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DAWN POWELL: A Biography.

DAWN POWELL: A Biography. By Tim Page. Henry Holt. 362 pp. $30.

The novelist Dawn Powell, whose books Edmund Wilson hailed as "among the most amusing being written" and whom Gore Vidal celebrated as "America's only satirist," is buried in an unmarked grave in the City Cemetery on Hart Island, New York's potter's field. Before she died in 1965, Powell willed her body to Cornell Medical Center. After the doctors had their way, what was left was to be returned to the family for burial, but no one claimed her. Five years later, her executor authorized Cornell to dispose of the remains. And so she was put in a plain pine coffin and deposited in a mass grave on top of layers of New York's nameless and unwanted dead.

The fate of her remains might suggest another sad chapter in the annals of America's neglect of its finest writers, but don't cue the violins. We are in Dawn Powell country, where there is humor underpinned by a tough-minded realism, where solemn social arrangements are constantly subverted by the comedy of human fallibility. Powell didn't put much stock in funerals or cemeteries, and her own interment seems appropriate material for another of the mordantly funny novels she can no longer write. In fact, when her husband died she simply had him cremated and never collected the ashes.

She surely would have cared more about the disposition of her literary remains. Until the last three or four years, they received similar neglect. At her death her fifteen novels were out of print; her executor had sunk into depression and ignored requests trickling in from the few scholars interested in Powell's work. There was a small cult following of her books, mostly New Yorkers who relished her Manhattan satires.

It's true Powell never had a bestseller, but her books weren't exactly neglected in her lifetime; par for her was a sale of around 5,000 copies. Among the reasons for her lack of popularity is perhaps that the American taste is inimical to her brand of urbane, sophisticated satire. In 1956, in the middle of writing one of her lesser novels, she noted in her diary: "There is no wit or humor in this story, so it may be successful. Waugh, Huxley, Thurber--none were really able to make a decent living until they lost their sense of humor and practically their ability to feel."

Some critics found her waspish satires too stinging; they called her cruel and cynical or accused her of writing about dissolute and amoral people--the usual raps against a satirist. Yet Powell always imbued her characters with redeeming humanity. "Satire is people as they are," she said; "romanticism, people as they would like to be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out." Her satire was not fueled by moral or social outrage, like, say, Sinclair Lewis's; nor was she venting a Swiftian hatred of the damned human race. As she put it, "The artist who really loves people loves them so well the way they are he sees no need to disguise their characteristics --he loves them whole, without retouching .... Yet the word always used for this unqualifying affection is `cynicism.'"

But the critical lashings drew blood. On the eve of one publication day she wrote in her diary, "A new book coming out no longer rouses any hope. As the day approaches, I look at the book section and think with a sudden horror that this is the last Sunday I will be able to look at a book review without sick misgiving--no review, bad review, or the patronizing review of another illiterate lady reviewer." At times she became so discouraged that she devoured a fan letter like a starving man a meal.

On top of her professional difficulties she had a tempest-tossed marriage to a man who drank even more than she did, which was a lot, according to this new biography by Tim Page (a Washington Post music critic). They had an autistic child who required expensive care. They went through rough patches financially, particularly after her husband retired and they were dependent on the kindness of friends. (Her last years were eased by an endowment from a wealthy patron.) But she continued to write as she pleased, building a body of distinguished work that won her a secure respect among contemporary literati, if not general readers. Her last novel, The Golden Spur, was nominated for a National Book Award, and her friend Edmund Wilson took the occasion of its publication to devote a long essay to her in The New Yorker.

Powell's posthumous reputation received a major boost from a 1987 article in The New York Review of Books by Gore Vidal, who knew her during the early fifties. On the strength of Vidal's advocacy a few of her novels were reissued in paperback, but they quickly slid into remainderdom.

Page himself became interested in Powell after reading Wilson's essay in 1991. He wrote an article about the neglected writer, and it flushed out surviving friends and relations, whom he interviewed. In 1993 he persuaded Steerforth Press, a small publisher in Vermont, to bring out attractively bound paperback editions of her novels. By now eleven of them have appeared, along with two hardcovers, Dawn Powell at Her Best (containing two novels and several short stories) and The Diaries of Dawn Powell: 1931-1965. The latter provides a sharply observed picture of a writer's life and of the Manhattan literary scene she knew so well.

