Daughter of Roy K. and Hattie Sherman Powell; married Joseph R. Gousha, 1920; children: Joseph
Dawn Powell grew up in Ohio, received her B.A. from Lake Erie College in 1918, and then moved to New York City. She made her home in Greenwich Village, did various kinds of commercial writing to earn a living, and published some stories, a few plays, and the 15 novels that were her major work.
Most of Powell's early fiction is set in Ohio. Her later novels, which are her best, are witty satires set in a fast-paced, boozy New York world inhabited by artists, writers, and businessmen, by people out "to Live," and, above all, by provincial Midwesterners dealing with Manhattan.
Although in her lifetime Powell had a following that included Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and Edmund Wilson, her novels won neither huge popularity nor much serious critical attention. After her death, they fell into obscurity. Interest in Powell was revived in 1987, when Gore Vidal wrote an essay about her in the New York Review of Books. Vidal, who had known Powell, sketched in her life: her mother's early death; her marriage and the birth of her brain-damaged only son; her playwriting ambitions and failure; her social life, which figures in Edmund Wilson's The Thirties. But mainly he focused on the fiction of this forgotten writer whom he called "our best comic novelist," discussing both her Ohio novels and the New York works in which, he felt, "she came into her own." Five of Powell's New York novels were reissued within a few years after Vidal's essay: Angels on Toast (1940, revised as A Man's Affair, 1956, 1989), The Locusts Have No King (1948, 1990), The Wicked Pavilion (1954, 1989), The Golden Spur (1962, 1989), and A Time to Be Born (1942, 1991).
Edmund Wilson, writing in the New Yorker in 1962, remarked that women readers might "find no comfort in identifying" with Powell's female characters who, he said, "are likely to be as sordid as the men." Powell herself suggested her critical obscurity might be the result of her satire of the middle class. "It is considered jolly and good-humored to point out the oddities of the poor or of the rich… .I go outside the rules with my stuff because I can't help believing that the middle class is funny, too."
As Vidal comments, neither reviewers nor readers knew quite how to take Powell's work. She was "that unthinkable monster, a witty woman who felt no obligation to make a single, much less a final down payment on Love or the Family." Americans have "never been able to deal with wit," Vidal notes, citing a reviewer who complained that Powell viewed "the antics of humanity with too surgical a calm" and lacked a "sense of outrage."
Wit is certainly at the heart of Powell's novels, which are filled with astute observations rather than either outrage or sentimental comfort. In writing about lovers and spouses, insiders, outsiders, and eccentrics, Midwesterners at home or in the big city, Powell does not make life or people out to be any better than they are. Her great talent was for evoking so precisely what—in all their comicality and sadness—they are.
Caught up in duplicity and self-deception, messy love affairs or miserable marriages, Powell's characters do not easily escape their predicaments—and not because she has set them up, Powell is too fine a satirist for that. As she once said, "My characters are not slaves to an author's propaganda. I give them their heads. They furnish their own nooses." Permeated as they are with their setting, Powell's New York novels chronicle the city over decades. The Locusts Have No King conveys a postwar culture run amok. In her last novel, The Golden Spur, Powell playfully links past and present, Greenwich Village of the late 1920s and the 1950s, through the story of a young man from Ohio who believes he was illegitimately conceived in Manhattan and arrives there in 1956, seeking his true father.
For all their urbane smartness, Powell's novels are extraordinarily intelligent; and for all their hilarity, as Wilson remarked, they are "more than merely funny." Filled with "psychological insights that are at once sympathetic and cynical," they give us stories that are poignantly true.
Whither (1925). She Walks in Beauty (1928). The Bride's House (1929). Dance Night (1930). The Tenth Moon (1932). Big Night (play, 1933). Jig Saw, a Comedy (play, 1934). The Story of a Country Boy (1934). Turn, Magic Wheel (1936). The Happy Island (1938). Lady Across (play, 1941). My Home Is Far Away (1944). Sunday, Monday, and Always (short stories,1952). A Cage for Lovers (1957).
Bullis, J. A., Wisely Armed: The Psychology of Self and Satire in the Novels of Dawn Powell, Mary McCarthy, and Muriel Spark (dissertation, 1995). Pett, J. F., Dawn Powell: Her Life and Her Fiction (1982). Van Gelder, R., Writers and Writing (interview, 1946). Vidal, G., "Dawn Powell: The American Writer," in At Home: Gore Vidal, Essays 1982-1988 (1988). Warfel, Harry R., American Novelists of Today (1951).
CA (1969). FC (1990).
Belles Lettres (Fall 1990). LJ (1 May 1990, 15 April 1991). LATBR (25 March 1990). New Yorker (17 Nov. 1962). NYT (16 Nov. 1965, obituary). NYTBR (1 April 1990). Vanity Fair (Feb. 1990). VVLS (April 1990, June 1990). WPBW (18 March 1990). WRB (July 1990).