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From Barnes & NobleThe 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