Dawn Powell died on this day in 1965. Powell was praised by some contemporary critics (notably Edmund Wilson), and one of her fifteen novels made the bestseller list (for a week), but virtually all her books were already out of print when she died. Her own fate seems to have run parallel. Perhaps out of poverty, she donated her body to science; when Cornell’s medical school offered to return her remains several years later, her literary executor expressed no interest, and Powell was buried in an unmarked grave on Hart Island, New York’s potter’s field.
The Powell revival, kick-started by a Gore Vidal essay in 1987 and then by Tim Page’s 1998 biography, has returned all her novels to print. And she’d be heartened to know that some modern critics regard her as more than a popular storyteller: “She is wittier than Dorothy Parker, dissects the rich better than F. Scott Fitzgerald, is more plaintive than Willa Cather in her evocation of the heartland and has a more supple control of satirical voice than Evelyn Waugh, the writer to whom she’s most often compared” (Lisa Zeidner, The New York Times). This diary entry from mid-career suggests that Powell also thought she deserved high, though not just any, company:
In the last century, Thackeray, Dickens, Edith Wharton, James, all wrote of their own times and we have reliable records. Now we have only the escapists, who write of happenings a hundred or three hundred years ago, false to history, false to human nature. Among contemporary writers, only John O’Hara writes of one very small section of 52nd Street or Broadway. We have Hemingway, who writes of a fictional movie hero in Spain with the language neither Spanish nor English. When someone wishes to write of this age — as I do and have done — critics shy off, the public shies off. “Where’s our Story Book?” they cry. “Where are our Story Book People?”
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.