By LISA ZEIDNER
By Tim Page.
Illustrated. 362 pp. New York:
Henry Holt & Company. $30.
s far as I know, Dawn Powell's novels are not on a syllabus at any American university. Yet she is wittier than Dorothy Parker, dissects the rich better than F. Scott Fitzgerald, is more plaintive than Willa Cather in her evocation of the heartland and has a more supple control of satirical voice than Evelyn Waugh, the writer to whom she's most often compared.
Those in the market for a feminist icon could do worse than Dawn Powell. She prided herself on being a survivor, not a victim. She supported herself as a writer through the Depression and two world wars while nursing an autistic son, an alcoholic husband and her own parade of illnesses. She took lovers as boldly as a man and hobnobbed with the influential artists of her time. From this life, she produced 16 novels, many of them great, not to mention 10 plays and over 100 stories.
So why is she not better known? You could accept Tim Page's explanation, in ''Dawn Powell: A Biography,'' that her ''dark, mordant attitude toward the world . . . rankled.'' She was simply too unsparing in her satire, offending the very people who might embrace her. As Powell wrote in her diary: ''I think my great handicap and strongest slavery is my insistence on freedom. I require it.''
Page, the chief music critic for The Washington Post, has done more than write the first Powell biography. To a large extent, we must thank Page for allowing us to read her at all. Only fitfully successful during her lifetime, she was almost completely out of print following her death in 1965. Yet she was not without admirers: in a 1987 essay, Gore Vidal extolled Powell as a better satirist than Twain. In 1991, after reading a tribute to Powell by Edmund Wilson, Page stumbled upon a used copy of one of her novels and became instrumental in seeing her work reprinted. He edited her diaries for publication and is now the executor of her literary estate. Outside of her family, no one loves this complicated woman or her work as much as Page.
Dawn Powell's childhood reads like a parable about overcoming hardship. Born in 1896 in the small town of Mount Gilead, Ohio, Powell was the middle of three girls. Her mother died, of a botched abortion, when Powell was 7. Powell's father, an alcoholic traveling salesman, remarried and left the girls in the care of a genuine wicked stepmother -- a woman not only cruel but quite seriously disturbed. (She forced Dawn's sister Phyllis to watch her exhume the coffin of a premature newborn so she could change the corpse's outfit -- into the dress of Phyllis's only doll.)
By 13, Powell had already read Schopenhauer but had been forbidden to go to high school. She ran away from home to finish school and live with a nurturing aunt, Orpha May, in Shelby, Ohio, then sweet-talked herself into a work-study scholarship at Lake Erie College for Women before arriving in Manhattan in 1918.
Collection Tim Page/ From "Dawn Powell"
|Dawn Powell's first promotional photograph, probably issued in 1925.|
Although Powell contended that she wrote ''because there is no one to talk to,'' her social life was a whirl of dinners and parties with good friends like Edmund Wilson and John Dos Passos. She knew Nabokov, Hemingway, Dorothy Parker and Stella Adler. She could be brutal in exposing poseurs and had a delectably nasty wit. Yet she was also ferociously loyal to her family and to old school chums. And she was never a snob or a social climber. She befriended Margaret Burnham De Silver at a mental hospital. (Jojo was in love with De Silver's daughter, a schizophrenic.) De Silver was an heiress whose anarchist lover would later be assassinated by the mob -- just the kind of bizarre connections that Powell's Manhattan offers. The critic who once huffily complained that there was ''not a wholly normal character'' in a Powell novel would probably be equally offended by her life.
Powell wrote steadily, sometimes in jubilation, but more often in a nattering funk. She viewed her career as a horrid Sisyphean rock. Page chronicles the stupid, ungenerous reviews -- many written by so-called friends -- and the foolhardy marketing ploys. (Her publisher actually tried to pawn off the family at the center of the hard-edged ''My Home Is Far Away'' as ''happy-go-lucky.'') In spite of spotty recognition, Powell retained a lucid assurance about the value of her vision.
