Dawn Powell: the fruits of revival.
As Page points out in Dawn Powell: A Biography, the Ohio-born Powell is a resolutely autobiographical writer.(1) Nearly all of her fifteen novels have to do with the sensitive Midwesterner's yearning--sometimes fulfilled, sometimes not--for a wider world of culture. She came to New York City to seek her fortune in 1918, married, had a child, and lived in Greenwich Village for the rest of her days. Yet her view of New York was perpetually that of a newcomer because she played and replayed in her imagination the arrival in the big city of the scruffy but hopeful provincial.
From 1925 onward, Powell diligently published stories, novels, and plays, and by 1942 her editor was Max Perkins of Charles Scribner's Sons, she was contributing fiction to The New Yorker, Mademoiselle, and Collier's, and movie producers pestered her to come to Hollywood to work on screenplays. She counted as friends people like John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, Malcolm Cowley, Ernest Hemingway, and John Howard Lawson (the latter Page believes to have been her paramour in the 1930s).
Yet at the height of her career, what preoccupied this self-made woman was not her glamorous present but her humble past. A childhood spent being shunted from relative to relative in the villages and factory towns near Mount Gilead, Ohio, haunted her so much that she wrote the novel My Home Is Far Away (1944), which Tim Page calls "painfully close to unvarnished autobiography" and "a wrenching mixture of the sorrow, apprehension, and insistent self-affirmation the young Dawn Powell must have felt after her own escape."
The list of novels divides into two categories: before and after "escape." The first six books were about yearners who never make it out of Ohio. From 1934 onward--with the exception of the deeply retrospective My Home Is Far Away--Manhattan became the setting for clever and funny satires that mark Powell as a writer of real distinction. The latest reissues, one from each category, are just out from Steerforth Press and, as with earlier ones, I find the "after" novel much more successful than the "before." Neither, though, bears comparison with A Time to Be Born (1942) or The Locusts Have No King (1948), two New York novels that deserve to be on a short list of the best comic novels in American literature.
The Bride's House (1929) was Powell's third book.(2) A romance novel of the intelligent sort (Page employs the term "bodiceripper"), it has several bright spots but is weak overall. The bride of the title is the dark-haired beauty Sophie Truelove, whose tortured initiations into love, sex, marriage, and adultery form the main plot. It is hard to take Sophie seriously. What I do take seriously is Powell's intention to make us understand the clash between a proper young virgin's idealization of love and marriage, and "this throbbing in her loins" Sophie's response to someone other than the blond, blue-eyed paragon she is engaged to marry. The good girl/bad girl theme is done clumsily here. Powell would master it in successive works, bringing to bear on it a combination of subtle observation, raucous humor, and astuteness about social class.
The would-be artist in The Bride's House is Mary Cecily, Sophie's sad older sister. Mary Cecily's pining to express herself musically is presented as an instance of the wild and romantic streak in certain members of the Truelove clan, which streak is also held responsible for Sophie's falling into an illicit affair with a local Casanova with "dark brooding eyes" Much better than any of the Truelove turbulence are the book's evocations of rural life at the turn of the last century. A stuffy parlor here, a train depot there, a church congregation lifting its voice in song--all testify to how fully Powell appreciated the very place from which she felt driven to escape.
Some figures are rendered with the characteristic Powell vivacity. These include three urchins who stay at the Truelove farm as a respite from their irresponsible mother (the clever, sassy, and misunderstood middle sister, Vera, is clearly a juvenile version of the author herself). Then there is Anna Stacey, schoolmarm of Ashton Center. Prickly and mean in and out of the classroom, Anna presents a challenge to George Truelove, Sophie and Mary Cecily's brother. Stolid George is not the beau Anna wanted. His flat-footedness provokes her beyond endurance but her scorn only stiffens his resolve to make her his wife. It is a dynamic that elicits from us laughter tinged with discomfort, as Powell hints at a physically violent undercurrent in the life of the newlyweds. There is something arrestingly real in this: the woman accedes not only because she wishes to be rescued from life as an old maid but also because the sexual tension between her and her rescuer is genuine. Powell has botched her presentation of the confusion in the heart (and loins) of her protagonist Sophie, yet her minor characters successfully bring out the odder features of nature's dance of approach and response.
