Finding truth at two extremes
Somehow in the boom years the boom was always lowered on me,' said the Ameri- can writer Dawn Powell, looking back in irony on her career. She could easily out- wisecrack the more famous Dorothy Parker — but that was not what rankled. The 15 remarkable novels she published between 1925 and 1962 never quite won the esteem they deserved although she had many champions, the most distinguished being her contemporary Edmund Wilson and, towards the end of her life (she died in 1965, aged 69), Gore Vidal. But Wilson's praise was often cautiously patronising and Vidal, while hailing her repeatedly as 'one of our most brilliant — certainly most witty — novelists', confined his admiration to the seven 'New York' satires on which her rep- utation used to rest.
This cycle, starting with Turn, Magic Wheel in 1936 and ending in 1962 with The Golden Spur, is indeed a formidable and unique achievement. Individually the books may be uneven (sometimes the urgency of her angry inspiration betrays itself in an impatient haste) but as a whole they create a comic universe of glittering vitality. Man- hattan, its bars and studios, the hard- boiled, woolly-minded pretensions of its denizens and in particular the tragic farce of their sexual misunderstandings are refracted through the unforgiving gaze of a mid-20th-century Petronius. The observa- tion is deadly because it is exact: Powell never exaggerates and her work shows no trace of the glib heartlessness assumed by the second-rate satirist.
But it offended the genteel intelligentsia of the day. When The Locusts Have No King came out in 1948 the influential critic Diana Trilling saluted the author's `fiercely courageous wit' but snobbishly deplored
the discrepancy between the power of mind revealed on every page of her novel and the insignificance of the human beings upon whom she directs her excellent intelligence.
Poor Powell was used to this by now.
Almost resignedly, she wrote in her diary:
Again there is this shaking of heads over not writing about 'nice people — people one likes'. Who likes? I'm doing the work. I write about people / find interesting, largely because they are representative. My readers and critics never recognise themselves.
After her death various attempts were made to keep her in print but these were frustrated by the fact that she had left her literary estate in the charge of a younger woman friend who found herself unable to fulfil the responsibilities of executorship. At last the persistent efforts of a post- humous admirer, the music critic Tim Page, managed to clarify the confusions that had resulted. He was rewarded by an exciting discovery: Powell's hitherto unpub- lished diaries. Edited by Page, these came out in 1995 and were acclaimed by review- ers as a masterpiece. (Page has since edited her letters and written her biography.) Powell's personal life was a serial strug- gle: her husband, 'in' advertising, became an alcoholic; their only son tragically proved to be autistic; her own health was bad; there were persistent worries about money in spite of her comparative success as bread-winning journalist, dramatist, scriptwriter and provider of 'material' for the gay comedian Dwight Fiske. Yet read- ing her diaries is a stimulating rather than a depressing experience. The insight they provide into sophisticated bohemia and its intrigues, jealousies and drunken rows is even more scintillating here than in her novels. (One's pleasure is distinct from the name-dropping, gossipy kind — most of her then celebrated friends are now forgot- ten). More importantly, they bring one into exhilarating intimacy with the workings of an original and deeply distinguished mind, as unaffectedly eloquent in self-analysis as in social observation. This is above all the journal of a writer. Many of her fellows will ruefully empathise with the troubles she endures from tactless publishers and crass editorial interference.
What editors want is the Dead Body so they can have an autopsy. What I always strove for was to create life — to have the novel about people be those people, have a breath- ing story, not language separate from com- munication. I want to alert the reader, not lull him. Sentences must explode and bloom.
The revelation of the diaries has led to the reissue of most of Powell's fiction. This in turn sprang yet another pleasant sur- prise. As well as reprinting all the 'New York' books, still affectionately remem- bered by a few surviving fans, the Steer- forth Press in Vermont also resuscitated four titles from the totally forgotten 'Ohio' group, which had been dismissed by Vidal as routine examples of provincial American realism, rooted as they are in memories of the first two decades of her life. Three of these — Dance Night, Come Back to Sor- rento and My Home Is Far Away — prove on the contrary to be exquisitely realised works of art, delicately romantic in tone but overwhelmingly powerful in effect. In her diary she writes:
'Realism' is the only completely vague word. 'Satire' is the technical word for writing of people as they arc; 'romantic' the other extreme of people as they are to themselves — but both of these are the truth.
Resisting the compromise of a crowd- pleasing middle way, Powell triumphantly found her own truth at the two extremes.