About her characters, Powell said: ''I give them their heads. They furnish their own nooses.'' Page captures one of the chief appeals of Powell's fiction: how her ruthless exposure of her characters coexists with her buoyant affection for them. Her realism, Page asserts, ''did not push her work into either gloom or didacticism.'' In fact, her crisply nuanced social satire has more in common with Jane Austen than with the contemporaries to whom she is usually compared. One almost has to stretch back to Austen to find heroines as confident, complex and sympathetic. In Austen, and Powell, it's a hard, cold world -- yet nice girls can still sometimes finish first.
By the time Page began this biography, virtually all of Powell's intimates were dead. This fact has obviously hindered his ability to dig up fresh dirt. ''Dawn Powell'' does debunk one morsel of gossip: that she conducted a lifelong affair with the debonair, droll editor Coburn (Coby) Gilman, cohabiting with him and Joseph Gousha in virtually a menage a trois.
Powell's attitude toward sex was, as Page puts it, ''fundamentally sportive.'' She had no patience for women who whined about romance. Yet Page reveals that Powell did suffer one major heartbreak: her failed affair with the playwright John Howard Lawson. Her stubborn longing for Lawson haunted her and clearly informed much of her best work. But, maddeningly, the affair was so covert that Powell would not even make reference to it in her diaries, Page's main (indeed, in many cases, only) source of information.
In lieu of fresh revelations, the biography attempts to plant Powell firmly in American cultural history: in the hard-drinking, money-grubbing, politicized context of her times. But Page is not a historian. The biography's only weakness is that Page does not always clarify, or seem able to evaluate, which of his subject's decisions about love and money were bravely eccentric, which standard protocol for a Greenwich Village bohemian. What did Powell's contemporaries make of her declining a spectacular salary to write for Hollywood at the depth of the Depression -- especially when she was always strapped for cash, at one point virtually homeless? Or of enduring a sexless if companionable marriage more worthy of a Henry James novel than one of her own bawdy, bed-hopping confections?
In her elusive relationship to the values of her era lies Powell's greatness -- yet this is also, paradoxically, her most damning liability. She could be neither marketed as breathlessly of-the-moment nor lionized as timelessly classical. As usual, she knew the score. ''The Golden Spur,'' published three years before her death, contains a scathing self-parody in which Claire, a failed writer and lonely old crone, brags that ''really good clothes never go out of style'' -- oblivious of the fact that people flee from her as if she's a bag lady.
Page exposes Powell for lying about her age. As she hit 30, she seems to have decided to become a year younger. And he has some gentle fun with her health bugbears, like her tendency to look upon any hospitalization, even for the removal of a tumor so large it cracked open her ribs one by one, as a pampered vacation. But short of that, this biography is unabashedly celebratory. After all, Page named one of his sons after Jack Sherman, Powell's cousin. We confirmed Powellists (Dawnites?) can only applaud him.
His devotion is eerily prefigured in one of Powell's best novels, ''Turn Magic Wheel,'' in which a male writer is spellbound by a mysterious older woman. Since it's a Powell novel, the ending is not triumphant or tragic but qualified and enigmatic. For Page to become such a vigorous champion allows a satisfying fairy-tale coda to Powell's career -- not the kind that she herself would have envisioned, but the kind that she deserves.
Lisa Zeidner is a professor of English at Rutgers University. Her fourth novel, ''Layover,'' will be published in June.
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John Joseph Powell, (September 22, 1925, Chicago, Illinois – September 24, 2009, Clarkston, Michigan) was a Jesuitpriest and author, and brother of Rita Donlan and William Powell.
He received elementary-school education at the John B. Murphy public school in Chicago. In June 1943, Powell graduated from the Loyola Academy in Chicago. In August 1943, he entered the Society of Jesus at Milford, Ohio. In the fall of 1947, he began a three-year course in philosophy at West Baden College, and enrolled in Loyola University, where he took a Bachelor of Arts degree the following June. He began graduate work at Loyola in 1948 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1956.
Powell worked at West Baden University (1961-1965), the Bellarmine School of Theology of Loyola University (1965-1968) and Loyola University (1968-2001), where he became an associate professor of theology and psychology. Powell was a proponent of humanistic Catholicism and wrote many books mostly dealing with psychology and Catholic theology, and conducted spiritual retreats along with his counseling work.
Fr. Powell was accused of abusing of at least seven female students in the 1960s and 1970s. He was first sued in 2003 and again in 2006. Six of his alleged victims settled their litigation in 2005.