Tim Page's 'Dawn Powell': no self-pity

November 01, 1998|By Dorothea Straus | Dorothea Straus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Dawn Powell," by Tim Page. Henry Holt. 362 pages. $30. Dawn Powell" is an exemplary biography. Nowadays when so many of this genre are freighted by overloads of unassimilated data that succeed in crushing their subjects, Page has caught his, alive.

He allows that, "Someday, some courageous scholar may undertake a complete bibliography of Dawn Powell - the present writer gave up the effort, overwhelmed by the bulk and variety of her free-lance work."

Dawn Powell (1896-1965) spanned two cyclical eras: New York City's "bohemian" life in the Greenwich Village of the late 1920s and early '30s, and the "liberated" '60s. One wonders what she would have made of the hypocritical, fanatical puritanism of 1998.

Page's book leads one to believe that her novels and stories reflect society, but they are nonjudgmental. Her mode is satire. She is quoted as saying, "Satire is people as they are, romanticism, people as they would like to be, realism, people as they seem with their insides left out."

Her existence and the focus of her fiction are divided: an impoverished childhood in small Ohio towns, and New York City, where she arrived at age 20. Her early days resemble a tragedy by Theodore Dreiser: a mother's untimely death followed by uprootings (along with her two sisters), to the homes of various family members, including, intermittently, a proverbial wicked stepmother and a feckless father, but her autobiographical novels are without self-pity.

Page writes, "Powell esteemed a hearty, stoical pessimism, leavened whenever possible by wit, worldly pleasures and sophisticated camaraderie. For Powell, the bad news was already in: life was an absurd, bloody, brutal business - always has been, always would be - but there were compensations along the way, and a wise person would grab as many as possible without complaint."

This philosophy applied especially to the trials of her adult life: the periods of near destitution, illness, and an only autistic child who survives his parents in a state institution. Her husband, Joseph Gousha, a failed writer, advertising man, became an alcoholic, but their marriage endured despite her many male friends and passing lovers. Powell usually preferred the company of men to women.

Her numerous novels with urban settings possess the clear, detached vision for detail often possessed by the outlander. They are sharp and brittle as the broken glasses strewn over the floors of the speakeasies and night clubs she frequented. Powell claimed, "I have no yen for any experience (even triumph) that blocks observation, when I am observed instead of the observer. Time is too short to miss so many sights."

Although her work had its following in her day, her earnings were scanty, and there are more books in circulation at the present moment. Gore Vidal praises them, and Edmund Wilson was a loyal friend and fan. I regret to say that until now, I had not read Dawn Powell, and even confused her reputation with Dorothy Parker's and Fanny Hurst's. But Tim Page's model literary biography has corrected my oversight. He is to be thanked for this, as well as for the pleasure of reading his book.

Dorothea Straus has written six books, among them "Virgins and Other Species," and "Under the Canopy." She has written for Harper's Bazaar and the Partisan Review.

Pub Date: 11/01/98

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.