Dawn Powell: A Biography

Overview

In Dawn Powell: A Biography, Tim Page explores the fascinating ironies and sad complexities of Powell's life and work. Gore Vidal once referred to her as our best comic novelist, deserving to be as widely read as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. This biography is a celebration of her triumphant rise from the ashes of near oblivion to her establishment among the giants of twentieth-century American literature. Dawn Powell lived in New York City for forty-seven years but always maintained the perspective of a "permanent ...

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Overview

In Dawn Powell: A Biography, Tim Page explores the fascinating ironies and sad complexities of Powell's life and work. Gore Vidal once referred to her as our best comic novelist, deserving to be as widely read as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. This biography is a celebration of her triumphant rise from the ashes of near oblivion to her establishment among the giants of twentieth-century American literature. Dawn Powell lived in New York City for forty-seven years but always maintained the perspective of a "permanent visitor." She distilled this into her many poems, stories, articles, plays, and her dizzying and inventive novels.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Dawn Powell: A Time to Be Reborn

In 1987, Gore Vidal published a long article in The New York Review of Books entitled "Dawn Powell: The American Writer." Powell, who was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, in 1897, and died in New York in 1965, had published 15 novels, plus numerous short stories, plays, and other pieces of writing during her lifetime. By the time of her death, nearly all of these titles were out of print; by the time of Vidal's article, Powell had all but disappeared from the literary landscape. Her books, however, had attained a certain cult status and were passed around by those in the know, always seeming, as Vidal points out, "just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion."

Vidal's article inspired the rerelease of three Powell novels; unfortunately, the novels weren't well promoted, and so they promptly disappeared once again. Since 1994, however, Steerforth Press has released new editions of nearly all of Powell's work, including her diaries. And this month, Henry Holt will publish a new biography of Powell, one that seeks to complete Gore Vidal's project and return the novelist to her rightful place in the 20th-century literary canon.

Tim Page, chief music critic for The Washington Post and author of the Powell biography, should largely be credited for the success of this revival. He edited the first hardcover release of Powell's fiction in decades, a volume entitled Dawn Powell at Her Best, which includes Dance Night, one of the early Ohio novels; Turn, Magic Wheel one ofherbrilliantly biting New York satires; and several selections of short fiction and nonfiction. Page also edited and introduced Powell's diaries, published in 1995, and wrote introductions for Powell's autobiographical novel My Home is Far Away and the poignant Come Back to Sorrento. His most significant achievement, however, may be his work with the late author's family to obtain the release of her papers, so that her life story could be written.

Page's biography is a thoughtful examination of both the author's life and her work, exploring the central mystery of her literary career — how an author so gifted could have been so easily forgotten. Page follows Powell from her turbulent, painful childhood through her years of growth and exploration in college to her true home, New York. In New York, Powell was at the center of a literary circle every bit as important as that surrounding Dorothy Parker; comparisons were often made between the two women, comparisons that made Powell bristle with resentment. In fact, Powell's circle included the more lasting literary lights: Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, and Djuna Barnes.

More importantly, Powell's writing shows greater depth and broader range than does Parker's; her early works, thought of as the Ohio novels, are as moving and vivid as any of the novels of Sherwood Anderson or Willa Cather, and the later New York novels display a satiric skill surpassing that of Truman Capote and rivaling that of Evelyn Waugh. In Dance Night, for instance, Powell depicts the painfully constrained lives of the citizens of a small working-class Ohio town on the verge of a boom, following Morry Abbott and his mother as each seeks a means of escape.

Turn, Magic Wheel, the first of the New York novels, introduces Dennis Orphen, a minor writer and not-so-minor cad, a character who will return in much of Powell's later work. Orphen has, at the novel's opening, just published his latest book, which he is shocked to discover he has based on — or copied from — the life of his friend Effie Callingham. Powell found herself at the center of just such a controversy with the publication in 1942 of A Time to Be Born. She insisted quite vehemently that her central character was not based on Clare Booth Luce, until she later found a note she'd written to herself some years earlier, which said "Why not do novel on Clare Luce?" The New York novels are in fact replete with schemers and seducers, cheerfully amoral city dwellers who embody urban speed, glamour, and the drive to get ahead. As Tim Page points out, "Her characters are rarely admirable but they are usually eminently likeable, in their own deluded and floundering ways."

Powell was awarded the Margaret Peabody Waite Award for lifelong achievement in literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters shortly before her death. Now, with Page's biography, which is not only a retelling of the author's life but also an incisive critical examination of her work, we can at last appreciate the depth of that achievement and celebrate the return of Dawn Powell to her rightful place in the American literary landscape.
— Kathleen Fitzpatrick, barnesandnoble.com

Alice Tufel
Page now has written an affectionate and well-researched first biography of this almost-lost writer....Tim Page has done a great service to her and to her fans by telling her previously little-known story. -- Biblio Magazine
Lisa Zeidner
For Page to become such a vigorous champion allows a satisfying fairy-tale coda to Powell's career — not the kind that she herself would hav envisioned, but the kind that she deserves.
The New York Times Book Review
Megan Harlan
If Page was trying to inspire interest in Powell's work, his intriguing, gritty bio amply succeeds. -- Entertainment Weekly
New York Observer
[Powell's] story is juicy and harrowing. Tim Page has written an exemplary biography: respectful, affectionate, fair-minded. - Francine Prose
New Yorker
A powerful book, partly because of its author's skill and partly because Powell herself was indomitable and undeviating.
Philadelphia Inquirer
Page's sensitive use of the diaries in his sterling biography of Powell reveals them to be a poignant record of a difficult life endured with gallantry and ferocious wit. - Wendy Smith
Vivian Gornick
When we assess this literary presence in our midst, it is the diaries that seem to compel....in the diaries we have the live spirit of the woman for whom writing and New York were so marvelously one....Page's biography...captures admirably the rough-and-tumble spirit of a writer who deserves a place at the American table.
WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Buried in New York City's potter's field, Hart Island, Powell had just one thing in common with the other people buried there -- bad luck. The substance of this meticulously researched, well-written and sympathetic portrayal of Powell's life is how this talented and ambitious young country girl from Ohio made her way to Greenwich Village in 1918 and, over a span of 47 years, became the noted author of some 15 novels and more than 100 short stories, plays, poems, diaries and articles, only to be buried in a pauper's grave. Powell was largely forgotten until 1987, when Gore Vidal wrote an article about her in the New York Review of Books that led to the rediscovery and reprinting of her books. Page, Pulitzer Prize-winning classical music critic at The Washington Post and a longtime writer on Glenn Gould, became an early and devoted literary champion and started work on this biography in 1991. The principal theme of Powell's novels reflects on her own experiences in Ohio and New York, about young provincials and worldly sophisticates, life in fleabag hotels and Park Avenue splendor, innocence and sophistication. She was witty and satirical, and wrote with an underplayed irony that was often mistaken for a lack of feeling. Powell's personal life was marked by tragedy: her 40-year marriage to a hard-drinking advertising executive was colored by her affairs and the birth of a mentally and emotionally impaired son. But throughout a restless and troubled life, Powell remained true to her art. In this first ever biography, she is well served by Page, who does a superb job establishing her right to an honored place in the pantheon of American letters.
Library Journal
Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic forThe Washington Post and editor of two books about Powell, Dawn Powell at Her Best and The Diaries of Dawn Powell, has after seven years of extensive research completed her biography. Powell (1896-1965) lived her adult life in New York City and included Malcolm Cowley, Dorothy Parker, and John Dos Passos among her friends. A prolific writer with 16 novels and countless freelance stories and magazine pieces to her credit, Powell boasted a bright, hard wit and perceptive observation but never attained the financial security or lasting recognition of her more celebrated contemporaries. Page's crusade is to rescue Powell from literary obscurity and spur interest in her writings. His biography is immensely readable; Powell's life makes interesting copy, and Page can tell a good story. -- Denise S. Sticha, Seton Hill College, Greensburg, Pennsylvania
Lisa Zeidner
For Page to become such a vigorous champion allows a satisfying fairy-tale coda to Powell's career -- not the kind that she herself would hav envisioned, but the kind that she deserves. -- The New York Times Book Review
Vivian Gornick
When we assess this literary presence in our midst, it is the diaries that seem to compel....in the diaries we have the live spirit of the woman for whom writing and New York were so marvelously one....Page's biography...captures admirably the rough-and-tumble spirit of a writer who deserves a place at the American table. -- WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Kathleen Fitzpatrick
Dawn Powell: A Time to Be Reborn

