearing a straitjacket.
So marriage is presented as a boringly bourgeois institution that ruins women’s lives.
So marriage is presented as a boringly bourgeois institution that ruins women’s lives. Why, Powell often has her characters wonder, can’t a woman have a fling or two and keep her reputation? According to Edmund Wilson, Powell’s writings were not best-seller material because her female characters were “as sordid and absurd as the men.” It is true that they are not the diaphanous maidens to be found in, say, Herman Wouk or Edna Ferber, but “sordid and absurd” is too strong. The women simply go ahead and have a good time despite lacking the credentials to do so with impunity. Those credentials are well known to Angels on Toast’s heroine, a picaresque commercial artist named Ebie Vane. “A girl alone had to have an above reproach background in which to be Bohemian,” Ebie says. The “gay visiting duchess” can cut loose in the Village bistros and her money will protect her from being thought “either a nut or a tramp. A good address was a girl’s best mother in New York.”
To fully answer the question of Powell and feminism one would have to grasp her rock-bottom opinion of women. And this is a most difficult thing to do, obsessive though Powell is about analyzing their behavior and their place in society. She gives mixed signals. Amanda Keeler Evans condemns her entire sex as vain and frivolous but we dismiss the condemnation as the product of Amanda’s arrogance and hypocrisy. Yet at other times Powell, in her own right, blasts women for these same qualities. A third complication sends us back again the other way: Are not men the blackguards who are egging women on in their vanity and frivolity?
As Powell composes A Time to Be Born the United States is preparing to join the war against the Axis powers. Meanwhile on the homefront, she editorializes, feminine consumerism—risible in the quietest of times—takes on added ridiculousness against a patriotic background:
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 . . . 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.
Peabody’s magazine, the Redbook-type publication where Vicky Haven works, tries to cover the fall of Paris from the angle of fall fashions in Paris, and the magazine is picketed by women’s groups for insulting the intelligence of its readership. Powell mocks the protesters for their huffy indignation.
In short, the satire is so multidirectional that it is just as appropriate to ask whether or not Powell is a misogynist as it is to ask whether or not she is a feminist. Of course the answer to both questions might be no. Unlike her contemporary, Mary McCarthy, Powell’s critical view of her sex seems to have no personal meanness in it, just a mischievous detachment.
One senses in Powell not anger, exactly, but a kind of weariness about the relations between men and women. If men never take the least responsibility for their infidelities—if the wretches even blame their disloyalty on their virginal sweethearts, who deny them sex—the answer seems to be that good women simply have to adjust. This adjustment, in many cases, means a betrayed virgin becomes the mistress of the man who let her down. One such character says that she has “understood her part . . . It was enough that there was love, and the woman’s duty was always to guard it, to have it ready when the man needed it.”
One does not, finally, detect in Powell a desire that women gain equality with men.
One does not, finally, detect in Powell a desire that women gain equality with men. She seems to write, rather, out of a quixotic wish that men would wake up one day and love women, silly as they are, in the same measure that women surely do love men, bastards that they are.
In his lengthy tribute to Powell in The New York Review of Books in 1987, Gore Vidal described his friend’s entire career, from her wild social life among the literati to her efforts as a playwright to her fifteen novels.2 In the mid-1930s two of her plays made it to the stage. But according to Vidal it was failure in the theater that set her to writing novels. They were not notably successful in the United States, but their arch humor won them a dedicated, if small, following in England.
Powell was married and had a son who was born retarded. She wrote everything from press releases and advertising copy to feature articles in the newspapers to earn money for special tutors and nurses for her son. That she always remained the struggling artist seems partly to have been a matter of pride. Her “complete indifference to publicity” was noted by Wilson in his review of what was to be her last novel, The Golden Spur (1962). “She rarely . . . has publishers’ parties given her,” Wilson wrote. “She declines to play the great lady of letters.” One hesitates to call this reverse snobbery, but, then again, there were comments such as that made to John Guare by Powell’s literary executor, Jacqueline Miller Rice: “If people said she was another Dorothy Parker, she’d hit them. Dawn was a Village person. Not an Algonquin person, even though Benchley adored her.”
