Dawn Powell, c.1914
November 28, 1896|
Mount Gilead, Ohio, United States
|Died||November 14, 1965
New York City, United States
Dawn Powell (November 28, 1896 – November 14, 1965) was an American writer of novels and stories.
Powell was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, a village 45 miles north of Columbus and the county seat of Morrow County. Powell regularly gave her birth year as 1897 but primary documents support the earlier date. After her mother died when Powell was seven, she lived with a series of relatives around the state. Her father remarried, but his second wife was harsh and abusive toward the children; when her stepmother destroyed her notebooks and diaries, she ran away to live with an aunt, who encouraged her creative work. Powell later gave her childhood fictional form in the novel My Home Is Far Away (1944).
At Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, she wrote stories and plays, acted in college productions, and edited the college newspaper. After graduation, she moved to Manhattan. Most of her subsequent writing would deal either with life in small Midwestern towns, or with the lives of people transplanted to New York City from such towns.
On November 20, 1920, she married Joseph Gousha, an aspiring poet and advertising copy-writer. In 1921, the couple had their only child, Joseph R. Gousha Jr. ("Jojo"), who was born mentally impaired and later developed autism. Her husband abandoned poetry for the steady work of advertising, and the family moved to Greenwich Village, which remained her home base for the rest of her life. The Village served as both inspiration and backdrop for most of her writing; some of the key locations in her fiction remain standing today.
She had a prodigious output, producing hundreds of short stories, ten plays, a dozen novels, and an extended diary starting in 1931. Her writings, however, never generated enough money to live off. Throughout her life, she supported herself with various jobs, including freelance writer, extra in silent films, Hollywood screenwriter, book reviewer, and radio personality. Her play Walking Down Broadway was filmed as Hello, Sister! (1933), co-written and co-directed by Erich von Stroheim.
Her novel Whither was published in 1925, but she always described She Walks in Beauty (1928) as her first. Her favorite of her own novels, Dance Night, came out in 1930. The early work received uneven reviews, and none of it sold well. Her 1936 novel Turn, Magic Wheel, the first work that received both critical acclaim and reasonably good sales, marked a turn to social satire in a New York setting. In 1939, Scribner's became her publisher, where Maxwell Perkins was her editor.
In 1942, Powell published her first commercially successful novel, A Time to Be Born, whose central figure—Amanda Keeler Evans, an egotistical hack writer whose work and media presence are bolstered by the assiduous promotion of her husband, the newspaper magnate Julian Evans—is loosely modelled on Clare Boothe Luce, wife of Henry Luce. A musical adaptation of the novel, written by Tajlei Levis and John Mercurio, was staged in 2006 in New York City.
After the war, Powell's output slowed down, but it included some of her most acclaimed New York novels, including The Locusts Have No King (1948), a portrait of the disintegration and eventual rekindling of a love affair against the background of the city and the onset of the Cold War. The novel ends with news of the Bikini Atoll atom-bomb tests.
Two late novels show Powell's interest in the New York art world of the 1950s:
- The Wicked Pavilion (1954), an ensemble portrait of the characters orbiting around the Cafe Julien (a fictionalized Hotel Brevoort) and a vanished or deceased painter named Marius
- The Golden Spur (1962), set in a fictionalized Cedar Tavern, in which a young man's search for the identity and history of his dead father brings him to New York, where he becomes involved with the circle around a charismatic painter, Hugow
Old age and death
Powell died slowly and painfully of colon cancer which afflicted her in 1964 and killed her the following year, in the same week as the first great New York blackout. She donated her body to the Cornell Medical Center, which offered to return parts of it five years later for burial. Her executrix, Jacqueline Miller Rice, refused to claim the remains, which were then buried on Hart Island, New York City's potter's field.
When Powell died, virtually all of her novels were out of print. Her posthumous champions included Matthew Josephson, Gore Vidal, and especially Tim Page, who joined forces with her family to free her manuscripts, diaries, and copyrights from her original executrix. The result was a revival in the late 1990s, when most of Powell's books were made available once more. Her papers are now at the Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library in her beloved New York.