In 1987, Gore Vidal published a long article in The New York Review of Books entitled "Dawn Powell: The American Writer." Powell, who was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, in 1897, and died in New York in 1965, had published 15 novels, plus numerous short stories, plays, and other pieces of writing during her lifetime. By the time of her death, nearly all of these titles were out of print; by the time of Vidal's article, Powell had all but disappeared from the literary landscape. Her books, however, had attained a certain cult status and were passed around by those in the know, always seeming, as Vidal points out, "just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion."

Vidal's article inspired the rerelease of three Powell novels; unfortunately, the novels weren't well promoted, and so they promptly disappeared once again. Since 1994, however, Steerforth Press has released new editions of nearly all of Powell's work, including her diaries. And this month, Henry Holt will publish a new biography of Powell, one that seeks to complete Gore Vidal's project and return the novelist to her rightful place in the 20th-century literary canon.

Tim Page, chief music critic for The Washington Post and author of the Powell biography, should largely be credited for the success of this revival. He edited the first hardcover release of Powell's fiction in decades, a volume entitled Dawn Powell at Her Best, which includes Dance Night, one of the early Ohio novels; Turn, Magic Wheel one of her brilliantly biting New York satires; and several selections of short fiction and nonfiction. Page also edited and introduced Powell's diaries, published in 1995, and wrote introductions for Powell's autobiographical novel My Home is Far Away and the poignant Come Back to Sorrento. His most significant achievement, however, may be his work with the late author's family to obtain the release of her papers, so that her life story could be written.

Page's biography is a thoughtful examination of both the author's life and her work, exploring the central mystery of her literary career -- how an author so gifted could have been so easily forgotten. Page follows Powell from her turbulent, painful childhood through her years of growth and exploration in college to her true home, New York. In New York, Powell was at the center of a literary circle every bit as important as that surrounding Dorothy Parker; comparisons were often made between the two women, comparisons that made Powell bristle with resentment. In fact, Powell's circle included the more lasting literary lights: Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, and Djuna Barnes.

More importantly, Powell's writing shows greater depth and broader range than does Parker's; her early works, thought of as the Ohio novels, are as moving and vivid as any of the novels of Sherwood Anderson or Willa Cather, and the later New York novels display a satiric skill surpassing that of Truman Capote and rivaling that of Evelyn Waugh. In Dance Night, for instance, Powell depicts the painfully constrained lives of the citizens of a small working-class Ohio town on the verge of a boom, following Morry Abbott and his mother as each seeks a means of escape.

Turn, Magic Wheel, the first of the New York novels, introduces Dennis Orphen, a minor writer and not-so-minor cad, a character who will return in much of Powell's later work. Orphen has, at the novel's opening, just published his latest book, which he is shocked to discover he has based on -- or copied from -- the life of his friend Effie Callingham. Powell found herself at the center of just such a controversy with the publication in 1942 of A Time to Be Born. She insisted quite vehemently that her central character was not based on Clare Booth Luce, until she later found a note she'd written to herself some years earlier, which said "Why not do novel on Clare Luce?" The New York novels are in fact replete with schemers and seducers, cheerfully amoral city dwellers who embody urban speed, glamour, and the drive to get ahead. As Tim Page points out, "Her characters are rarely admirable but they are usually eminently likeable, in their own deluded and floundering ways."

Powell was awarded the Margaret Peabody Waite Award for lifelong achievement in literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters shortly before her death. Now, with Page's biography, which is not only a retelling of the author's life but also an incisive critical examination of her work, we can at last appreciate the depth of that achievement and celebrate the return of Dawn Powell to her rightful place in the American literary landscape.
— Kathleen Fitzpatrick, barnesandnoble.com

Kirkus Reviews
Novelist Dawn Powell is rediscovered in a kindly biography that also recalls the hard-drinking literati of Greenwich Village in the decades surrounding WWII. Powell came to New York City from Ohio in 1918. She left behind a scattered and troubled family who were the core of her most successful novels, including the popular My Home Is Far Away, published in 1944. What set Powell apart from the thousands of other eager and determined young people who invaded Manhattan was a sharp wit and an eye for character that was both humane and unflinching. On her arrival in the city, Powell took a series of rent-paying jobs (including a brief stint in the U.S. Navy as a 'Yeomanette'), but her writing began selling almost immediately. She also soon met and married advertising executive Joseph Gousha. Although Joe was an alcoholic and Dawn had frequent, albeit for the most part ephemeral, affairs, the marriage lasted 42 years, until Joe's death. Their only child, Joseph Jr., called JoJo, was autistic, requiring constant attention, hospitalization, and eventually institutionalization. None of this kept Powell from writing—novels, short stories, articles, poems, and plays. Or plunging virtually nightly into the watering holes of Greenwich Village, where she held her own with contemporaries such as John Dos Passos (a good friend), and Gerald and Sara Murphy. Her novels received uneven reviews and for the most part mediocre sales, although she was regarded by critic Edmund Wilson and later Gore Vidal as one of the distinguished authors of her time. She died in 1965 and was buried in a pauper's grave. A 1987 article by Vidal, published in the New York Review of Books, revived interest inher work and spurred biographer Page (a Pulitzer- winning music critic for The Washington Post and editor of a volume of Powell's diaries); reprints of most of her novels are now available. Unconvincing in placing Powell at the forefront of mid-century authors, but gratifying to aficionados of New York City literary mores.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781402882685
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/15/1999
  • Pages: 384
  • Product dimensions: 6.09 (w) x 9.09 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Tim Page is the Pulitzer Prize-winning chief music critic for The Washington Post. He is the editor of The Diaries of Dawn Powell and The Selected Letters of Dawn Powell (Holt, 0-8050-5364-6, $35.00). He lives in New York City.

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Read an Excerpt

Dawn Powell

A Biography
By Tim Page

Owl Publishing Company

Copyright © 1999 Tim Page
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0805063013


Chapter One

Story of a Country Girl

All of Ohio is simply infested with my family,
the Powells and the Shermans, and at a distance
I get quite sentimental about them
.

DAWN POWELL, 1928

The town of Mount Gilead lies amid the gold and verdant farmlands of central Ohio, some forty miles north of Columbus and a world away from New York City. Settled by 1817, it was incorporated in 1824; since 1848, when Morrow County was fashioned from portions of the four adjoining counties of Richland, Knox, Marion, and Delaware, Mount Gilead has served as the county seat.

