The Diaries of Dawn Powell: 1931-1965.
The Diaries can be read as a modern Satyricon. Hundreds of entries delight the reader with tales of human vanity, jealousy, malice, and twists of fortune. Snatches of conversation overheard in bars, restaurants, department stores, or reported after dinners and parties range from low comedy and malapropisms to the niceties of parlor venom. The characters inhabit mainly the art and publishing world, but others are maids, waiters, taxi drivers. Some, like Edmund Wilson ("Bunny") and John Dos Passos ("Dos"), play leading roles; many others, including Dorothy Parker, Gore Vidal, James Thurber, and S. J. Perelman, have cameos.
But this is not fiction; it is the true life story of a woman artist determined to put her stamp on her times with her intelligence and verbal wit. The battle, as she knew from the beginning, would require every ounce of courage she could muster. She often feels a black rage about her domestic situation, and writes, "In order for a genius to be a genius, he must have a selfless slave between him and the world. . . . For women this protection is impossible." We read the gritty details of her "domestic carnage": the marriage becomes a menage a trois; a beloved mentally handicapped son requires expensive care.
The crushing need for money causes energy to be wasted in small projects; endless reviews, stories that will sell, a useless radio venture. She confronts overzealous editors and underperforming publishers. She refuses Hollywood offers of big money but agonizes over her decision. Her dream life is intense, so that she feels she lives more among the dead than the living. She must write in the morning coming out of the dream world, before the thinking mind or the telephone intrudes. And what a social life! Constant hard drinking at lunches, dinners, and parties; physical breakdowns, hospital stays.
In later entries, literary criticism affirms Powell's values. She sees why Henry James and George Eliot are superior to Hemingway, defines satire and romanticism, calls for novelists to go back to studying the ordinary, real people around them. On 16 June 1948 she writes, "The artist who really loves people loves them so well the way they are he sees no need to disguise their characteristics. . . . Yet the word always used for this unqualifying affection is 'cynicism.'" With that kind of clear-eyed love for humanity, against the odds, Dawn Powell produced plays, novels, stories, and this brilliant diary.
Doris Earnshaw University of California, Davis