Powell's world was centered in the Village, roughly bounded on the west by the bars on Sixth Avenue above Eighth Street, the old Lafayette Hotel on Ninth Street (portrayed in her novel The Wicked Pavilion), the Brevoort on Fifth Avenue; and on the east by the Cedar Bar (the epicenter of the action in The Golden Spur), a hangout of her later years. On its northernmost reaches were the midtown business offices, advertising agencies--her husband, Joseph Gousha, worked thirty-five years on Madison Avenue--and the old-moneyed townhouses in the fifties. Her friends and drinking buddies included theatrical people like John LaTouche and Bobby Lewis; writers like John Dos Passos and Malcolm Cowley; women friends going back to college days and first jobs in New York; assorted poets and artists; gay men (to whom she was partial); and hard-drinking macho Abstract Expressionists at the Cedar. She and Gousha had an open marriage, and she took a number of lovers, including probably John Howard Lawson, later a member of the Hollywood Ten, whose Marxist theories of literature she rebelled against. (Politically she was all over the map: libertarian conservative, anti-McCarthyite, Stevensonian Democrat, anti-Vietnam War, an antifeminist who thought there should be a housewives' Uncle Tom's Cabin.)

She was the classic New Yorker from somewhere else--Ohio, in her case. She arrived in 1918, fresh out of Lake Erie College, a genteel young ladies' school in Painesville, Ohio, and stayed to become a self-styled "permanent visitor" who observed the natives with the sophistication of an insider and the wide-eyed innocence of an eternal small-towner.

If she never lost her capacity for wonder at New York, neither did she retain any illusions about the people who made up her world. The imperfect human specimens found in her New York novels were netted on field trips to salons and saloons. As Page writes, "Powell's approach to her New York satires was frankly journalistic. She was filled with contempt for writers who claimed they simply sat down at their typewriters and made everything up." She once said, "A writer's business is minding other people's business ... all the vices of the village gossip are the virtues of the writer." But she observed and wrote with the uncensorious eyes of a worldly woman who is not affronted by the tangled messes human beings get themselves into. Sex, for example, she wrote about as (in Page's words) "simply something that happened, and happened relatively often, with varying degrees of involvement and satisfaction for the participants."

She considered herself no better than the people she gossiped about with such witty but (mostly) affectionate malice; for she had the same vices and odd virtue or two (e.g., love, honor, loyalty), the same ambitions and failures. She never expected much of her characters, let alone demanded of them heroic deeds, violent behavior, grand suffering. She was well schooled in failure, and her aim was deadliest when she had some swollen urban success in her sights, like the character Amanda Keeler Evans in A Time to Be Born, who was based on Clare Boothe Luce and who is perhaps Powell's most caustic fictional portrayal--a scheming, self-promoting Ice Queen with the soul of a hedge-fund trader.

Still, New York was the central character in her novels about the city, and she evoked it as memorably as any of her contemporaries. For example, the standard tourist view from the top of the Empire State Building, a la Powell:
   spangled skyscrapers piled up softly against the darkness, tinseled parks
   were neatly boxed and ribboned with gold like Christmas presents waiting to
   be opened. Sounds of traffic dissolved in distance, all clangor sifted
   through space into a whispering silence, it held a secret, and when letters
   flamed triumphantly in the sky you felt, ah, that was the secret, this at
   last was it, this special telegram to God--Sunshine Biscuits. On and off it
   went, Eat Sunshine Biscuits, the message of the city.

One perceives her sensing a Symbol bearing down on her in mid-poetic flight, so she deftly undercuts it. The worst thing is to seem to be taking oneself too seriously.