    Whetstone Creek provided power for grist and saw mills, and the town prospered. By the late nineteenth century, Mount Gilead was a community of some twelve hundred people, linked to the rest of the country through the New York Central train line. In addition to the small businesses--groceries, pharmacies, law offices, and undertakers--that flanked Main and Marion Streets, there was a medium-size factory, the Hydraulic Press Manufacturing Company, which, at various times in its history, employedmore than an eighth of the population. Grand Victorian mansions with expansive lawns, porches, and gingerbread gazebos were built on the hilly outskirts, with smaller, more utilitarian clapboard houses nearer the village square. The town boasted an established hotel, the Globe, and a disproportionately large opera house, Levering Hall, which could seat almost a thousand people and accommodated visiting musicians and lecturers, vaudeville shows, and high school commencements.

    Mount Gilead was soon recognized as a classic American small town--as late as 1940, the WPA Ohio Guide could praise its "unusually handsome residences and public buildings"--and there remain long, unpeopled vistas of fields and farmhouses on the state roads outlying the town center that are virtually unchanged from the day Elroy Powell and Hattie Blanche Sherman were married: September 12, 1894.

    Nobody who is alive today is certain how or when they met. Roy, as he was always called, was born in Morrow County on August 24, 1869, the son of Samuel Powell and Henrietta Walker Powell. The Powell family, of Welsh-Irish descent and mostly millers or merchants, had come to the area in 1848 from Loudoun County, Virginia.

    Only a few photographs of Roy Powell have survived, and most of them date from his final years, when, though only in his mid-fifties, he was bald, paunchy, and prematurely aged. The one known picture from his youth presents a good-looking, well-groomed man with a dapper mustache. Around 1890, he assumed the middle name King to go along with Elroy (which he sometimes spelled "El Roy"). He seems to have been possessed of an immediate and considerable charm, but he was also rakish and irresponsible and had difficulty holding on to jobs. He worked in several mills in and around Morrow County and served a brief stint as the night manager of the Globe Hotel. But he was happiest as a salesman, meandering through Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and the surrounding states, reportedly purveying (among other things) perfume, bedding, cherries, cookies, and coffins.

    Hattie Sherman's family had roots in Morrow County dating back the better part of a century. In 1810, Amasa Shaerman, a farmer from Washington County, New York, had moved to an area called Bethel, a few miles to the southwest of Mount Gilead. Bethel was neither junction nor town but rather a vast expanse of farm country (in the early nineteenth century, it was possible to buy prime Ohio land for two dollars an acre, with up to five years to pay it off). There the Shaermans built a large house that was passed on from generation to generation until about 1900; the family's dead were buried across the road in the Bethel Cemetery.

    Judd Sherman, Hattie's father, was born in the farmhouse in 1828. He was the grandson of Amasa Shaerman and the only son of Delano and Catherine Chapman Sherman (who had by then modified the spelling of the family name). Judd divided his time between working as a trainman and conductor on the B & O and Big Four railroad lines and farming his land. He was married twice, first to Louisa Miller, who died shortly thereafter, leaving one son, Ross Sherman. In 1863, Judd wed nineteen-year-old Julia Ann Miller (no relation to his first wife), who bore him eight more children, seven of whom lived to adulthood.

    Julia Miller Sherman prided herself upon being descended from one of the first nineteen families in Cardington, another small town in Morrow County ("It never seemed to me there were many more than that there even 100 years later," her granddaughter would observe wryly in 1933). Miller legend had it that their heritage included Cherokee Indian blood thanks to the kidnapping and impregnation of a daughter sometime in the eighteenth century; it was also believed that the historical "Johnny Appleseed," John Chapman, was a direct ancestor.

    Hattie Sherman, born on March 24, 1872, was the third child of Judd and Julia Sherman; like her father and siblings, she was delivered in the Bethel farmhouse. Family tales of Hattie suggest a woman who was both gentle and strong, and her sole existing photographic portrait supports such an impression. Hattie was said to be quick-witted, expert with horses, an aficionado of midwestern thunderstorms. By all reports, she was devoted to the footloose and improvident Roy Powell--and, later, to their children.

    In the course of their nine-year marriage, Roy and Hattie Sherman had three daughters: Mabel (born July 11, 1895), Dawn (November 28, 1896), and Phyllis (December 29, 1899). The older girls were born at 53 West North Street (now demolished and replaced), in the center of Mount Gilead; in early 1899, the family moved a few hundred feet away, to a tiny house that still stands at 115 Cherry Street, where Phyllis was born. Sometime during the 1920s, Dawn apparently decided to drop a year from her age and thereafter gave her birth date as November 28, 1897, the day that has since been stated as fact in almost everything published about her. However, each and every primary source before 1925 (including the U.S. Censuses for 1900, 1910, and 1920, her records from high school, her transcript from Lake Erie College, her marriage license, and other documents) has served to confirm the earlier date.

    From the beginning, the slight, dark-haired, ruddy-cheeked Dawn was phenomenally bright and, like many prodigies, well aware of her gifts. Within the family, her memory was renowned; she even claimed to remember being taken to the Bethel farmhouse as an infant. She was reading before she was five; by the age of nine, she had made her way through the complete works of Alexandre Dumas. Dawn also invented elaborate stories for the enjoyment of little Phyllis, who was regularly left in her care, and delighted in creating impromptu plays with friends and relatives. In the eyes of her father, Dawn was the "clever one," as opposed to Mabel, whom he called the "pretty one," and Phyllis, the beloved baby and perpetual plaything.

    Despite numerous promises to give up the road and settle down in Mount Gilead, Roy Powell soon returned to his itinerant rounds of hotels and night trains, leaving Hattie to cope as best she could with their three small children. Many in the Sherman family would later shun him for this behavior, but Dawn, however disappointed she may have been at the time, always defended her father and seems to have identified closely with him from an early age. In her autobiographical novel My Home Is Far Away, she describes Marcia Willard, the character modeled on herself, as feeling "light-headed and gay, the way Papa did when he was going away from home. She thought she must be like Papa, the kind of person who was always glad going away instead of coming home." Dawn would look upon traditional home life with distrust: "Any barroom brawl is better than the persistent pinpricks of the happy little family," she wrote in 1936.

    Dawn's childhood was ruptured, rudely and irrevocably, on December 6, 1903, when Hattie Powell died in Shelby, Ohio, at the age of thirty-one. The official cause of death was given as pneumonia. However, two surviving daughters of Dawn's sisters recall their respective mothers' telling them repeatedly that Hattie had in fact died as a result of a botched abortion--an operation that was then, of course, illegal and often either self-administered or performed under hurried and unsanitary conditions.

    As Hattie Powell's body lay on a flowered bier, Roy lifted his daughters to say a final good-bye. Then three years old, Phyllis later remembered that Hattie's face was covered with red blotches, and throughout her remaining eighty-two years of life, she would never again be able to tolerate the smell of carnations. The young mother was buried in Shelby's Oakland Cemetery.

    There followed a nomadic period for Dawn, Mabel, and Phyllis. "Since the father traveled, the three small daughters were dispatched from one relative to another, from a year of farm life with this or that aunt, to village life, life in small-town boarding houses, life with very prim strict relatives, to rougher life in the middle of little factory towns," Dawn wrote in a 1942 biographical entry she supplied for the reference book Twentieth-Century Authors.

    These towns included Galion, Shelby, Crestline, and Cardington, as well as the somewhat larger city of Mansfield, all within a fifty-mile radius of Mount Gilead. In Mansfield, Powell was for a semester a classmate of Louis Bromfield, a near-exact contemporary who also attended Marion Street School and later became a best-selling novelist. It is doubtful that the two were ever friends, but in any event, Powell would heartily dislike Bromfield's work and resent his success.

    In August 1907, Roy Powell remarried. As so often in most matters throughout his life, he made the wrong choice. His bride, Sabra Stearns Powell, thirty years old, hailed from one of the founding families of North Olmsted, Ohio, then a hamlet just to the southwest of Cleveland. Her grandfather Elijah Stearns had settled there in 1815 on a thousand acres of two-dollar land abutting the Butternut Ridge Road, an important east-west thoroughfare. Asher and Emily Stearns, her father and mother, lived and farmed on a parcel of the original Stearns farm; Sabra, the older of their two daughters, had worked as a schoolteacher and a cashier.

