“Give us your lonely, your misunderstood, your sexually malcontent, your stubborn provincial dreams: responding to this siren call, Dawn Powell stayed loyal to New York with an ardor beside which that of celebrants like Scott Fitzgerald and E. B. White appear fickle.” – John Updike, The New Yorker (1995)
Turn, Magic Wheelby Dawn Powell
Dennis Orphen, in writing a novel, has stolen the life story of his friend, Effie Callingham, the former wife of a famous, Hemingway-like novelist, Andrew Callingham. Orphen’s betrayal is not the only one, nor the worst one, in this hilarious satire of the New York literary scene. (Powell personally considered this to be her best New York novel.) Powell takes
Dennis Orphen, in writing a novel, has stolen the life story of his friend, Effie Callingham, the former wife of a famous, Hemingway-like novelist, Andrew Callingham. Orphen’s betrayal is not the only one, nor the worst one, in this hilarious satire of the New York literary scene. (Powell personally considered this to be her best New York novel.) Powell takes revenge here on all publishers, and her baffoonish MacTweed is a comic invention worthy of Dickens. And as always in Powell’s New York novels, the city itself becomes a central character: “On the glittering black pavement legs hurried by with umbrella tops, taxis skidded along the curb, their wheels swishing through the puddles, raindrops bounced like dice in the gutter.” Powell’s famous wit was never sharper than here, but Turn, Magic Wheel is also one of the most poignant and heart-wrenching of her novels.
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Turn, Magic Wheel
By Dawn Powell
Steerforth PressCopyright © 1999 The Estate of Dawn Powell
All rights reserved.
... the little words of the rich ...
Some fine day i'll have to pay, Dennis thought, you can't sacrifice everything in life to curiosity. For that was the demon behind his every deed, the reason for his kindness to beggars, organ-grinders, old ladies, and little children, his urgent need to know what they were knowing, see, hear, feel what they were sensing, for a brief moment to be them. It was the motivating vice of his career, the whole horrid reason for his writing, and some day, he warned himself, he must pay for this barter in souls.
Always as he emerged late in the afternoon from a long siege of writing, depressed by fatigue, he was accustomed to flagellate himself with reproaches and self-inquiry. Why had he come to New York, why had he chosen this career? Though to tell the truth he could not remember having made any choice, he just seemed to have written. But if a Muse he must have, he reflected, why not the Muse of Military Life, or better the Muse of Advertising? ... Actually I should have gone out to South Bend, he decided, into my uncle's shoe factory and made a big name for myself in the local lodges; but there again was the drawback. Did my uncle invite me? No. He said, "You'd be no good in my business, Denny. Here's a hundred dollars to go some place way off." "Thank you, uncle," I should have said briskly, "I prefer to take over the factory and with the little invention I have been working on all these years for combination shoe-stocking-and-garter I propose to make the Orphen shoe known the world over. Allow me, uncle," I should have said, "to put your business on its feet or at least on its back." Then I would have married Alice or was it Emma who lived next door? We would have had a cottage at a respectable Wisconsin lake in summer and in winter fixed up the basement with chintz and old furnaces to be a boys' den. I would have satisfied both my intellect and my ego by sitting up nights reading thick books Alice couldn't possibly understand, and for my cosmopolitan urge I could have winked at stock company actresses. Even if it was Emma and not Alice I should have done that. But no, I am a born busybody. Curiosity is my Muse, lashing me thousands of miles across land and sea to study a tragic face at a bus window, not for humanity's sake but for the answer's sake. Have I no finer feelings, he begged his stern inquisitor, look what a loyal friend I have been to Effie Callingham, for instance; was there ever a truer friend? ...
The answer to this query was not gratifying for his speculations on Effie, her emotions, her past, her future, had resulted in his latest book, so that if this was loyalty it worked hand in glove with his major vice. Face it, then, curiosity was the basis for the compulsion to write, this burning obsession to know and tell the things other people are knowing. Unbearable not to know the answers. Behind those blank faces on the subway, what? In the spiritualist parlor on Seventy-third and Amsterdam what casual guess sums up this one, what blind prophecy outlines another's future; in the reading rooms of the Forty-second Street Library countless persons absorbed in books (Why absorbed? What do they read? Why do they read it?) look up and away; what sentence stirred what memories so that interlacing thoughts float through glass and steel to faraway, to places you will never know, dwell familiarly on faces you will never see. At the Dolly Raoul Studio of Stage Dancing, Inc., Acrobatic, Ballet, Toe, Ballroom, Tap, Radio, Fourteenth Street and Second Avenue, what does the little peroxide Jewess leaning out the window feel or know, what perhaps beautiful plan is shaping in her little head for a break from Avenue A to Carnegie Hall? On paper you can fill in the answers, be these persons, transfer your own pain into theirs, remember what they remember, long for what they desire. Spread out in type, detail added to detail, invention added to fact, the figure whole emerges; invisibly you creep inside, you are at last the Stranger.