Wilson makes Powell out to be aloof in more ways than one, indicating that she was not swept up in the political enthusiasms that took hold in New York intellectual life between the world wars. By the time the 1960s rolled around she was an old-timer who merely missed the bohemia of bygone years because it was so much fun.
Not that she was capable of getting weepy about the old days. The Golden Spur is a tender look back only in the subtlest of ways. The novel’s premise rests upon another of Powell’s nice but by no means prudish unmarried women. She is a contemporary, really, of the ingénues of Powell’s Ohio novels. But since time has marched on, we only come to hear of her after she has married, led a full life, and died, leaving a son—winsome young Jonathan Jaimison of Silver City, Ohio—who has come to New York to find out who his real father is. During a long-ago sojourn in Manhattan, Jonathan’s mother had dallied with several Prince Charmings. So many, in fact, that Jonathan has quite a long list of possible dads to hunt down.
The trouble with the book is that Jonathan is not very interesting, so it is difficult to care about his search for his paternity. It is a sign of Powell’s resourcefulness that she could, for this final performance, beget Jonathan, so to speak, from the midcentury woman who had been at the center of her fiction. But it is a sign of her limitations, too, that she cannot make the young man convincingly alive, while his deceased mother does come to seem a real presence as her character is pieced together from the memories of those who knew her in her prime.
I hasten to add that Jonathan’s candidates for fatherhood are marvelously drawn. There is the novelist Alvine Harshawe, a beleaguered celebrity who makes a drunken pilgrimage back to his old Village haunts, in one of which a literature fan who mistakes him for John Steinbeck tries to buy him a drink. The complications of life at the top have left Harshawe envious of his long-lost Village friends, who live simple lives because their careers never went anywhere.
Of course, the failures are not happy, either. NYU professor Walter Kellsey is a denizen of the down-at-the-heels Golden Spur bar near Bleecker Street, which Jonathan’s mother used to patronize and which is therefore the base of operations for his Oedipal search. The bar has managed to survive the decades, its Western motif looking ever frowsier as it has evolved from “the writer’s speakeasy” into a hangout for jazz musicians, then actors, and finally artists. The artists more than hold their own as imbibers of the Golden Spur’s traditional rotgut. As Kellsey (a left-over writer) rather dyspeptically observes: “Painters have got to drink . . . A painter can’t turn out the stuff they have to do now without being loaded.”
Professor Kellsey would feel less a loser if Jonathan really did turn out to be his son. Kellsey is saddled with a wife and a mistress, and the latter especially irks him when she returns from psychoanalysis in a buoyant mood:
The shrinker had certainly filled her up with self-confidence this time, Walter thought, and he wondered how long before it would start chipping off like the lipstick and eyeshadow. Whatever was making her so satisfied made him jealous, but then he was jealous of everybody nowadays, jealous of the President of the United States for all that free rent and gravy, jealous of cops for their freedom to sock anybody who annoyed them, jealous of students who could skip his classes, jealous of . . . anybody stupid enough to believe in his own genius.
Perhaps the most intriguing character in the book is Claire Van Orphen, a sixtyish author of feature articles and short stories whose writing career has long since faded but who (stupidly in her mind, but touchingly in ours) persists in “believing in her own genius,” if only to stash her latest productions in the desk drawer. Claire once knew Jonathan’s mother, and when the young man seeks her out, her career gets an unexpected lift. He introduces his Golden Spur acquaintances to one another, inadvertently hooking Claire up with a middle-aged beatnik editor who turns her unsold manuscripts into material that television producers are keen to use. Powell herself did some writing for television, according to Vidal. He does not say how successful she was at it, but it is easy to see Claire Van Orphen as a rescued Dawn Powell.