"Seem" is the operative word, for there was always a serious undercurrent in her novels, an attempt to reflect and comment on her times. A Time to Be Born, set in New York in 1942, begins with a prose riff running several pages and capturing the nervous, indecisive mood of that first year of war:
   There was no future; every one waited, marked time, waited. For what? On
   Fifth Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street hundreds waited for a man on a hotel
   window ledge to jump; hundreds waited with craning necks and thirsty faces
   as if this single person's final gesture would solve the riddle of the
   world. Civilization stood on a ledge, and in the tension of waiting it was
   a relief to have one little man jump.

But we do not read Powell for her historical insights, though they add heft to her books; we read her for laughs, for her ear for gossip, her satirically skewed vision, her generous, comic view of life. All these qualities had their origins in her small-town Ohio girlhood. She was born in 1896 in Mount Gilead, Ohio, daughter of a traveling salesman, who was always on the road. Her mother was a loving woman who died when Dawn was 7. That turned out to be the central disaster of her life. Her father, possibly out of practical motives, since he wasn't any great shakes as a provider, re-married a woman with some money, Sabra Stearns Powell. Sabra was a stepmother straight out of the Grimm gallery, sadism and all. She beat Dawn and her two older sisters whether they needed it or not; sent them into town in shabby clothes to be laughed at by classmates; forbade them to read the books in the home library or play the piano in the parlor. In short, she treated them as poor relations.

At age 13 Dawn ran away and landed with an aunt in Shelby, near Cleveland. It was a precociously shrewd career move, for her aunt, Orpha May Sherman Steinbrueck, was one of those rare, unaccountable free spirits. She ran a boardinghouse near the depot, had a lover and encouraged Dawn to go to college and to become a writer.

Powell later had this to say on the subject of running away, a practice she approved of: "Wherever you land is sure to be better than the place you left." But she could never run away from her childhood: If her aunt gave her ambition and optimism, her stepmother scarred her with fear and mistrust. In 1933 Powell wrote, "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."

Although Page does not speculate on the deeper psychological springs of Powell's art, he has uncovered a good deal about Powell's early years that illumines her adult life. It appears that she developed a protective carapace that armored her against disappointment and kept her going despite the obstacles tripping up her career. And humor became a weapon against disappointment--and cruel stepmothers everywhere. Edmund Wilson praised her "Middle Western common sense, capable of toughness and brusqueness," which gave ballast to a "fairyland strain of Welsh fantasy" that imbued her books with "a kind of kaleidoscopic liveliness that renders even her hardheadedness elusive."

After escaping Ohio she dove into New York life with glad cries. In 1920 she married Gousha, then a young newspaperman who had literary aspirations but gave them up to go into advertising. As he explained to a friend, "I married a girl with more talent than I have and I think she should have the chance to develop it." Gousha made top dollar in the ad game but blew a lot of it in speak-easies and fancy restaurants, Page reports. He drank his way through the twenties and thirties, and Dawn was not far behind him in the consumption derby. Their drinking led to quarrels; and adding to the pain of both parents, their autistic child, Joseph Jr.--known as Jojo--was given to violent rages, once beating up his mother on her birthday. Yet the three of them stuck out their lives together.

Powell's novels divide rather neatly between those set in New York among the bohemian-culturati and those set in the eternal Ohio of her childhood. Two of her Ohio novels, My Home Is Far Away (which closely follows her real-life childhood and the wicked stepmother) and Dance Night (a hard-bitten portrait of a small industrial town in Ohio), stand among her best work, serious and poignant but buoyed by stoical Midwestern humor that rises out of self-deprecation and distrust of "airs."

In all her novels, to varying degrees, there is an underlying sadness, the sadness of that hurt child. Yet for all her tribulations she maintained a gallant gaiety that filled her books with laughter. ("No laughter equals no life," she once wrote.) If her bones lie among the undifferentiated dead, her comic spirit still soars in her novels. All praise to Tim Page for this sensitive and readable biography, and to Steerforth Press for helping save Dawn Powell's witty novels from America's literary mass grave.

Richard Lingeman, author of Theodore Dreiser: An American Journey (Wiley), is at work on a biography of Sinclair Lewis.
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Title Annotation:Review
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 16, 1998
Previous Article:AT HOME IN THE WORLD: A Memoir.

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