Words, sworn testimony cannot help here; between the candid phrases stands the Why, the Why she, why not some one else, so that Effie's own story known in sum so well to him could only tantalize him, make him forever intrigued by her sweet ravaged face, her simplest gesture. Thinking of Effie without ever being able to be or fully know her, filling in her past as he walked so that his own story became more real than hers, Dennis followed the little blonde down Second Avenue, at first absently then deliberately as she came out in green hat and astrakhan-trimmed jacket from Dolly Raoul's Studio of Stage Dancing. He watched what she watched but again he was lost; before the millinery window which hat delighted her, the red feather toque or the black taffeta, did the pushcart of Persian figs tempt her that she glanced at it twice or was it the tray of St. John's bread, the stand of Kolomara grapes and pomegranates, or was it that she was really hungry? Perhaps in the rhinestone-stippled velvet purse there were only a few pennies, her tuition at school took all her money; she must remember, perhaps, that this ten cents is for carfare to a casting office. Below Seventh Street she glanced up at the banner flaming across the street — "THE FOURTH ANNUAL DANSANT OF THE RIDGE STREET BOYS"; of course she wanted to go there, show how marvelously well-trained she was. In the corner of the dance hall she would teach her partner a few fancy steps and would astonish and delight the other dancers with her professional execution; here she paused before a gown shop and saw herself in the blue velvet evening dress she would wear, dreamily she opened the purse to powder her nose, saw Dennis's inquiring eyes reflected in her pocket mirror, looked him haughtily up and down, angry that he had seen her in the blue velvet at the Dansant dancing with Irving.
She hurried on down Second Avenue, high-heeled gray suede boots, Russian style, clapping firmly down on the pavement, head with its firm yellow curls exploding beneath the green felt hat, but Dennis found now a conscious coquetry in the rhythmic swirl of her skirt, and disillusioned, he stood for a moment at the Fourth Street corner watching her swish right, left, right, left across the street. What called her to the other side — surely not the Church of the Nativity, bare edifice of pilgrim simplicity, simplest crucifix looming above surrounding Yiddish shops and symbols? She was gone, perhaps into the side gate where a sign in black and red letters said:
Ye Old Barn Dance COME YE CHICKS AND YE HICKS OLD NATIVITYVILLE BARN DANCE
Now she was lost, he could look in vain upward at Dolly Raoul's windows as he passed on his way home, pause at every pushcart of figs, look in the millinery shop to see if the red hat was still there, no, the girl was gone, he would never see her again, never, though already the next encounter flickered on the screen — The Paradise or possibly the Folies Bergere, and the cigarette girl leaning her tray on his table. "Haven't I seen you before, sir?" A little Turkish cap on her head this time and embroidered trousers, but the same girl, the same sharp nose, same galaxy of tight blond curls. So you weren't a dancer, so you weren't ambitious East Side but nostalgic Broadway all the time, so the answers were never in the book.
A light mist was rapidly turning into snow, and chilled, he pulled up his collar to his ears. This would be a deuce of a time to get pleurisy again and be pitiful, winter just over, a joyous spring in bed with no money, no fireplace, just magazine editors encouraging him to finish stories not yet begun. He would be damned if he would ever be pitiful again, better be arrogant, vulgar, boorish, cruel, anything rather than be soft, sick, weak, poor, pitiful. The mere fancy made him wince just as a loaded pistol could still make his brave blood run cold, yes, he was still afraid of Fate, the cruel stepmother. Would a day come, he wondered, when his fame and living would be assured, when a stroke of good fortune would not make him speculate uneasily what subsequent string of failures would be required to pay for it? Ah, to sit pretty, he thought, to fold hands over stomach with a smug smile and accept confidently, and not mistrustfully, the homage of the gods! On the other hand, the ability to sit pretty was glandular and not in his make-up, success must be mysterious, evasive, unfaithful, to allure him.