    No one knows what drew Roy to Sabra, who was a tense, anxious woman with a perennially pinched expression. But Roy's three daughters believed it might have been the promise of some inherited wealth--the main chance. Shortly after the marriage, Roy gathered his scattered clan back together again, and they all moved into a spacious farmhouse in North Olmsted, which was several times larger and infinitely grander than any place they had lived in before. Then, as was his custom, Roy immediately took to the road and abandoned Mabel, Dawn, and Phyllis to Sabra's care.

    Standards of discipline were stricter in the first decades of the twentieth century than they are today. But even so, and even if some of the stories told about Sabra Stearns Powell are exaggerated or false, enough evidence remains to convict her as a genuinely wicked stepmother, unbelievably vicious and sadistic. She beat the three girls regularly, almost, it seems, as a form of physical exercise, and behaved, on occasion, so bizarrely that a latter-day chronicler must question her sanity.

    A particularly ghastly example: in 1914, Sabra gave birth to a premature baby, Emily Helen Powell, who lived only five days. After Sabra recovered consciousness and her convalescence ended, she was furious to learn that her first child had already been buried in what she considered to be less than proper clothing. And so, with her husband and fourteen-year-old Phyllis in tow, she insisted upon traveling to the cemetery, where they dug up the tiny corpse and reburied it in the dress of the one and only doll Phyllis was permitted to own.

    This is the stuff of Gothic horror; the day-to-day torments were more along the line of constant, petty humiliation. The children were not allowed to enter by the front door, to sit in the living room, to play the piano, or to touch any of the books in the house, which were kept under lock and key. (This last proscription was especially galling to Dawn, who was already a voracious reader.) A kindly neighbor taught little Phyllis how to crochet and gave her a hook and yarn to work with on her own; Sabra took the gifts away because she said they made the girl "nervous." When the desperately interested child tried to resume her new hobby, practicing with the poor substitutes of hairpins and string, Sabra banished those, too.

    "Stepmother's greatest joy was in making us go downtown on errands, with no hems in our ragged calico skirts (and forbidden needle and thread to sew them as Waste) so our schoolmates would sneer," Dawn recalled in a 1941 diary entry. "Another sadistic treat for her was to make us come out on [the] porch on Monday morning and run wringer or washboard in worn-out Sunday dress (instead of cute bungalow aprons like other girls) in full view of the children playing so they could mock us."

    Such treatment cemented a firm, if sometimes uneasy, bond among the three sisters, who united in a conscious struggle to live through Sabra's abuse. Dawn was closer to Phyllis; a certain resentment on her part toward Mabel (the "pretty one") had probably begun even before their mother's death. Surviving family members unanimously remember Mabel Powell (later Pocock) as a warm, generous, gallant woman, but Dawn would never dedicate any of her books to her older sister, corresponded with her only rarely, and painted a far from flattering portrait of her in My Home Is Far Away, the novel based so directly on the early lives of Mabel, Dawn, and Phyllis that in early drafts the characters were sometimes identified by their true names.

    "My mother was beautiful and contented," Dorothy Pocock Chapman, Mabel's daughter, said in 1994. "She was married very young and very happily to a successful businessman. They lived well, in a big house in a beautiful neighborhood, and they raised three healthy children. When I think of all the struggles Aunt Dawn went through--all of her life, really--I can understand why the relative ease of my mother's life might have bothered her."

    Phyllis Powell's middle daughter, Phyllis Poccia, offered an alternative explanation for the schism: "Aunt Mabel and my mother were interested in material possessions, in collecting things, owning things," she said. "Aunt Dawn wasn't interested in that at all. She had her possessions--lots of them--but they were in her mind."

    Dawn and Mabel would become closer to one another in later life; for several years in the 1930s and 1940s, the three sisters and their families would gather every summer at a cottage that Dawn rented on Long Island. "They loved to laugh," Carol Warstler, Phyllis Poccia's older sister, recalled of those visits. "They'd get together and close the door and laugh so hard that we'd think something was wrong with them. We weren't invited in--and husbands weren't especially welcome, either. They'd go off by themselves and just laugh and laugh--probably to keep from crying, I don't know."

    Their harrowing upbringing scarred the three sisters. "I realize more and more how instinctively pessimistic I am of all human kindness--since I am always so bowled over by it--and am never surprised by injustice, malice or personal attack," Powell wrote in 1933. Each of the daughters eventually ran away from home; only Phyllis subsequently returned, and then just for a little while. Still, Phyllis and Mabel finally made an uneasy peace with their stepmother, and Phyllis remained in touch with her until Sabra died, in 1956. Consequently, several of Sabra's step-granddaughters knew her quite well.

    "There was something really wrong with Sabra," Phyllis Poccia said in 1995. "I think she was cruel because of some kind of disease rather than by intention. She was very sour, always looking as if she'd swallowed a lemon. And she was obsessive about tidiness, with an unbelievable hatred of any clutter, anything out of place. My mother used to say that Sabra spent her life chasing a piece of dust.

    "All three girls responded differently to her," Poccia continued. "My mother was forgiving, but she was haunted by the memory of her childhood. Mabel was just plain angry. And Dawn dealt with her early life in another way--she wrote about it."

    By the time Powell was ten years old, she had determined to become an author and was passionately devoted to what she already knew was her life's work. The happiest moments of her childhood were those idyllic times when she was hidden away by herself, in treetops, thickets, or attic rooms, pencil in hand, observing people, places, and events and recording everything in her notebooks. Before she entered her teens, Powell sometimes wrote for more than seven hours a day. Writing, far more than any personal relationship, would be the constant anchor of her life. This mysterious, redemptive gift for words, stories, and conveying impressions was something that was entirely hers; within an anarchic universe, it was something tangible that she could bring under her control.

    Besides Dumas, the young Powell's most revered literary heroes were Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens (David Copperfield would remain one of her favorite books throughout her life). But she also devoured everything else she could find, from the popular nineteenth-century novels of Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth to encyclopedias to the ancient classics to women's magazines. She was interested in philosophy early on and particularly inspired by the beliefs of Emile Coue, the French psychotherapist who believed in self-help through autosuggestion (summarized in the slogan "Day by day, in every way, I am getting better and better"). Serving as a countermeasure were the works of Arthur Schopenhauer, which fortified her intrinsic pessimism.

    Several factors precipitated Dawn Powell's decision to run away from home in the late summer of 1910, when she was thirteen. The explanation she routinely gave was that Sabra had discovered some germinal stories and drawings in a hidden notebook and burned them all--"Trash, she called them," Powell would recall some thirty years after the fact, still furious.

    This bonfire may have provided the immediate impetus for her flight, but it was not the only reason. Powell had found out that her education would soon come to an end if she stayed with her father and Sabra. She had graduated from the eighth grade in a one-room schoolhouse in Cardington before the family moved north, but because North Olmsted had no high school (only about a hundred thousand students a year graduated from American high schools then), she would have had to commute nine miles by trolley, horsecart, or foot to Elyria every day to continue her schooling. Moreover, there was no money to pay the tuition that might be due from an out-of-town student.

    And so Dawn Powell gathered her few possessions and fled. Decades later, she wrote about it in an aching, elegiac six-page memoir that was published as "What Are You Doing in My Dreams?": "What you have to do is walk right on down the street, keeping your eyes straight ahead, pretending you're on your way someplace a lot better. And that's the way it turns out, too; wherever you land is sure to be better than the place you left."