And, delightfully, these characters turn Laura Ingalls Wilder's fiction on its head. With her ectomorphic schoolmarm, Powell impishly raises the possibility that the country "blab schools" that so shaped the national character were run by people who absolutely detested children and their jobs:
She would scream if she had to endure those high quavering voices day in and day out for another year. She took a piece of chalk and wrote savagely on the blackboard the day's lesson. Slate pencils scratched. "You spelled believe wrong" said Vera Winton. Miss Stacey rubbed out the word, heard the tittering behind her, hated them all.... The wretched day dragged along. Spelling, reading, numbers, scrambling for lunch baskets, writing, singing.... The air was jabbed with reprimands and parabolas of tittering. The big Tompkins boy was impudent and was told to stay after school, but at four Anna Stacey saw him sneaking off before thc others and she made no sign.... She hated tomorrow. "You spelled believe wrong," that child had said.
All Powell novels are studded with gems like that. The pity is that their central situations and characters frequently are not as well realized. Tim Page, a (mostly) evenhanded judge of Powell's work, admits that "much of her best writing always went into inspired digressions from her plots."
It is also true of The Happy Island (1938), which was intended as an updated version of Petronius's ribald classical romp Satyricon, with a bunch of Manhattan showbusiness, media, and literary types as the modern satirical targets.(3) The central character, a self-absorbed nightclub sensation named Prudence Bly, is less than engaging, but our entry into her world affords us amusement, and even insight into commerce and culture in America. The full range of Powell's interests is visible here, in contrast to the somewhat constricting Ohio novels.
Powell's diaries (collected and edited by Page in 1995) contain several entries on The Happy Island. In one of them, the author says she meant to paint "a picture of people ordinarily envied as Glamorous Idlers and showing up--not their immorality, which is always fun--but the niggling, bickering meanness of their life." Write in a "swift fierce style" she urged herself, but this book feels more rushed and haphazard than swift. As to fierceness, this is one of those cases where the sarcasm eventually pushes the reader away. It has not been properly balanced by the light, madcap quality that Edmund Wilson, in an essay on Powell, described as a "fairyland strain of Welsh fantasy" Both the lighter and the darker shadings are integral to Powell's concept of satire. She wanted to show people stepping lively in the dance of life--"their immorality, which is always fun"--while also showing that life stinks--due to "the niggling, bickering meanness" with which human beings too often treat one another. It cannot have been a simple thing to meld these shadings into a credible and compelling whole; just because Powell did not manage the trick in The Happy Island is no reason to pass over a novel that is memorable despite its manifold defects.
Several of the satyrs in this Satyricon are homosexuals. Elsewhere in Powell, homosexual characters tend to be repellent; here she takes a more sympathetic approach, attempting to portray the inner life of the gay men of the Greenwich Village arts crowd. The result is highly entertaining, though she does not manage to differentiate the personalities of James Pinckney and D. O. Lloyd sufficiently. Their biographical details vary but each is wistful, generous, a bit misunderstood, and above all deeply cultured. Pinckney ends up "finding himself" and garnering admiration by signing up to go to Spain to fight the Fascists, while Lloyd, a mandarin of the New York theatrical world, dies suddenly during one of his own legendary cocktail parties, his passing hardly mourned at all by his so-called friends, the members of his social and artistic set who benefitted from his generosity over the years.
The funniest scenes in the book concern the loutish young man whom Pinckney has stolen from Lloyd. Bert Willy is a secondary character we never "get inside of" but his brief appearances show that Powell knows him through and through. At one point Bert runs afoul of a Philadelphia society lady who, to assure herself that James Pinckney has permitted at his dinner table only people of quality, quizzes Bert about his family and where they "were from originally":
Bert said nothing. The vital question hung on the air while James blanched, and Evalyn watched Bert's calm carving of the wishbone he had given himself. He would not look up for James's warning eye. "Virginia?" suggested Evalyn. "Massachusetts? There's a Williams in Baltimore, of course. There's Williams College, too." "Willy," said Bert and filled his mouth grossly. "Bert," said James with ominous patience. "Evalyn asks where your family were settled before the Middle West period." Bert gave in grudgingly, swallowed his food. "Garden of Eden" he said and went into a fit of convulsive mirth that sent him choking and spitting into the kitchen amazingly unharmed by the poison rays from his two companions.