In the mirror of a street weighing machine he saw how thin, narrow-chested, unimpressive he looked, unlikely seducer of Fortune, the Lorelei. Here was a man, he would swear, who would never be a home owner, a shoe factory president, a car owner, a steady jobholder, here was a man who could be nothing but possibly a ticket owner, and in fact, studying his image with detached even hostile eye, it struck him that he had a passport face, one that could be placed on anybody's papers and not be entirely wrong; such a face could justifiably sweep through the world passionately examining other faces but exempt from the curious second glance itself. This was only justice in exchange for an injustice, he concluded, and wondered if it was possible that he was getting increasingly partial to himself since there were fewer and fewer negative reflections on his charm, ability, and superiority that he could not flout with two minutes of judicial analysis. As a matter of fact he was a mighty personable figure of a man, a fine commanding physique (if he just remembered to stay away from tall women), a rather nonchalantly Prince of Wales way of wearing his clothes (if he just stayed on Fourteenth Street or Second Avenue), and a manner all his own that he got by combining Clark Gable and Wallace Beery. Going back up the Avenue with a more confident swagger, he stopped near St. Mark's to buy a bag of roasted chestnuts from the old man shivering before his charcoal oven. He would take them to Effie. It was the one charming unconquerably childish thing about her, that question, "What did you bring me?" It never mattered what it was, but it pleased her to have tangible proof that, absent, someone had thought of her.
Chimes clamored through the distant roar of the elevated trains, the Metropolitan clock cut through the giant music box with five authoritative strokes. He should be home now, for Effie had promised to come in. Curious how behind his back in ten minutes Fourteenth Street had changed. An old barge captain, red and bearded, in oilskins and sweater, had sprung up before the Tom Mooney Club, a pocked old woman invited him to choose between white parrots and white mice as fortune-tellers, here was a Gypsy Tearoom, Tea Leaves Read Gratis. In front of the shooting gallery the Princess Doraldina from Tasmania, golden-haired figurine in a glass cage, for five cents breathes, moves, passes a wax hand over cards, sighs, and releases the card of your future. "You will meet with one who will love you. That love will be returned by you. The first name of this person begins with M and you will be introduced at a place of amusement."
Magically the five o'clock people came to life, bounced out of their subways, jumped out of their elevators, bells rang, elevator bells, streetcar bells, ambulance bells; the five o'clock people swept through the city hungrily, they covered the sun, drowned the city noises with their million tiny bells, their five o'clock faces looked eagerly toward Brooklyn, Astoria, the Bronx, Big Date Tonight. They enveloped Dennis, danced about him, sang I-sez-to-him in a dozen different keys, whispered he-sez-to-me, they whirred off into night and were gone like the blond Jewess in the Russian boots, they were nothing to him, he was less than nothing to them, a young man with a passport face on his way to meet Effie Callingham, one-time wife of the great man Andrew Callingham, one-time companion to the Four Hundred's Mrs. Anthony Glaenzer ... and this was the part of her life Dennis knew least about, must guess at in his novel about her. He did know that through all those years in the Glaenzer household New York had been only a dream around her, this present confusion which he loved, these masks flung out of office windows, these wax Doraldinas with printed fortunes in their hearts, these pretty puppets were only a dim noise outside the Glaenzer coffin doors, a cry, a wish, a dream. Sometimes he thought of Effie as part of that rich fat enemy world of Glaenzers, he saw her with them peering out at New York through Fifth Avenue lace curtains, listening to the Help! Help! of the city through symphonic arrangements of Stokowski; he saw her with the Glaenzers swimming in their goldfish bowl, observed rather than observing, swimming in and out of their skeleton castle, pressing their little blind noses to the glass, blinking, aware of only light or dark. Effie could not, in fairness, be blamed for Glaenzer fat, but there was no denying that contact with this fat polluted subtly, the golden germ made delicate havoc wherever it went. In a sudden burst of rage he damned all Spode, Genoese lace, Haydn, Rosewood, Hollandaise, Clos Veugot, Stiegel, Ispahan, Schiaparelli, Picasso, Rosenkavalier, and all the little words of the rich, the little baby fingers reaching out, the little golden curl clutching the sterling heart, sweetly softening the brave. How charmingly Effie wore her little rich words thefted from the Glaenzer fatness, weaving a spell about her present despair, throwing out splendid marquee and rug to lead to her bare closet.