    Powell claimed that she had taken money earned picking berries (sometimes remembering the amount as thirty cents and sometimes as ninety cents) and gone spontaneously to the small city of Shelby, about an hour away by train. In fact, however, the endeavor was carefully planned. Dawn had run away at least once before, probably in about 1909, but had been forced to return. This time she took no chances and arranged for financial and logistical help from Mabel, who had already escaped to Shelby and now traveled to North Olmsted on the train to pay her sister's fare.

    Shelby had an established high school dating back to 1876, open to any resident of Richland County. There Powell would live with Orpha May Sherman Steinbrueck, Hattie Powell's oldest sister and an unconventional and altogether remarkable woman.

    Orpha May--the cherished "Auntie May" to the several nieces and nephews she raised as her own children--was born in the Sherman family farmhouse in Bethel on September 27, 1869. In 1891, she married Otto Steinbrueck, a recent German immigrant who had come to America to avoid military conscription. They moved to Archbold, Ohio, where Steinbrueck became a pharmacist, and had one daughter, Gretchen.

     "Aunt May became unhappy in her marriage, divorced Otto and came to Shelby with Gretchen," recalled John Franklin Sherman, Dawn Powell's favorite cousin and another family member who was raised by Orpha May, in a 1997 letter. "She purchased a lot about 1896, and she had a home built on it, the address of which became 121 North Broadway. She chose this location because it was a short walk to the Shelby Junction railway station, which was at least a mile from downtown Shelby.

    "It was a very busy railroad stop," Sherman continued.

In order for passengers to get downtown in those years, they had to order a horse drawn carriage from the livery service, or wait for an Interurban street car that stopped at the depot at specific times. Knowing all of this, Aunt May decided to have her home built in the near vicinity of the depot .... She was a superb cook, and became known for serving excellent meals. Her home was a haven for children and other family members in need of help, as well as lucky hoboes riding the rails of the hundreds of freight trains passing through Shelby.

    The cries of passing locomotives, promising escape to a better life, entranced Powell, and they are a recurring motif in her fiction. Angels on Toast and A Time to Be Born both begin on trains, and My Home Is Far Away ends on one; Dance Night concludes with the hero's decision to board for an unspecified city, while "What Are You Doing in My Dreams?" includes a depiction of an overnight ride from New York to Ohio. (The Happy Island is unique among Powell's books in that it begins on a bus--yet the bus has come, once again, from Ohio, and one of the passengers muses on the strangeness of a New York arrival anywhere but Grand Central Terminal.)

    Powell enrolled in Shelby High School in September 1910, but her most important education came from her aunt. The emancipated, self-reliant Orpha May, who did as she pleased, followed her own moral code, and insisted upon being treated as an equal among men, provided Dawn with her greatest role model. It was well known within the family--and considered scandalous by some--that Orpha May had at least one significant romantic relationship, with a Cleveland businessman named Charles Lahm, who regularly stayed with her at 121 North Broadway. Her freethinking also manifested itself in her decision to permit a black employee and his new wife to spend the night at her house, in an era when a local ordinance forbade anybody of African-American descent to remain within Shelby's city limits after sundown.

    And yet despite their genuine, profound, and lifelong independence, neither Orpha May Steinbrueck nor Powell herself could ever have been mistaken for any traditional version of a feminist activist. Both had little sympathy for popular mass movements of any sort; both were fundamentally Republican in their political beliefs (Powell's enchantment with Adlai Stevenson in 1952 notwithstanding); both believed that genuine emancipation had to be won, inevitably at a cost, by a determined individual, and that very few women would ever care enough to make that effort. Indeed, both were quite comfortable with the status quo--that is, so long as they themselves were allowed to circumvent it. "Progress is so personal," Powell reflected in her diary in 1936. "'They' couldn't do that in those days. Yet George Sand seems to have been able to hang around the cafes of Paris in 1830."

    Today Shelby is a quiet, modestly affluent bedroom community for neighboring Mansfield. But at the turn of the century, it was a very different place, an industrial town with three large factories: the Ohio Steel Tube Company (known as the Tuby), the Shelby Cycle Company, and the Shelby Mills. Not far from 121 North Broadway (which still stands, albeit sadly altered), a good number of recent immigrants lived in what was then considered a somewhat rough area, nicknamed Irish Town and crowded with cheap, company-sponsored housing. On the other end of the spectrum, a wide, spacious street called Grand Boulevard was the most fashionable address; it was here that Shelby's doctors, company presidents, and more reputable lawyers lived. In short, Shelby was a vibrant and variegated town that provided the young author with a wealth of material. Powell would make good use of her experiences there in novel after novel.

    Orpha May was not the only member of the Sherman family in Shelby: Grandmother Julia Sherman, who had been widowed in 1903, operated a large boardinghouse in the center of town (she would eventually marry a second time, at the age of seventy, and close up shop). Until a few years earlier, the woman for whom Dawn had been named--Hattie Powell's youngest sister, Dawn Sherman Gates--had also lived in Shelby. But Dawn Gates had died mysteriously in 1906, at the age of twenty. The Shelby Globe attributed her death to acute heart failure and yellow jaundice and did its best to quash a curious town rumor that had her being poisoned by eating oyster sandwiches.

    In fact, according to Sherman lore, Dawn Gates, too, had died from the complications of a disastrous abortion. Her namesake had adored this merry, high-spirited young aunt and was agonized by her death. A central character in My Home Is Far Away, Bonnie Purdy, is modeled on her. "It is grievous to know you will be forgotten but more to know you will forget," Powell wrote on a scrap of paper later found among her effects. "When I was ten and Aunt Dawn died, I swore I at least would always remember. I did."

    Late in life, Powell addressed the subject of abortion in an undated notebook: "Women get jobs, get the vote, have their freedom, but there's one thing that never changes--a single girl who finds she's pregnant is still a girl in a jam. The price of abortions is up--and who can tell you where to go, what can you do, unless you are professional and know all the angles?" Even in an era of space missiles, Powell mused, there was "still no cure for the common child."

    The mature Dawn Powell's unconventionally matter-of-fact approach toward sex had its genesis in Shelby. By the time the young writer reached puberty, her mother was years dead, her father was roaming wild on his out-of-town trips, and her guardian had divorced her husband and was living part-time with another man, whom she was unlikely to marry. Moreover, Dawn herself had already been able to observe a panoply of human behavior, in her grandmother's boardinghouse, at her own home, and at the Shelby Junction train station, just across the street.

     As a result, she was unusually worldly at an early age. "Saturday a lady came for dinner and I was alone," she wrote in her first surviving letter, which dates from about September 1913 and is addressed to Orpha May, then away visiting relatives in Middletown, Ohio. "She remarked that I seemed awfully young to be running a boarding house. I told her I was awfully young."

    "Some people seem to 'never grow up'--they do not take personal or emotional responsibilities," she would write many years later.

The fact is they are in reverse--they were forced to be adults as children, to understand and be part of extremely adult problems--financial, professional, amorous, domestic, psychological--and they cannot get to a certain other plane without some period (the equivalent of an ideal childhood) of security, love, money, being cared for and cherished. Many of us continue seeking this childhood of which we were deprived and will not surrender until we have had our share.