This man's faults (selfishness, ignorance) and his virtues (an American unwillingness to be cowed by social superiors) are crystal clean
The same goes for Eugene Brent, a native New Yorker and advertising man who gets dragged into the orbit of the artistic and social elite by his wife. An ordinary Joe, he does not worship fame like the cognoscenti do. He hasn't much culture but, importantly, he's not immune to it: "Brent was interested in the theater, but his interest took the banal, unprofessional form of discussions of plays and acting instead of box office or chic little amusing tattle on advance sales, angels, and managerial losses." Eugene Brent is proof that Powell cared not only about aspiring artists but about the audience those artists would reach if they were talented enough. This fellow's innocence, moreover, points up our own loss of innocence. The public today steeps itself in box office and ratings data and the "amusing tattle" of entertainment industry insiders--and who would argue that movies, books, television, and particularly the American theater are the better for it?
In comparison with these ancillary figures, Prudence Bly does not make much of an impression. She is struggling to understand herself, and her confusion, like Sophie Truelove's, renders her vague. It would not be until the charming Ebie Vane in Angels on Toast (1940), the next novel, that Powell would figure out how to present an emancipated New York woman who is both profoundly ambivalent about love, marriage, and career, and distinct as a personality. We do understand that Prudence Bly's harsh childhood in Silver City, Ohio "conditioned her to a lack of faith in humanity and provided her with a rather wry philosophy" Whenever Powell's people evince philosophies--even ones reflecting her own view, as that phrase does--you know a challenge is coming. Prudence, with her acquired sophistication and her surpluses of money, celebrity, chic outfits, and sexual partners, is in need of lessons about human decency that an honest Midwesterner could teach her.
Enter Jeff Abbott, an old flame from back home, who prompts in her a longing to reattach herself to her roots. As a novelistic creation, Abbott is no more satisfactory than Prudence, but he tells us something noteworthy about a phase of Dawn Powell's writing careen I had taken Edmund Wilson's word for it that she did not get caught up in the left-wing politics of the 1930s. The diaries and thc biography belie Wilson. Tim Page makes a convincing case that the not-very-happily-married Powell was involved for a time with the playwright and screen writer John Howard Lawson (later a member of the Hollywood Ten) and that, while her Midwestern common sense stopped her from ever swallowing the Communist program in toto, she at one time gave Lawson's political and aesthetic theories a sympathetic hearing. Those theories were integral to Powell's Story of a Country Boy (1934); they also make their way into The Happy Island, mostly through young Abbott, the author of searing proletarian plays.
Abbott has left Silver City unaware that his former sweetheart has preceded him to New York. His plan is to take the theatrical world by storm and fulfill his destiny as a kind of Buckeye Clifford Odets. He intends to prove that success can be attained without truckling--without losing, that is, an ounce of the stout yeoman virtues or revolutionary elan that the slogan "Communism is Twentieth-Century Americanism" typified for Lawson and others like him between the World Wars. Jeff (short for "Jefferson," we are told) finds a garret to write in, and surrounds himself with salt-of-the-earth ethics. He's come to knock some sense into the decadent Eastern establishment. He's sincere. Wants to show 'em what America's really all about. Talks in short masculine bursts.
The man is a cartoon, utterly devoid of depth or persuasiveness. That Powell can't bring him to life very possibly stems from the fact that Communism isn't (wasn't) twentieth-century Americanism. Radicals of the time pretended that two unrelated antidotes to the corruptions of modern capitalism--Jeffersonian wholesomeness and Marxist dialectics--went together like peanut butter and jelly. Whether Powell truly bought that line I cannot say, but certain it is that she tried to make it get up and walk around in the person of Jefferson Abbott. Several plain folks in the novel (Bert Willy, Eugene Brent, and others) puncture the superficiality and snobbery of Manhattan's beau monde, but it is the playwright's opinions that count with our heroine. Prudence absorbs Abbott's indictment of urbanity and bourgeois comfort, and this puts--or at least it seems to put--the stamp of authorial approval on his Red-tinted populism. Whether this approval is withdrawn, or qualified, or even affected at all by Prudence's eventual break-up with Abbott is likewise unclear.
She ends up spurning the he-man Marxist when, having set up house with him back in Ohio, she is crushed by his male chauvinism. (Apparently Abbott missed class on the day that Marx's eradication of the sexual division of labor was covered.) The playwright reveals to Prudence the paltriness of her life in New York City but he is eventually shown up as a dour ideologue and domestic tyrant. Are Communist ideas thus rejected? Small-town life? Both? If there is a conceptual muddle here, one is tempted to blame a healthy incapacity on Powell's part to stay under the spell of the Lawson point of view for the length of an entire novel.