One thing that is visible from the span of her writings across more than three decades is that, as crazy as the 1960s were to become after she passed from the scene (she died of cancer in 1965), there may have been a new vehemence in the hippies’ rejection of middle-class life but there was no new idea behind it. As Wilson points out, the scruffy beatniks and Abstract Expressionists we see cavorting in the Golden Spur bar display an abhorrence of “squares” that merely continues “the old Greenwich Villager’s attitude toward the traditional artists’ enemy: ‘uptown.’”
Powell had been using the clash of commerce and culture all along, and while she makes clear that her allegiance is with the artists, she invites us to laugh at people on both sides of the divide. In The Golden Spur, as in The Wicked Pavilion, her two novels incorporating the explosion of modern art in postwar New York City, it is open season on beatniks and burghers alike. The ending of The Golden Spur constitutes a nod in favor of the new generation of rebels and their feverishly iconoclastic art (an outré, Pied Piper-like painter becomes Jonathan Jaimison’s model for living). It is, however, a most equivocal nod. In her ambivalence Powell is a little like one of her characters in The Wicked Pavilion, whom she impishly dubbed a “rear avant-gardist.” Such a person—“progressive,” in a broad sense, but by no means leader of the pack—can respond to the shock of the new either by staying cheerful or by getting run over. Powell, characteristically, chose cheerfulness.
The rear avant-gardist in The Wicked Pavilion (1954) is Hoff Bemans, critic at large—“a fast man with the blurb for anything from pottery exhibits to the new jazz.” He is one of a welter of characters in a veritable three-ring circus of a novel. The Wicked Pavilion’s dizzying plot defies summary. (The book’s epigraph is from The Creevey Papers, in which weary courtiers party endlessly in a “wicked Pavilion” while awaiting the arrival of the Prince.) Its clutter is unfortunate because the novel provides some of the most complete answers to Powell’s major questions: How should the artist use his talent? Who deserves fame? Can any good be salvaged from the wreckage of human relationships?
There is an artists’ subplot, a lovers’ subplot, and, for comic relief, a rich-WASP-family subplot.
There is an artists’ subplot, a lovers’ subplot, and, for comic relief, a rich-WASP-family subplot. The unifying element is that everyone hangs out at an establishment called the Café Julien (good food, bad service), a wicked pavilion that is based on the café of the long-defunct Lafayette Hotel near Washington Square, where Powell was wont to hold her own kind of court with Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, and others in attendance.
The artists’ subplot offers middle-aged Dalzell Sloan, a broken-down painter from a “far western village” who is considering a final retreat to his home town if he cannot muster the energy to get out of the rut he is in. The presumed death of a friend—the painter Marius, who has dropped out of sight and whose paintings are now skyrocketing in value—provides a way for Dalzell to earn money and (at least indirectly) recognition. Shut out from the opportunity to show their works in Manhattan’s galleries, Dalzell and another, similarly struggling old friend decide that they are going to commit a crime so they can continue to commit art: They will pass off their own paintings and drawings as those of the posthumously hotter-than-hot Marius.
The reader understands that money is at stake but so, too, is pride. Dalzell is called a “genius and a gentleman” by another character whose judgment we trust, while Marius is by all accounts a reprobate, so the forgery scheme has about it that harmless devilry so typical of the Powellian fairyland. Moreover, it provides one of the rare occasions in her fiction when people drop the social mask and admit their human need: once decided on their scheme, Dalzell and his partner “couldn’t stop laughing. It was wonderful to have fear and loneliness transformed at last into a great joke between friends.” Camaraderie among forgerers is camaraderie, anyway. Such moments are to be savored for their infrequency.
Disillusionment in the partnership follows. Crime does not pay and the mutual sympathy of friends inevitably wears thin. After it all falls through, Dalzell accepts what luck seems to have had in store for him since the novel’s opening pages: he allows himself to be commissioned by the bourgeoisie to paint portraits. Dalzell is consigned, if not to hack work of the lowest order, then to the kind of work that will assure a well-fed anonymity. Powell is here saying that if the “commercial artist” has made a pact with the devil, so be it. At least he has not gone home in disgrace, to be swallowed up in “those great open spaces between Esso and Gulf,” as Powell once termed Middle America. Leave fame to the opportunists who will always grab it; a “genius and a gentleman” should try to accept defeat gracefully.
