Authors: Dawn Powell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

Whither, 1925

She Walks in Beauty, 1928

The Bride’s House, 1929

Dance Night, 1930

The Tenth Moon, 1932

The Story of a Country Boy, 1934

Turn, Magic Wheel, 1936

The Happy Island, 1938

Angels on Toast, 1940, 1989 (revised as A Man’s Affair, 1956)

A Time to Be Born, 1942, 1991

My Home Is Far Away, 1944, 1995

The Locusts Have No King, 1948, 1990

The Wicked Pavilion, 1954, 1990

A Cage for Lovers, 1957

The Golden Spur, 1962

Short Fiction:

Sunday, Monday, and Always, 1952

Dawn Powell at Her Best, 1994 (Tim Page, editor)

Drama:

Big Night, pr. 1933

Jig Saw, pr., pb. 1934

The Lady Comes Across, pr. 1941

Nonfiction:

The Diaries of Dawn Powell, 1931-1965, 1995

Biography

Although her fiction never achieved great popularity and her theatrical ventures failed miserably, Dawn Powell is considered by many to be not only one of the wittiest women of her time but also one of the finest writers of the early twentieth century. She was born in the small Ohio town of Mount Gilead, the second child of Hattie B. Sherman Powell, a member of a well-to-do rural family, and Roy K. Powell, a pleasant but irresponsible traveling salesman. When Dawn was six, her hardworking mother died, and the family fell apart. For several years, Powell’s father deposited his three daughters with first one unwilling relative, then another. The girls were happiest with a warmhearted aunt, Orpha May Sherman, who ran a rooming house; when Roy Powell remarried, however, they found themselves at the mercy of a nasty-tempered stepmother. For Dawn, the last straw was her stepmother’s burning of the stories she had been writing. Dawn ran away and went back to Shelby, Ohio, to live with her favorite aunt. There, she worked on a newspaper while she finished school. Winning a scholarship to Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, she continued to support herself, though she also studied hard and participated in literary and theatrical activities at the college.{$I[AN]9810001670}{$I[A]Powell, Dawn}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Powell, Dawn}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Powell, Dawn}{$I[tim]1897;Powell, Dawn}

Dawn Powell

(Library of Congress)

After graduation, Powell went to New York. Until World War I ended, she served in the Navy auxiliary; she then found jobs first with the Red Cross, then with the Interchurch World Movement. Meanwhile, when not at a party in Greenwich Village, she was busy writing.

In 1920, Powell married a young advertising executive, Joseph R. Gousha, and they had a son the following year. It soon became clear that the child had sustained brain damage at birth and would always require care. Even though her husband was becoming increasingly successful in his profession, Powell knew that she, too, needed to make money in order to provide for their son. She could not know that no matter how hard she worked, nothing she wrote would ever bring her financial security.

In her first novel, Whither, Powell described the experiences of young women from the country who, like herself, were seeking all that New York seemed to promise them. With She Walks in Beauty, however, she returned to the Ohio of her youth, and four of the five next novels she wrote had midwestern settings.

Meanwhile, Powell herself had become a New Yorker. Like the famous wit and writer Dorothy Parker, she was now a central figure in the New York equivalent of a French salon. At the Hotel Lafayette, near Washington Square, she and an assortment of writers, artists, actors, and other bohemians gathered regularly to talk, drink, and laugh. It was this kind of sophisticated conversation that she put in her plays. Neither Big Night nor Jig Saw, however, ran more than a few days. In 1941 The Lady Comes Across, her effort at musical comedy, was to be even less successful.

In 1936, Powell published the first of seven satirical novels set wholly or primarily in the New York of which she now felt so much a part. Most critics consider these works, which appeared at intervals over a quarter century, her best. In form, they are essentially comedies of manners and contain sparkling wit. The plots are complicated, and the action moves at a feverish pace, but the characters are superficially drawn, sometimes even stereotypes.

The novels were admired by a small but influential inner circle. They did not sell well, however, perhaps because they did not appeal to people who were trying to survive first the Depression, then World War II. Powell tried to make money writing articles and scripts, but she never felt financially secure. By this time, her husband was merely a companion. Powell’s longtime lover was Coburn Gilman.

Two novels of those later years are atypical. My Home Is Far Away is the poignant story of Powell’s childhood, and A Cage for Lovers is an attempt to write seriously about tyrannical wealth. With her last book, The Golden Spur, Powell returned to her customary mode, this time to ridicule the love generation.

In 1962, Gousha died of cancer, leaving his wife nearly destitute. Fortunately, the following year she received a substantial gift, the Marjorie Peabody Award, from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, helping her to survive until her own death in 1965. In 1987, the well-known author Gore Vidal began crusading on Powell’s behalf, urging that her books be reprinted and reconsidered. As a result, interest in Powell has been revived, and she may at last be given the recognition that many fans and critics have long believed that she deserves.

BibliographyPage, Tim. Dawn Powell: A Biography. New York: Holt, 1998. The first comprehensive account of Powell’s life and work by one of her finest critics. Includes detailed notes and an extensive bibliography.Rice, Marcelle Smith. Dawn Powell. New York: Twayne, 2000. More of an overview than a traditional biography, this book concentrates on Powell’s novels, focusing on their creation and relation to the author’s life and experiences. Includes index and bibliographical references.Vidal, Gore. “Dawn Powell, the American Writer.” The New York Review of Books 34 (November 5, 1987): 52-60. This essay, which also serves as the introduction to the Vintage Press editions of Angels on Toast, The Golden Spur, and The Wicked Pavilion, is an important work of Powell criticism. In it, Vidal summarizes her life, suggests reasons for her obscurity, presents a chronological summary of her novels, and discusses her importance in American literature.Wilson, Edmund. “Greenwich Village in the 50’s.” The New Yorker 38 (November 17, 1962): 233-236. A review of The Golden Spur by one of the literary giants who shared Powell’s world. Wilson compares her genius to that of Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, and Muriel Spark.Wilson, Edmund. The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, edited by Leon Edel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980. An excellent source, not only because of the references to Dawn Powell but also because it provides a full picture of her period. Edel’s introduction is also illuminating. Illustrated.
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