Powell is referenced in the Gilmore Girls episode "Help Wanted", in which Rory expresses sadness over her relative obscurity. She is also referenced in the novel A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity by Whitney Otto. She is also referenced by the novelist Alan Furst in his 2014 work 'Midnight in Europe.'
A book about her by Patricia E. Palermo was published in 2016. Called The Message of the City: Dawn Powell's NY Novels, it is a brilliant compilation of most of the critical work done on Powell in her day and in ours. It also looks at how the writer turns her everyday life, as discussed in her diaries and letters, into polished fiction.
- New York State Writers Hall of Fame - June 2015
- "Satire is people as they are; romanticism, people as they would like to be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out."
- "A novel must be a rich forest known at the start only by instinct."
- "A capacity for going overboard is a requisite for a full-grown mind."
- 1925. Whither (novel). Boston: Small, Maynard.
- 1928. She Walks in Beauty (novel). New York: Brentano's.
- 1929. The Bride's House (novel). New York: Brentano's.
- 1930. Dance Night (novel). New York: Farrar & Rinehart.
- 1932. The Tenth Moon (novel). New York: Farrar & Rinehart. (Reprinted in 2001 by The Library of America as Come Back to Sorrento.)
- 1933. Big Night (play).
- 1934. Jig Saw: A Comedy (play). New York: Farrar & Rinehart
- 1934. The Story of a Country Boy (novel). New York: Farrar & Rinehart.
- 1936. Turn, Magic Wheel (novel). New York: Farrar & Rinehart.
- 1938. The Happy Island (novel). New York: Farrar & Rinehart.
- 1940. Angels on Toast (novel). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Reprinted in 1956 as A Man's Affair. New York: Fawcett.
- 1942. A Time to Be Born (novel). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
- 1944. My Home Is Far Away (novel). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
- 1948. The Locusts Have No King (novel). New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
- 1952. Sunday, Monday and Always (stories). Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Reprint, 1999 (with four additional stories). Ed. Tim Page. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press.
- 1954. The Wicked Pavilion (novel). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- 1957. A Cage for Lovers (novel). Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
- 1962. The Golden Spur (novel). New York: Viking.
- 1994. Dawn Powell At Her Best, ed. Tim Page. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press.
- 1995. The Diaries of Dawn Powell, 1931–1965, ed. Tim Page. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press.
- 1999. Selected Letters of Dawn Powell, 1913–1965, ed. Tim Page. New York, NY: Henry Holt & Company.
- 1999. Four Plays, ed. Tim Page and Michael Sexton. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press.
- 2001. Novels 1930-1942, ed. Tim Page. The Library of America. ISBN 978-1-931082-01-3.
- 2001. Novels 1944-1962, ed. Tim Page. The Library of America. ISBN 978-1-931082-02-0.
- Her New York Times obituary, November 16, 1965, lists her birth date as November 28, 1897. The Ohio, Births and Christenings Index in Ancestry.com lists her full name as "Marthy Dawn Powell," and her birth date as September 28, 1896. Other U.S. Census data is more vague.
- "Still Living in Dawn Powell's Village," Off the Grid, Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, December 10, 2013.
- "In New York, Shows Can Be Slow or Fast in the Making", Jason Zinoman, New York Times, August 26, 2006. Retrieved July 30, 2011.
- Library of America essay by Gore Vidal (1987) Archived 2007-12-16 at the Wayback Machine.
- "Dawn Powell, Novelist, Is Dead; Author of Witty, Satirical Books; Middle Class Was the Object of Her Stinging Fiction-13 Books Published", The New York Times, November 16, 1965. "Miss Powell, who had resided in Greenwich Village most of her life, maintained an apartment at 95 Christopher Street, where she did most of her writing in recent years."
- Koningsberg, Eric (April 6, 2009). "The New York Times". Retrieved 2009-04-06.
- The Library of America Presents Dawn Powell; extensive information on Powell's life and works, along with commentary