    If Aunt May couldn't give Dawn that "ideal childhood," she nonetheless ensured that her charge's teenage years would be an improvement on what had come before. She talked with her about any subject Dawn chose, gave her straight answers to her myriad questions, and encouraged her reading, her independence, and her creativity. Although Orpha May lived in a small Ohio town, she subscribed to the Smart Set, the sophisticated, iconoclastic magazine edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, considered highbrow even in New York, and passed along issues to her niece. She worked as a local buyer for the most prestigious department store in the state, Halle Brothers in Cleveland, and took Dawn with her on business trips into what was then a booming city of almost six hundred thousand people. In Cleveland she introduced her niece to cosmopolitan friends, elevated conversation, good hotels, sumptuous restaurants, and what must have seemed a very high life indeed. Orpha May believed in the brilliant and unbowed young woman and supported her in every way she could.

    "There was Auntie May, laughing, handsome, understanding, wholly sympathetic Auntie May," Dawn wrote in her first known diary, from the summer of 1915. "She gave me music lessons and thought I had genius and when I wrote crude little poems and stories she cherished them, positive that I was another Jean Webster or Ella Wheeler Wilcox." In the opinion of Dawn's sister Phyllis, Orpha May deserved "most of the credit" for her success. Certainly, the right mentor at the right time can transform a life, and it is difficult to imagine what might have become of Dawn without Auntie May.

    Powell worked hard at Shelby High School, got respectable grades, and graduated with the class of 1914. While there, she edited the school newspaper and, in her senior year, served as editor of the yearbook. Like most such endeavors, especially in that era, the yearbook was fundamentally a solemn and sentimental affair but it contained a number of playful Powell touches, notably a pair of pictures of the editorial staff. In the first of these, purportedly taken in the autumn, all the young men and women look bright, alert, and well scrubbed; the second, from the spring, finds the exhausted group sprawled out asleep in various awkward positions, Dawn with her head down on the table.

After her graduation from high school, Powell made up her mind to attend Lake Erie College for Women, a patrician academy in Painesville, Ohio, modeled on Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.

    It was a surprising decision, in several ways. Very few American women attended college in those days; in the 1909-10 academic year, the nearest for which reliable data exist, only 8,437 baccalaureates were awarded to women across the country. Considering Dawn's fierce resolve to further her education, one might have assumed she would prefer--and more likely be accepted by--Oberlin College, a more distinguished school, more broad-minded in outlook, and closer to Shelby. But Oberlin was out: Roy and Sabra Powell had recently moved to 237 East College Street there, and Dawn never wanted to see her stepmother again.

    And so, according to Eleanor Farnham, a classmate who would become a lifelong friend, Dawn wrote a pleading letter to Vivian Small, the president of Lake Erie College from 1909 to 1941. The document itself has disappeared, but Farnham remembered that it said something to the effect of "I'd like to come to your school and will do anything to work my way through, from scrubbing back stairs to understudying your job."

    Opinions of the woman universally known as Miss Small were mixed; people seem to have taken to her either strongly or not at all. "She was a very proper, Episcopalian, Victorian lady," recalled Olive Hoover Ernst, who was two classes behind Powell at Lake Erie. "I was truly afraid of her."

    Still, the autocratic president believed in educational opportunity for students of little means. "Poverty should not be a barrier to education," she proclaimed in her regal manner. "We see our best nature about the girls who find it necessary to earn their way through college." True to her philosophy, Small found a place for the penniless Dawn Powell among the refined daughters of Ohio and Pennsylvania millionaires who composed much of the student body.

    Dawn was accepted as a member of the class of 1918, her expenses paid partially by Orpha May (whom she listed in the school records as her sole "parent"), partially by a Shelby attorney named G. M. Skiles, who was close to Orpha May, and partially through help from the college itself, including a personal loan from Small. As late as 1952, Lake Erie had yet to be reimbursed for some outstanding tuition, and given the author's financial problems in the final years of her life, it is unlikely that the debt was ever repaid. But in her way, Powell did what she could for the college, donating some of her own books (as well as signed first editions by friends Lloyd Frankenberg and Charles Norman) to the school library and returning on several occasions to lecture to and meet with the students.

    "I arrived at Lake Erie College in September of 1914 with a delirious sensation of having been shot from a cannon into a strange wonderful planet," Powell wrote in an article she contributed to a campus publication, Nota Bene, in 1958:

The world of girls seemed mysterious and infinitely fascinating after my town full of factory-men. It is a rich, illuminating experience to discover the thousand different ways girls can be girls and still be nothing like yourself. There were girls who cried from homesickness for a hometown twelve miles away, there were girls who sat up after hours fiercely arguing about the prophet Moses, girls who borrowed each other's Housman or Leacock or Shaw to take on hikes, girls who fitted each other out for fine parties with sublime selflessness, a girl who wrote poetry brooding over her childhood memories of the bayous, a beaming happy girl who loved Bach and played the pipe organ in chapel.

    Almost seventy-five years after Powell graduated from Lake Erie, her classmate Antoinette Burton Akers still recalled her vividly. "She was short--only about five feet or so--she had brown hair and she was always saying something funny, clever or sarcastic," Akers said. "We knew she had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks--that her aunt or her grandmother had run a boardinghouse right on the railroad. She had a very different background from most of us at Lake Erie, where a lot of the girls had their own horses. But everybody loved her."

    For her part, Ernst remembered Dawn as "just a little pixie, an elf, a delightful character. She was like Topsy--she just growed, all by herself." Powell's eyes especially captivated her: "They were not large but they were like two beads. She was a pretty little thing--not a beauty, but she reminded you of a fairy dancing."

    Every student was assigned certain chores. Powell's principal duty was to operate the elevator in the main building, which even in 1914 was the subject of much complaint. In 1997, it was still there, creaking slowly up and down the five floors of the spookily handsome Victorian structure, but by then it at least had a motor. In the early part of the century, it ran hydraulically, and it was Powell's lot to pull some heavy ropes up and down, a task that built up her strength but caused her considerable back pain.

    Lake Erie was a tiny school (Dawn's class had a mere nineteen graduates) and very strict. Vesper services were held each morning, and students had to attend classes six days a week. It was forbidden to go to lunch or dinner with a male friend unless a chaperone was present. There were two big dances every year, for which "we had to import boyfriends from Kenyon or Case--usually somebody's brother," Akers remembered with a wry expression on her face.

    Cleveland was the great escape, a forty-five-minute trip on the Cleveland-Painesville-Ashtabula Interurban, carried along in what Akers remembered as "dark, wine-red cars."

One got dressed up for the excursion--hats and gloves and suits--and we'd go to Halle's Department Store and have the time of our lives. We might come in for an event--I remember a violin recital by Mischa Elman and a visit from the Ballets Russes--or just to have fun. It was a beautiful city then, clean and safe. A few of us would occasionally have a drink at the Hollenden Hotel and feel very daring about it.

    Powell was as active at Lake Erie as she had been at Shelby High School. She joined an organization called the Philologia Literary Society and presented a paper on Gogol (Dead Souls would always be one of her favorite books). A lecture about the modern theater by the New York-based editor and drama critic Barrett Clark made a lasting impression, inspiring her to try her hand at writing her own play; the result was I Am Looking for a Lady, which she wrote, directed, and appeared in with Charlotte Johnson, a friend from Vincennes, Indiana. She also played Miss Prism in a Drama Club presentation of The Importance of Being Earnest, and, in a bit of inspired casting, Puck in an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night's Dream (several vibrant and charming photographs survive from this interpretation; it is almost impossible to believe they were taken more than eighty years ago).

    In October 1915, Dawn and two friends, Eleanor Farnham and Dorothy Worthington, put together a newspaper parody called the Sheet, complete with news, gossip, advice, and satirical reviews. Copied on a duplicating machine after midnight and distributed anonymously on campus, the Sheet was greeted by much hilarity among the students. "No one knew who printed it or where it came from," Powell wrote home to her aunt Orpha May. "It was just like throwing a bomb. Everyone's wild over it and we've cleared five dollars already and everyone wants extra copies. Dort and I both have been accused of editing it but we absolutely deny it. They say our stuff sticks out like an apple on a pear tree."

