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The Diaries of Dawn Powell: 1931-1965.

Juvenal and Petronius were her classical mentors, New York City at midcentury the rich banquet for her sharp, satirical eye. Raised in Ohio farming communities, Dawn Powell graduated from Lake Erie College for Women in 1918 and moved to the Big City, where she fought for her creative life as playwright and novelist. Although she was always published in her lifetime, she never gained first-rank stature. Her stories and novels went out of print. Now, thanks largely to Gore Vidal's provocative essay, "Dawn Powell: The American Writer," reprinted in his United States, a rediscovery is taking place. Tim Page has edited and introduced the work masterfully, providing footnotes and twenty-two pages of close-packed biographical notes.

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
COPYRIGHT 1996 University of Oklahoma
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Copyright 1996 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Earnshaw, Doris
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1996
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