The Dawn Powell Revival Continues

    February 7, 1944: “Went out today for a little while. Letter today from Hemingway very cheering. Said I was his favorite living writer”.

                                                      Dawn Powell – The Diaries of Dawn Powell

The world is coming around to Ernest Hemingway’s view of Dawn Powell.  After a long career as a fiction writer and barely supporting her alcoholic husband and autistic son, Dawn Powell died in 1965 and was buried anonymously in a potter’s field near New York City.  At that time all her books were out of print, and they stayed out of print for over twenty years. 

The rediscovery of Dawn Powell began in 1987 when Gore Vidal wrote a long article in the New York Review of Books titled “Dawn Powell: The American Writer” in which Vidal calls Powell “our best comic novelist” and goes through in detail every book that she wrote.  Note that Vidal does not qualify his remark with “our best comic novelist since Mark Twain”.

The next step in the rediscovery of Dawn Powell occurred in 1988 when Steerforth Press published three of her New York Greenwich Village novels, “Angels on Toast”, “The Wicked Pavilion”, and “The Golden Spur”.  This is when I discovered Dawn Powell.  These novels amazed me with their scenes from New York parties where the conversation at these parties was some of the wittiest talk I’d ever read. At that point I didn’t know that whatever room she was in, Dawn Powell was always the wittiest person in the room. 

The first three books were so successful that Steerforth released more and more of her books in the 1990s including “A Time to be Born”, “The Locusts have no King”, “Turn, Magic Wheel”, “Dance Night”,  and her great Ohio novel about her childhood “My Home is Far Away”.

Much of the revival of Dawn Powell is attributable to music critic Tim Page who has worked tirelessly to get this important writer back in print and in the spotlight.  He prepared her diaries and letters for publishing and also wrote the biography of Powell.  The diaries of Dawn Powell are a fascinating day-to-day account of Powell struggling to write these novels and plays.  The diaries have achieved the status of Flannery O’Connor’s collection of letters, “The Habit of Being”.

In 2001, the Library of America chose to collect nine of Dawn Powell’s novels and publish them in two volumes.  By that time, I had already read all nine of these novels.  In these volumes Powell’s work is collected along side volumes of Twain, Melville, Wharton, and Hawthorne. Lisa Zeidner, wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Powell “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.”   

Here are some words from her diaries that provide some insight into Powell’s art.

    “Wit is the cry of pain, the true word that pierces the heart. If it does not pierce, then it is not true wit. True wit should break a good man’s heart.

    I find no gaiety or wit that is not based on truth. For me there is nothing delightful in blindness, in people being gay because they do not admit facts… Gaiety should be brave, it should have stout legs of truth, not a gelatine base of dreams and wishes.

    The artist who really loves people loves them so well the way they are he sees no need to disguise their characteristics—he loves them whole, without retouching. Yet the word always used for this unqualifying affection is ‘cynicism’.”

One gets the sense that Dawn Powell’s wit was too sharp and honest for many in her lifetime.

Finally, I will end with Powell’s own list of her favorite books from her diaries.

    March 29, 1953: What novels I have liked best—

      Sister Carrie – Dreiser

      Dodsworth – Lewis

      Sentimental Education – Flaubert

      Satyricon – Petronius

      Daniel Deronda – Eliot (partly)

      Dead Souls – Gogol

      Lost Illusions – Balzac

      Distinguished Provincial – Balzac

      Our Mutual Friend – Dickens

      David Copperfield – Dickens

      Jenny – Undset

The Dawn Powell revival is still in an early stage.

22 responses to this post.

  1. I haven’t read her diaries but I once heard Tim Page speak at The Southern Festival of Books!

    Steerforth Books also brought Dawn Powell’s books to my attention. I do have several of her books, though, and will have to move them back to the TBR shelf

    I wonder if Steerforth Books still exists.


    • Hi Mad Housewife,
      I did a couple of googles for Steerforth Press, and they seem to be going strong. I’ve been amazed at the dedication of Tim Page to Dawn Powell’s advancement. I believe Tim Page is from Ohio which is Dawn Powell’s birthplace, although she spent most of her adult life in Greenwich Village. It would have been interesting to hear Tim Page talk. .


  2. Great post, Tony. I see her name pop up occasionally, but have not yet read anything of hers. Now, I definitely will. She sounds like an excellent writer and a very interesting person. Do you have a recommendation for where to begin?


    • Hi Kerry,
      Here is how I would approach Dawn Powell’s work. Start with one of her New York books, because these always have party scenes where her wit shines. The New York books include ‘Angels on Toast’, ‘The Wicked Pavilion’, ‘A Time to Be Born’, ‘Turn, Magic Wheel’, ‘The Locusts Have No King’,and ‘The Golden Spur. After reading one of these, if you want to read more, read a couple more of her New York books. Then if you still are a Dawn Powell affectionado, read ‘My Home is Far Away’ which is a great book about her childhood that is different from her other work. Finally there is ‘Dance Night’ another short excellent Ohio book. Dawn Powell’s work is more consistent than are most authors’.


  3. Thank you for looking up Steerforth! Sometimes when books don’t turn up at my bookstore, I I think the small presses have gone under. I

    Tim Page was a good speaker–of course the talk would have been greater had I read his bio and letters of Dawn Powell. (I have read a few of her novel,s though, and loved them.) I’m not quite sure how he ended up there. Usually this book festival features Southern writers or biographers of Southern writers, and Dawn Powell didn’t quite fit in. It was great.


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  6. A cranky whisperinggums here. I wrote a response to this last night and just as I went to submit it, our internet went down – it was unusually flaky yesterday. I thoroughly enjoyed this post as I love discovering “older” writers. In last night’s comment I made some terribly edifying comment about Powell and Jane Austen but d****d if I remember what it was now! That said, I am glad you have introduced me to her!


  7. Hi Whisperinggums,
    Oh, I know all too well the pain of writing the perfect comment and then losing it before it gets posted. I just googled ‘Jane Austen Dawn Powell’ and got some surprising results. First there’s
    The is another nice Jane Austen reference in the middle of the following:
    And one more where the two writers are mentioned in the same sentence.
    Jane Austen and Dawn Powell? Not so far-fetched at all. Thanks for stopping.


    • Thanks for these Tony – it’s good to see it’s not that I see Austen everywhere! I think the main thing that made me think Austen was this quote: “I find no gaiety or wit that is not based on truth”. That sounds Austen to me, though I’m not sure that ever quite articulated the meaning behind her wit that way.


  8. I really must get out more- (I stick too close to my own little corner of the blogging world)–I rarely see mention of Dawn Powell on blogs and am happy to see somone else reading her work and writing about her with enthusiasm. I’ve not read all her novels though I have dabbled a bit in her letters and read parts of Tim Page’s bio (the library where I work has them on the shelves very conveniently). I’ve always found it so sad that she ended up in a potter’s field–as I recall her secretary/someone from her estate was notified that her remains were ready for burial (didn’s she leave her body to science?) and no one came for her. But her writing is really marvelous and she deserves to be better known.


  9. Hi Danielle,
    I only found out the potter’s field story when I was researching this post. It seems kinf of strange, because I think both her husband and son were still alive at that time.
    It seems like anyone who has read a few novels by Dawn Powell winds up being a fanatic like Tim Page rather than just a fan. I know I am a fanatic. Thanks for putting her in your ‘Triple Tuesday’ selections.


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