    Along more conventional lines, Powell became a contributor, then a literary editor, and finally the editor in chief of the Lake Erie Record, the campus quarterly. It was in the Record that she published her first fiction, a little sketch called "Phyllis Takes Care of the Children." It appeared in the March 1915 issue, and though even Powell herself knew it was a frivolous piece--"I'd send a copy to you but it's so punk," she wrote in a letter to Orpha May--it has some biographical interest and is worth reprinting here in full:

99 little girls out of a hundred have an instinctive love for children younger than themselves, and are never so happy as when they can take care of someone's baby. But the hundredth little girl is a fanciful, rather sarcastic little creature, who treats all babies as inanimate beings and refers to another little girl's doll as an "it." Phyllis was one of the latter class. She hated all children--or if she didn't hate them, she considered them entirely unnecessary to her world. Because of her attitude toward the little people, she was rarely asked to take care of her little cousins. But one night her Aunt Margaret wished to see "Twelfth Night" and after some coaxing prevailed upon Phyllis to take care of her five little children.

    "But of course if you'd be afraid--" hesitated Aunt Margaret. It was a fortunate remark, for Phyllis prided herself upon not being silly like other little girls, and not being afraid in the dark.

    "Me, afraid!" she exclaimed scornfully, "Why I'm not afraid of anything!"

    So it happened that a little while later Phyllis found herself alone with her five little proteges.

    "Well, what are we goin' to play?," pleasantly asked Billy, his face glowing from the strenuous scrubbing his mother had given him before she left.

    "Play!," exclaimed Phyllis disdainfully. "I'm too old to play. I'm almost ten years old! You children will have to amuse yourselves because I shall read my book." She settled back comfortably in her chair and began to read, occasionally lowering her book to scowl blackly at her discontented charges.

    "Wish'd you'd tell us a story," wistfully observed Billy, after a long, unhappy silence on the part of the children. The others clamored loudly for a story. Phyllis paid no heed to them until a brilliant and malicious idea occurred to her, and then she laid down her book and with her eyes fixed dreamily on space, began:

    "Well, once upon a time there was a great big, black man --"

    "Is this going to be a bad story?" inquired Billy. "Because Ellen always cries when it's a bad story."

    "Oh mercy no," Phyllis deceitfully assured them. "Just a lovely, long story about a nice, big, wicked black man who comes around every night to see little boys and girls about your size." She proceeded to tell them at great length and with much gusto about this unpleasant person, delighted at the way the children squirmed and cast apprehensive glances at the window.

    "Is he dead yet?" asked Lucy with wide eyes.

    "Oh no," answered Phyllis. "He goes around even yet peeking in people's windows and knocking on their doors!"

    A shiver went through the children. All eyes, even Phyllis', were drawn toward the window. At that instant a loud crash was heard, as though someone had broken in the front door.

    The guest chamber opened into the living room and it was into this that the children rushed with a shuddering cry. In a trice the five of them had leaped onto the bed and covered themselves up to the eyes with blankets. It was at this moment that Aunt Margaret walked in. The children scrambled out of bed and excitedly told her about the noise.

    "We thought it prob'ly was the big black man" said Billy.

    "No, no!" laughed Aunt Margaret. "I heard it as I came up the walk. It was only that you left your big sled standing on the front porch, and the wind blew it over so that it fell down the steps."

    The children drew a simultaneous breath of relief.

    "And were you scared, too, Phyllis?" exclaimed Aunt Margaret, catching sight of Phyllis for the first time.

    "Oh no," cheerfully lied that young person. But her five little cousins, who had been watching her eagerly, then broke out in accusing chorus:

    "Then what were you doing under the bed?"

    Setting aside the reflexive racism endemic to its time and place, "Phyllis Takes Care of the Children" presents a portrait of a startlingly self-aware young author--outside the norm, "fanciful," "rather sarcastic," defiantly uninterested in family life, impatient to get on with her reading, possessed of a pointed and slightly cruel sense of humor. What redeems this last quality is the fact that Powell does not exempt herself from criticism--she acknowledges that her character's unafraid exterior is nothing but a mask, and ultimately, Phyllis/Powell is made the butt of her own joke.

    When she became the editor in chief of the Record, Powell decided to leave campus politics and editorial sermonizing to other students. Instead, she wrote prose poems and little philosophical tracts, most often (though not inevitably) shot through with humor. Her last contribution, printed in the May 1918 issue, is heavily influenced by Finley Peter Dunne and his "Mr. Dooley" stories, but the message is pure Powell: "Plague take those old philosophers. Let them fuss and fume and heatedly discourse whether Being is or Being ain't, but as for me, of one thing I am sure--I KNOW I BE."

    The rest of her stories for the Lake Erie Record are light and playful as they go by, yet some are also unusually skeptical and antiromantic for a young woman of that era. Already there are signs that Powell foresaw her future--and that she did not believe in happy endings.

    Take, for example, "The Rut," a much longer and more ambitious story than "Phyllis Takes Care of the Children," which appeared in the May 1916 Record. It tells of two friends, Anne Gregory and Marjorie Bliss, who have grown up together in Cardington and are now taking courses in stenography there. Anne announces her intention one day to leave town, and Marjorie is shocked: "It had never occurred to Marjorie that her friend had any other plans after business school than to get work in Cardington as every one else did and after a few years marry."

    Far from it: Anne tells Marjorie that she "loathes" Cardington. "I am going to get away and do something different and even if I don't make a success, I'll at least be out of the rut--this miserable, deadly rut!"

    The girls go their own ways; six years pass before they are finally reunited in Cardington. Anne has been hardened by her move to a large town called Richmond ("the restless dissatisfaction of former years was still in her eyes and there was a trace of bitterness in the downward droop of her lips"), while Marjorie, married with two children, is "a little more plump but as pretty as ever, with a placid contentment in her face that Anne envied."

    Marjorie asks Anne whether she, too, is happy, now that she has wriggled her way out of "the rut."

Anne thought of the years of struggling behind her, the lifetime of hard work before her. "No, I am not what you would call happy," she said slowly, adding with assumed lightness, "I believe it is the people in the rut who are happiest after all. Once they get resigned, they make the most out of it and things are so much easier. Ambition seems to be the obstacle to overcome on the road to happiness."

    But Anne is aware of her destiny, and she will not--cannot--return to Cardington. "At least I want to make my own rut," she tells her friend. The story closes with an ambiguous self-proclamation:

As she walked home, Anne thought of the rut that would lead her to happiness. Suddenly a thought came to her that made her stand still and laugh aloud.
    "Silly!," she said to herself. "It isn't happiness I'm after, at all. If I had wanted this mild content Marjorie calls happiness I should have stayed in Cardington. What I want is work. And as soon as I find myself making a dent in the road that may develop into a rut for myself in Richmond, I'll start all over again!"

    In fact, Powell had been in her own emotional "rut" during the 1915-16 academic year. During another depressive period in 1932, she reflected on this time: "Since sophomore college days I don't remember ever being in such a feeble nervous state, ready to weep over a blot, a lost pencil sharpener, a pound gained."

    Fortunately for us, she kept a detailed diary in the summer of 1915, while she was working as a maid and waitress at a Lake Erie resort in Painesville, called the Shore Club. This was the first, and in some ways the most intimate, of the many diaries she would keep throughout her life. Much of it is a chronicle of dread, woe, and disappointment, but it is leavened by some witty caricatures--Powell was a shrewd and perceptive amateur cartoonist--and humorous essays on tennis and swimming.

