Moore on Powell

Peter Kilander peterk at
Fri Nov 12 20:23:46 PST 1999

[warning, the following's rather lenghty. I'm not sure how appropriate it is for the list, but what the hay? Yoshie, your boy Beckett's mentioned.]

------------------------- November 7, 1999 New York Times Book Review Selected Letters of Dawn Powell 1913-1965 Edited by Tim Page


Letters, the writing writers are writing when they should be writing, have a few, but only a few, of the satisfactions of art. Salvos, rescue flares, confections or curtsies, primarily they are greetings from a kind of literary R & R -- art's sweet hooky. Though not exactly conversation, they hold the amusements and consolations of talk. Typically they announce a writer's relations with the world beyond her work and her desire to organize, nurture and be (if only verbally) in that world. Invariably they are a function of friendship. Prompted and flavored by the specifics of an occasion or of its chosen audience of one, a letter brings to its writer what a novel (or journal or diary) cannot: the idea of an immediate, intimate reader other than oneself. Ah, a social life. Letters may be masks, shields, pieces of ventriloquism or theatrical assemblages of some other sort, but they are in service to a real-life relationship rather than an imaginary one. The writer assumes a voice and point of view for the consumption of a specific (though passive) person: a project now largely taken over by e-mail and psychotherapy. In these soliloquies a life is both revealed and concealed.

The American novelist Dawn Powell, in her day dubbed a ''lady wit'' by those on red alert for the freakish, lived her entire adult life in the heart of Greenwich Village. She wrote hundreds, maybe thousands, of letters. (''There is this about letter-writing,'' she says in an early one. ''One can gas on ad infinitum about the eternal ego without receiving any personal violence in return or any interruption. Thus is it superior to conversation.'') According to Tim Page, a former music critic for The Washington Post, now an undeterrable Powellian and editor of ''Selected Letters of Dawn Powell,'' much of Powell's correspondence has been lost or destroyed, and many letters probably tossed out. ''One cannot escape the horrific vision of a line of plastic garbage bags, with some precious and incongruous literary cargo buried amid the debris, waiting to be taken to the dump,'' he writes in his introduction. ''It is the stuff of nightmares.''

Page's devotion is a moving thing. Though he never met Dawn Powell, he is, without academic affiliation or other sponsorship, her ultimate scholar, biographer, fan: many of her letters are from Page's personal collection, just as many of the photographs in his 1998 biography of her are his own property as well, and he has written warm and perceptive introductions to new editions of her books. Tim Page is the kind of reader Powell never knew she could or would have. Even during her own lifetime, her struggling though productive career seems to have been in constant semirevival. Novels fell quickly out of print; reviews of her new ones often wondered why no one read her more. Perhaps it was because of her name, one British reviewer suggested, which made one think of a romance writer instead of the brilliant satirist she was. (Powell herself thought her name sounded like that of an ''unsuccessful stripper.'') Although Edmund Wilson and Gore Vidal eventually wrote long appreciations of her work, it is Page's diligent resuscitation and guardianship that have been by far the most successful, and tireless. When they meet in literary heaven, surely Powell will buy all his drinks -- and not let go of his hand.

She will also introduce him to everyone, for Powell, born in 1896, the same year as Scott Fitzgerald, seems to have known everyone: Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, Sara and Gerald Murphy, e. e. Cummings, Maxwell Perkins, Malcolm Cowley, J. B. Priestley, Dorothy Parker, Libby Holman, Jean Stafford, A. J. Liebling, Franz Kline. To name some. On her only trip to Europe, which was to Paris in 1950, she met Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Samuel Beckett (''one of Peggy Guggenheim's lovers''). Powell had a social gift -- a combination of skill, appetite and habit -- and it makes her surviving letters mesmerizing reading. The vices of a small-town gossip, she felt, quite rightly, were virtues in a writer.

The letters start in 1913, shortly before she began attending Lake Erie College, a women's college in Painesville, Ohio. Powell wrote home often to her aunt Orpha May Steinbrueck, who had raised her (her mother died when Powell was only 7, and at 14 she ran away to her aunt's boardinghouse in order to escape a wicked stepmother). With these letters to her Auntie May she begins her lifelong habit of sounding like the fun, amusing, clever girl she often was. (Later in life people who knew her tended to describe her simply as ''nice.'') Of her drama club tryout, she wrote to her aunt: ''I was thwarted in my design to be the Angry Mob. I am a foundling instead and also a chorus.'' (Powell's lifelong love of theater -- much more than any deep involvement with books -- is everywhere in her correspondence.) Gregarious and petite, she was cast as Puck in ''A Midsummer Night's Dream.'' It seems a lifelong role, for the Puckish, pluckish voice of her letters rarely abates. Here she is writing from her Connecticut suffragist work in 1918: ''I met a man the other day who was some remote connection of General Sherman. I confessed modestly that I was too -- am I? -- that the General was in fact own mother to my granddad, if not closer.'' Once Powell moves to Manhattan she writes to a friend: ''There are three stages you go through in regard to the Village. First and foremost 'Oh-so-this-is-Bohemia!! My dear! Don't you just love it all? Everything is so -- well, so absolutely spontaneous. . . . Stage No. 2 . . . you begin to see it with jaded eyes. Everyone . . . wants to be noticed -- does everything for effect and down in his heart is worse than ordinary -- is in fact a 10-cent rube like yourself. . . . Stage No. 3 -- you combine and condense and admire and sift.''