The last chapter finds Prudence back in Manhattan about to take up her old life, her faith in its desirability shaken and her singing career in severe trouble. Nothing wrong with bringing a work of fiction to a bleak or an open-ended close (Henry James did it all the time). The close of this intelligent and lively book, though, seems positively slapdash--it kicks the protagonist down a flight of stairs, novelistically speaking. The last word is unaccountably given to a pretty boy radio personality whom Prudence once thought she loved. He registers--for the reader, not within Prudence's hearing--that she has lost her looks.
At her best Dawn Powell is the genuine article, a wit. At less than her best, wit declines into mere deprecation. One of her satirical models was Flaubert, and I dare say that his hard brilliance may not have been a good artistic influence. Though Powell's biographer is at pains to prove that the critics of her time found not just wit, but warmth, too, in her fiction, he nonetheless acknowledges the slide in quality whenever harshness gains the upper hand. The Happy Island, writes Page, is "suffused with a curious satiety, as if Powell's amusement at human foibles had turned into annoyance"
This sensitive study by Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic, distills from Dawn Powell's papers, diaries, and published writings, and from interviews with surviving relatives, acquaintances, and her literary executor, the sense that the author had a hard and chaotic life. The people most important to her disappointed her, starting with her mother, who died when she was an infant, and her travelling salesman father, who picked as a replacement a cruel woman completely indifferent to the feelings of Powell and her two sisters. Powell and her once-dashing but progressively alcoholic husband, an advertising executive named Joseph Gousha, disappointed one another in some unspecified way (he is hardly mentioned in her diaries). Each apparently had involvements outside of the marriage but they managed to stay together. Page handles judiciously Powell's drinking habits and her Prudence Bly-like "generous attitude toward sex," as he puts it, neither shying away from the personal details nor wallowing in them.
One marvels at Powell's productiveness amid the bohemian disorder of the Gousha family life. She fought untoward circumstances with valor. She was the first to acknowledge how scarred she was by her rough beginnings, and how depressed it made her to see other, less talented writers gaining greater stature than she had, but the bitterness seems never to have penetrated to the solid kernel within.
The Goushas' son, Joseph Gousha, Jr., was born autistic, and caring for him was a burden made all the heavier by the couple's profligacy. One of the most unexpected and touching aspects of Page's book is what he has done in describing Joseph, Jr., an honest soul and a misfit who loved his parents and was loved by them. From this account it would seem that Powell succeeded, despite the tumult of her personal affairs, in being a better parent than the parents she had. She was determined to nurture her son's rather impressive interests and talents, and to obtain the best institutional care for him, but because of the family's penuriousness he ended up a ward of the state. Powell's death, as narrated by Page, is wrenchingly sad not least because of the bewilderment in which it left Joseph Gousha, Jr.
Several misimpressions that I had about the novelist have been corrected. Page rounds out the received picture of Powell by, among other things, capturing her ambivalence toward her origins and the ways in which she stayed an Ohioan no matter how much polish she acquired. (Her special knack for a kind of storytelling that was sophisticated without being the least bit fancy must have been the reason she appealed to British readers so much.) Page rightly emphasizes how total was Powell's belief in personal responsibility regardless of one's fortunes in life. Those who wrote "as if the fault were in the system and not in the man or woman" were writing "a tawdry, weak falsehood" she observed in her diary. She created characters who assume they are not going to win but who press on anyway, as she did. This stoicism lends dignity to all of her fictional creations, their variable artistic merit notwithstanding.
The only important thing Page does not deliver is any special insight into Powell's collaboration with Max Perkins, her editor at the moment that her talents and her command of her art truly began to coalesce. One wonders if this gap was left unfilled out of a fear that the editor might loom too large in some minds, and put Powell in a category with those writers considered to have been more or less "made" by Perkins. If this was a concern it need not have been. Powell was in her own right a most serious and attentive student of the art of fiction. Both her failures and her considerable successes were very much her own. Page's book will bring more people to her.
(1) Dawn Powell: A Biography, by Tim Page; Henry Holt & Company, 352 pages, $30.
(2) The Bride's House, by Dawn Powell; Steerforth Press, 187 pages, $14.
(3) The Happy Island, by Dawn Powell; Steerforth Press, 270 pages, $14.
Lauren Weiner reviews books regularly for The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Times, and The Weekly Standard.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 1999|
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