    As a whole, the epistolary diary is addressed to an imaginary friend named Mr. Woggs, but sporadic comments are also directed to a distant biographer, as if Powell innately knew that one would eventually come her way:

I wouldn't have come down here at all to earn my expenses for next year at college if I hadn't have had the sneaking idea that someday my biographers would write it and the world would admire and praise and I would only laugh then and say--"Really, it was just heaps of fun."

    Other visions of the future, however, were less sanguine:

I must make myself strong for the knocks that are to come, for no matter what you tell me--"You've had enough knocks, you'll have happiness the rest of your life"--something in me says that life for me holds more knocks than joys, and the blows will leave me crushed, stunned, wild-eyed and ready to die, while the joys will make me deliriously, wildly, gloriously happy. It's the way I'm made, that Irish strain in me, perhaps. Yet better for one of my nature to have it that way than to have life a peaceful, placid flow of quiet containment. I must have days of rushing excitement.

    In cheerful moods, she listed things she would have in her imagined "palmy future," including a "perfectly stunning street suit, perfectly stunning evening clothes, perfectly stunning everything," a "Steinway grand," a mandolin, an "electric limousine," a maid to keep her clothes and dresser in order, and a town house. Some of her desires were more altruistic: she wanted to "send Phyllis to school for a year, take Auntie May for a winter in the Isle of Pines," and "raise foundlings." Finally, she wished for a "perfectly stunning man." But all of that remained fantasy: for much of this period she felt lonely, underappreciated and exploited in her menial job, homesick for Shelby, and remorseful about having run away and abandoned Phyllis to Sabra's care.

    Armchair psychiatry is a dubious practice at best, but it seems safe to say that Powell's sense of self-worth fluctuated dramatically from day to day and that, then as later, she was never able to reach any reasonable perspective in her self-opinion. She simply could not envision her good times during her bad ones--and the bad times were dreadful:

Woggsie, I'm sorry I talked so blue to you a while ago. I mustn't let myself do that anymore, right at the beginning of the battle--time enough at the end. But it does seem one of life's tragedies that I should have been born at all. Why couldn't my soul have been put into some pretty and wealthy girl? Oh well, no use moralizing or philosophizing. My nose is all red and my eyes too and I have a headache. I'm tired. Perhaps I'll learn to swim and drown.

    And yet there were occasions that summer when she enjoyed herself. She developed several casual crushes and became an adept flirt, a habit that annoyed her friends and inspired some paragraphs of self-defense:

Can't I have a little fun? I know I shouldn't but I can't help it when my hand accidentally brushes his arm, or my cheek either--or if my shoulder should touch his when we both stoop to pick up a card. And if I should glance up at him and find him looking at me, why should I drop my eyes at once, instead of returning his look--oh, for the briefest possible second and then sort of drag my eyes away? ... [I'm] insincere and fickle and I am afraid that after all it isn't nice to flirt and I suppose that is all I do when I act that way. But I can't help it and don't want to.
    I was dreamily prophesying my future the other day for the girls. "In ten years from now," Katherine said, "you'll be left. You get all the men you can on a string and make them unhappy and pretty soon when you want a man you'll be left. You are too flip altogether." "Yes, I'll be left," I said slowly and with overwhelming conviction. "Ten years from now I will still be Dawn Sherman Powell--but girls, that name will be famous then. Ten years from now, I will have arrived." And Woggs, I know it will be true. I never entertain the slightest fear of an obscure future. I'll be before the public eye in some way and you know it, too.

    At the end of the season, she concluded her diary with a prescient farewell to "Mr. Woggs":

At times I grow a bit weary of these tremendous jumps and bumps in my life but I suppose--I know--that if life for me were a placid, smoothly-running path, I would die of the tiresomeness of it. Well, Woggs, we are destined for a hard ride in life, with many bumps and jumps, but it will be a swift, breathless ride and we will arrive all the sooner. So we may as well pull down our hats, button up our coats and hang on to our seats, instead of pausing to speculate .... We've had a fine summer together--almost ideal--but it's time now to worry about money and college. I did think I would borrow some but I guess I won't. I'll get it someway. You'll hear great things of me, someday. Goodbye, Woggs.

    When America entered World War I, in 1917, Lake Erie College threw itself behind the cause. "Dawn would write little skits," Olive Ernst explained, "and we would put together a cast and go up on each floor. We'd charge only a nickel or something but we'd have an audience in each corridor. We raised more than a few nickels that way, all of which we donated to the war effort." On other occasions, Powell would put on solo shows to earn enough money for train fare and admission to a concert or play in Cleveland.

     The closest friends Powell made at Lake Erie had ambitions similar to hers and would go on to have distinguished careers of their own. Cornelia Wolfe became a published poet and later worked in Hollywood at the Walt Disney Studios. Eleanor Farnham, who lived to be almost a hundred (1896-1995), was one of the first woman reporters employed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer and eventually founded a successful publicity agency. Charlotte Johnson became an editor of Ladies' Home Journal, a position she would hold for many years. A few years before she died, in 1958, Johnson returned a dozen letters Dawn had written to her four decades earlier; these allow us a privileged glimpse into Powell's first days in New York.

    Powell also had a shadowy but fairly steady relationship with a boy whose name has come down to us only as "Ben." He is mentioned, with varying degrees of fondness, in her letters from 1916 until late 1918, after which time he seems to have vanished from her life forever. In early 1917, Ben enlisted in the armed forces, and for security reasons, his letters to her had to be passed by the censor. Thus edited, "they aren't nearly so interesting," Dawn complained.

    Powell's grades at Lake Erie were only fair; she was too wrapped up in her many extracurricular activities to concentrate on her academic studies, and she graduated without honors in the spring of 1918. "At commencement time, she held up the procession because she couldn't find her cap," Ernst remembered. "It was found eventually, under a pile of something in her room, but only after holding up this very solemn, distinguished procession. She was very disorganized. I was never in her room, but it was famous."

    Immediately following graduation, Dawn moved almost five hundred miles east, to the small town of Pomfret, Connecticut, where she stayed on a farm suggested to her by a college friend. Her classmate thought she needed a "summer in artistic atmosphere where I could develop my genius," she told her sister Mabel with exaggerated irony. Fox Hall Farm, owned by a family named Matthewson, seems to have been a retreat for wealthy and talented people of a liberal persuasion; her time there probably represented Powell's first sustained experience with any sort of bohemia, however rural and elite. "There are usually several rather famous people--artists, writers, etc.--and Miss Matthewson herself is so clever and interesting!" she noted.

    In the mornings, Powell worked on the farm ("hoeing, etc."), but her afternoons were theoretically consecrated to writing. "To keep myself from getting bored with myself, I've taken up suffrage," she wrote to Mabel. "Thus far, I haven't broken any windows or beaten up any policemen, nor do I expect to go on any hunger strike--Lord forbid?

    She elaborated on her activities to Orpha May:

A lot of [the suffrage work] has been among the Irish and I've had a perfect circus. If they look as though their husbands drank, I tell them they want to vote to get the saloons out and they say, "Sure, then, I'm a suffragette." And if they look as though they liked a nice nip themselves now and then, I use the soft pedal on my prohibition line and say that the pope is all for suffrage and there's some talk of there being a lady pope. So then they say, "Sure, I'm a suffragette!"

    Powell was never deeply committed to politics; it was altogether typical of her to be more attracted to the "perfect circus" she found in the recruitment experience than devoted in some self-sacrificial manner to an important cause. In any event, she was already plotting her next escape: "I reckon I won't be here very long so they can't get me," she informed Orpha May.

    "New York's a big city ...."

Continues...


Excerpted from Dawn Powell by Tim Page Copyright © 1999 by Tim Page. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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