So current and alive is Powell's epistolary voice, even in the earliest letters, that one is tempted to suggest that what we now think of as the contemporary American voice -- in journalism and the arts -- is none other than hers: ironic, triumphant, mocking and game; the voice of a smart, chipper, small-town Ohio girl newly settled in New York just after the First World War. Its roots are oral, in an intelligent vernacular, for Powell despised writing that had people speaking in ways that no one actually spoke. She loved the salty and the anecdotal and in letter after letter is indefatigably given over to entertaining her friends. Her lightheartedness seems the utmost generosity. From her only trip abroad: ''I have figured out the way Paris is laid out, now -- and 'laid out' is right.'' Of some diet pills, she wrote, ''A woman I knew got very thin on them and has stayed so for years but advises everybody against them as she's had liver, onions, kidneys and other disorders ever since.'' ''I am really fascinated by the aging process,'' Powell later wrote to her sister, ''even if the victim is me.'' Only at the very end, when Powell is tired, ill and prey to bitterness and block, do self-pity and ugliness creep into the letters. One can only guess at the exhaustion that caused her in 1965 to write this stupidity to John Dos Passos: ''I am sick of Civil Rights and well-heeled 'underprivileged' types screaming for justice when writers are the worst-privileged and . . . underpaid and oppressed of any race.''

Although her writer friends may not have always served her well -- Dos Passos probably encouraged a politically conservative streak in her; Edmund Wilson, at a time when she most needed championing, refused to blurb her books and actually wrote a negative review of her novel ''My Home Is Far Away'' -- still she had fun with them. Especially in letters to others. Sartre is ''the Hopalong Cassidy of France . . . a commercial enterprise like cornflakes or Shirley Temple.'' Of Jean Stafford, she wrote: ''I never do get these lady writers who are Foremost of All Writers, Ladies, and go to bed in their laurels the way I go to bed in my roller skates. . . . Oh well, I suppose we can't all be riffraff.'' She added, ''I would cut my throat but the house is such a mess.'' To Edmund Wilson, she wrote of the biographer Andrew Turnbull, who interviewed her about Hemingway's coarse letters and Fitzgerald's gentlemanly ones. Powell claims to have responded that ''perhaps Ernest was not writing to him (Turnbull) but to his friend Scott, and that perhaps Scott was not writing to Hemingway but to him (Turnbull -- i.e., posterity).''

What is clear from Powell's letters is that she was indeed writing to those named -- not to posterity, not really. By turns dutiful, cheerful and irreverent, they are not the great, meditative letters of Gustave Flaubert or Flannery O'Connor. What they offer is something equally if differently satisfying, and that is a portrait of a hard-working, resilient female artist and professional.

In fact, Powell's life is deeply interesting both for its ordinariness (she is middle-class wife, mother, sister and drinking buddy) and the weird specificity of its troubles. When he was 20, her mentally ill son -- otherwise gentle and eccentrically brilliant -- beat her so severely she was hospitalized for two weeks. Her own ill health included colon cancer, alcoholism, anemia and a tumor with teeth and hair (a teratoma) attached to her heart. (''I was very glad,'' she wrote of the tumor, ''that he hadn't popped out of my chest during a formal dinner party, me in my strapless and him grabbing my martini.'') Her rocky marriage (to an ad executive), not much discussed in these letters, persisted mysteriously. Financial problems stalked her -- she was briefly homeless -- yet like most writers she could not maintain a taste for good business decisions. Among the Hollywood offers she rejected were projects that eventually became ''The Wizard of Oz'' and ''Funny Girl.'' ''I turned down an offer from MGM for $2,000 a week for 18 weeks,'' she wrote to her sister in 1938. ''I think if they'd offered me 50 cents or something I could have understood I would have snapped it up. As it was it just annoyed me to think of having to lug all that money around.'' Her forays into her beloved New York theater world were dispiriting flops. And she was published badly, even by -- especially by -- the esteemed Maxwell Perkins. There is a gently if icily weeping letter to him about it.

Powell wrote 15 novels and is primarily known for ''The Wicked Pavilion'' and ''My Home Is Far Away,'' her best titles if not her best books. She was skilled at the quick, acidic portrait, the rhythmically set forth and psychologically astute observation. If one had to criticize Powell's novels for anything, it might be that both in narrative strategy and satirical content they sometimes lack a sustained point of view. They are ''dart-throwing fiestas,'' to borrow one critic's words. ''The Wicked Pavilion,'' for instance, is on the brittle brink of being mere mood -- mean and elegant, but whose?

There are, however, no point-of-view problems in Powell's endlessly engaging letters. A reader comes to the last of them already missing their company (her diaries contain a less composed version of their voice). One cannot help believing that if she'd been male and Ivy League-educated her career would never have fallen into disarray -- not with 15 novels -- and we would have had these letters years ago. In the final line of this amazing collection, Powell says to her cousin Jack Sherman, ''I admire your guts in the midst of strangers.'' It is the writing life, sitting back and speaking eloquently -- in a letter -- of itself.

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