Yes, he despised her gallantry, he informed himself even while he hurried to meet her, despised her for not fighting like other people. Why couldn't she call Callingham a swine for deserting her, why couldn't she row over the Glaenzer luxury while she had so little, why must she be noble, frail shoulders squared to defeat, gaily confessing that life was difficult but that's the way things were? Pity for her taxed him, held him bound to the strange gentle woman in something so like love, so like lust, that often sleeping with his little Corinne he was tormented by conscience — he was being unfaithful to Effie, Effie the brave, splendid, unhappy woman who was nothing to him, nothing more than the tender object of his passionate curiosity. Yet she could command this odd fidelity of him, so that for days he would keep away from Corinne, deny himself the pleasure of his jealous suspicions, refuse the delicious agony of dining with her and her complacent husband, write her a dozen notes to say he was through — through, do you hear? It was all so impossible, bad for everyone all around, and it certainly was fine to be a free man again and get back to honest work. So all because of Effie, good-bye, good-bye, Corinne. Good-bye, oh excellent wife to excellent Mr. Barrow. Good-bye, love for these four, five years, torturing, maddening, stupid, unfaithful, wicked little love. Good-bye, cruel darling, sweet, soft, curly, dear little love, I'll be over in ten minutes.CHAPTER 2
... page four ...
Surrendering then to Corinne he must justify himself by looking on his friend Effie cynically, reluctantly worshiping he must make his sardonic asides, must in fact make her an amusing character in his book, to show that, bound as he was by his infantile, damnable romanticism, he still had his wits about him. Admit he was on his knees, kissing the celebrated hem, say at least he knew what was going on, he could count out more flaws in his princess than any enemy could. There was her ridiculous adoration for her ex-husband's triumphs, for instance. Look at page four "The Hunter's Wife, MacTweed, Publishers, $2.00 —"
"She wears his name as if it were a decoration from the King entitling her to the profoundest consideration; she wears it for evening like a jeweled wrap which catches mirrored light so it cannot be ignored. Without referring to his achievement she boasts of them by keeping his full name on her mailbox these fifteen years since he deserted her. Crushed and mystified by him when they were together, now at last she can understand and interpret him with the exquisite lens of long separation, or more probably she has in that fallow period created a hero she can understand, a hero who cannot deny her interpretation as the original might. Indeed, poor soul, while grieving for him she has become him, and observe how neatly she rules her life by what would please him. The friendship she bestows is his favor, the books or music she prefers are his preferences, the crown for every newcomer is 'The master would have loved you.' What fragment, then, is left of the person who once lived in this body, before he came — is there one exclamation that comes from the buried woman, or must all be strained through the great man's cloak? Is there indeed a living soul behind this monument to him, does it breathe of itself, does it of itself weep over 'Tristan' or are these his beautiful tears? Rebelling against him when they were together, she surrenders utterly after his leaving so that if now he were to hunt for her throughout the world he would find her only in his own mirror.
Excerpted from Turn, Magic Wheel by Dawn Powell. Copyright © 1999 The Estate of Dawn Powell. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
When Dawn Powell died in 1965, virtually all her books were out of print. Not a single historical survey of American literature mentioned her, even in passing. And so she slept, seemingly destined to be forgotten – or, to put it more exactly, never to be remembered.
How things have changed! Numerous novels by Dawn Powell are currently available, along with her diaries and short stories. She has joined the Library of America, admitted to the illustrious company of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Adams, Frederick Douglass, and Edith Wharton. She is taught in college and read with delight on vacation. For the contemporary poet and novelist Lisa Zeidner, writing inThe New York Times Book Review, Powell “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.” For his part, Gore Vidal offered a simple reason for Powell’s sudden popularity in the early Twentieth Century: “We are catching up to her.”
Dawn Powell was born in Mt. Gilead, Ohio, on November 28, 1896, the second of three daughters. Her father was a traveling salesman, and her mother died a few days after Dawn turned seven. After enduring great cruelty at the hands of her stepmother, Dawn ran away at the age of thirteen and eventually arrived at the home of her maternal aunt, who served hot meals to travelers emerging from the train station across the street. Dawn worked her way through college and made it to New York. There she married a young advertising executive and had one child, a boy who suffered from autism, then an unknown condition.
Powell referred to herself as a “permanent visitor” in her adopted Manhattan and brought to her writing a perspective gained from her upbringing in Middle America. She knew many of the great writers of her time, and Diana Trilling famously said it was Dawn “who really says the funny things for which Dorothy Parker gets credit.” Ernest Hemingway called her his “favorite living writer.” She was one of America’ s great novelists, and yet when she died in 1965 she was buried in an unmarked grave in New York’s Potter’s Field.
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