Powell herself never accepted defeat so gracefully as to actually stop writing. According to Jacqueline Miller Rice, Powell refused surgery on her cancer and probably shortened her life thereby, but she kept on producing nearly to the end. As The Golden Spur’s Claire Van Orphen puts it: “You didn’t run to win the prize as you did in youth. Indeed your dimming eyes could not tell if you’d passed the goal or not. You went on running because in the end that was the only prize there was—to be alive, to be in the race.” If there are flaws in her work, at least she produced her work. She editorializes on this point on several occasions, most wittily when Claire Van Orphen’s editor friend is moved to tell her of “his foolish perfectionism that made his stories too good to sell or for that matter even to write.”
Disillusionment in the partnership follows.
That Powell never got into the “success clique” is, perhaps, fortunate for her art; her position at the clique’s fringes allowed her to be an able satirist of it. That there should be something elusive about her hardheadedness, as Wilson said, most certainly is fortunate for her art. If her cynicism were delivered straight, without the playfulness, it would entirely overwhelm the reader. Powell sees the bonds of love and friendship as too tenuous to trust and the bonds of family as too suffocating to submit to for long.
One can hardly expect a pessimist about human affairs to bestow much love upon the humans who populate her fiction. Yet that is precisely what is needed if they are to seem, well . . . human to us. Notwithstanding Sinclair Lewis’s ad nauseam attacks on the institutions of George F. Babbitt’s world, George F. himself lives and breathes because Lewis in fact loves him. (Babbitt’s undeserved reputation for emptiness represents a fascinating conflation, in the years since 1922, of the character Lewis created with the milieu in which he placed his creation.) Powell’s frequent failure to love—unsentimentally love—her characters renders too many of them brittle.
If she does not love people, she certainly loves the place: New York City. This is why her transplanted Midwesterners, come what may, end up feeling more resigned than bitter. If there were actual bitterness, why wouldn’t one have moved back to where one came from? Powell’s dislike of her origins —by 1947 she was telling friends that “New York is not the same city it was, being overrun now with Americans”—is another quality that sometimes hampers her artistically. Contempt can amuse but it can also make urbanity seem, finally, a cover for fidgetiness. Powell was so enamored of the life led by “the Midnight People, who drink and dance and rattle and are ever afraid to be silent” (Sinclair Lewis again), that we may be tempted to suspect her, too, of fearing silence—and the depths of introspection made possible by it.
None of this, however, makes one glad that no heap of rewards ever fell, all unbidden, upon the head of Dawn Powell. Hers was a uniquely droll and captivating fictional world. Her characters’ very unwillingness to bow and scrape sometimes won them their professional or romantic hearts’ de- sires. In real life, the novelist’s own unwillingness to do so meant that the travails of Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly, not those of Ebie Vane or Amanda Keeler Evans, made it into that minor-league pantheon of books- turned-into-major-motion-pictures. It meant that Mary McCarthy’s out-of-print early fiction, and not Dawn Powell’s, is today passed from reader to reader in frayed copies. For all of her limitations, Powell is a better literary artist than they. Breakfast at Tiffany’s seems ingratiating and thin, and The Group soullessly sociological, next to Powell’s best efforts and even next to her lesser ones. Capote and McCarthy each have a small place in the literary firmament; Dawn Powell has none. It is not an unfairness of Olympian proportions, but it is still unfair.
- Both The Locusts Have No King (286 pages) and A Time to Be Born (334 pages) are available in paperback from Yarrow Press ($9.95 each). Go back to the text.
- This essay, “Dawn Powell: The American Writer,” is reprinted in Vidal’s 1988 collection At Home. An abridged version serves as the Introduction to the paperback reissues of Angels on Toast (273 pages), The Wicked Pavilion (306 pages), and The Golden Spur (274 pages), all from Vintage Books ($8.95 each). Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 6, on page 33
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