Powell, Dawn (1897–1965)

views updated

Powell, Dawn (1897–1965)

American writer whose work began receiving renewed attention at the end of the 20th century. Born on November 28, 1897, in Mount Gilead, Ohio; died on November 15, 1965, in New York City; daughter of Roy K. Powell and Hattie B. (Sherman) Powell; Lake Erie College, Painesville, Ohio, B.A., 1918; married Joseph Roebuck Gousha (an advertising executive), on November 20, 1920 (died 1962); children: Joseph, Jr. (b. 1921).

Selected writings:

Whither (1925); She Walks in Beauty (1928); The Bride's House (1929, reissued 1998); Dance Night (1930, reissued 1999); The Tenth Moon (1932); Big Night (play, 1933); Jig Saw (play, 1934); The Story of a Country Boy (1934); Turn, Magic Wheel (1936, reissued 1999); The Happy Island (1938, reissued 1998); Angels on Toast (1940,reissued 1990); Lady Comes Across (play, 1941); A Time to Be Born (1942, reissued 1996); My Home Is Far Away (1944, reissued 1995); The Locusts Have No King (1948, reissued 1996); Sunday, Monday and Always (short stories, 1952, reissued 1999); The Wicked Pavilion (1954, reissued 1996); The Golden Spur (1962, reissued 1997); The Diaries of Dawn Powell: 1931–1965 (ed. Tim Page, 1995).

Born on November 28, 1897, in Mount Gilead, Ohio, Dawn Powell was one of three daughters of Roy K. Powell and Hattie B. Sherman Powell , both of whom had migrated to Ohio from southern Virginia. When Powell and her sisters were still quite small, their mother died. Because their father's work took him on the road, her death began a lengthy odyssey for the three sisters, during which they were passed from the care of one relative to another. They would live for a while with a relative on a farm, and then move to a small-town boarding house or to the hustle and bustle of a factory-town apartment. These childhood experiences helped to provide the background for many of the novels Powell would write later in life.

This nomadic existence, as unstable as it must have been, may well have been preferable to what followed for Powell and her sisters. In 1909, her father remarried, and the girls joined him on the farm owned by his new wife, located near Cleveland. None of the sisters were happy with their new living arrangements, but it was perhaps worst for Dawn, who clashed frequently with her stepmother. At the age of 12, she ran away from home after her stepmother incinerated all of the stories she had been writing. She had hit the road with only 30 cents, which she had earned picking berries, and moved in with an aunt in Shelby, Ohio. Here she attended the local public school and stepped up her writing activity by working on the school paper and at the local newspaper after school. Powell's My Home Is Far Away, originally published in 1944 and subtitled An Autobiographical Novel, is an insightful examination of these unhappy childhood years in the Midwest.

After her graduation from high school, Powell attended Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, while working some five hours each day to support herself. She and a couple of college friends launched a "secret" paper, and later she became editor-in-chief of the college magazine. She earned her B.A. in 1918 and moved to New York City to seek her fortune. She arrived in the big city during the final days of the First World War and joined the U.S. Naval Reserve, managing

to get in three weeks of work before the end of the war.

Much of what is known about Powell's life has come from her diaries, which were published in 1995. Although no one knows for certain when she began keeping them, it is believed that some may have been among the writings burned by her stepmother. In a journal she kept while working as a waitress and maid at a Lake Erie summer resort called the Shore Club, she addressed her observations to an imaginary friend she called "Woggs." One such entry from this summer 1915 diary reads as follows: "Dear Woggsie, I'm melancholy again. It's too bad that I'm always confiding in you on those days I feel the bluest. This book is enough to make a stone weep and if anyone should read it they would think the writer was indeed in pathetic straits. But no one will ever read it so I think I'm really wiser to do it this way—tell my blue, weepy thoughts to you, who will never reveal them to another soul, instead of inflicting them on the people around me—and when I'm in a flip, gay mood, I take it off on other people." Thus was established a pattern that Powell was to follow for most of her life. Her public writings were upbeat and filled with witty and often acerbic observations, while she saved her expressions of fear, doubt, and pain mostly for her diaries.

In 1920, while living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and working in publicity, Powell met and fell in love with Joseph Roebuck Gousha. A poet and music critic from Pittsburgh, he had become a successful advertising executive in New York. Her brief, gushing references to Gousha in her diaries show little indication that Powell would someday be seen as a brilliant satirist. Among the entries in Powell's "Book of Joe" are the following: "My Adorable came tonight. Our last Sunday alone…. I went to Joe's house for dinner and we walked to the Bay. My Adorable is so lovely…. My Adorable. I wonder what he truly wants. I wish it was the same thing I want." The couple married on November 20 that year.

Powell and her husband had only one child, a son named Joseph, Jr., born on August 22, 1921. Seriously disabled from birth, "Jojo," as he was known by his parents, has been described as suffering from a combination of schizophrenia and cerebral palsy, and spent most of his life shuttling between a number of institutions and his family's home, where Powell cared for him. She deeply loved her son and took great joy in the modest accomplishments of his life.

Powell's first novel, Whither, was published in 1925, though she made it clear later in life that her first literary venture was something she would prefer be forgotten. Three years later, in 1928, She Walks in Beauty was published by Brentano, a testimony to the persistence of Powell, who collected more than 35 rejection slips while shopping the novel around to publishing houses. She followed this with The Bride's House (1929), Dance Night (1930), The Tenth Moon (1932), The Story of a Country Boy (1934), Turn, Magic Wheel (1936), and Angels on Toast (1940), among others. In all, Powell published 15 novels and also wrote more than 100 short stories and a half-dozen plays, including 1933's Big Night, which was produced by the Theater Guild. New York City and Ohio were two of her favorite settings; the novel Dance Night, a story of young love and ambition set in a small town, was an expression of her distaste for the Ohio town of her childhood. Particularly in her New York satires, Powell portrayed with wit and insight the lives of writers, artists, publishers and businessmen (or, in the words of the New York Herald Tribune, "such sub-species as the Double-Dyed Phony, the Barshopping Lush and the Love-Nesting Round-heels") caught up in the intoxicating world of Manhattan. In 1949, Glenway Wescott proclaimed that she was "doing for New York what Balzac did for Paris."

Powell's life was generally unhappy, marred by drinking, health problems, financial instability, and an unsatisfying marriage that became a triangle when she began a long-standing affair with Coburn "Coby" Gilman around 1930. A number of reviewers, commenting on her diaries, have noted the contrast between the often unpleasant personality that emerges from the entries and the fascination engendered by observing the progress of her writing life in those same pages. Powell's husband died in 1962. She died three years later, less than two weeks before her 68th birthday, and was buried on Hart Island, New York City's potter's field. Interest in her writing fell off rapidly, although, in an assessment of her contribution to 20th-century literature written soon after her death, The New York Times noted: "While Miss Powell's novels were never best-sellers, they attracted devoted admirers in both the United States and England. [Edmund] Wilson called them 'among the most amusing being written, and in this respect quite on a level with those of Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, and Muriel Spark .'" In 1987, after Gore Vidal published an essay on her work in The New York Review of Books, Powell's books were rediscovered. Many of them have since been reissued to glowing critical acclaim, and the first full-length biography of her was published in 1998.

sources and suggested reading:

Belles Lettres. Vol. 11. January 1996, pp. 13–14.

Contemporary Authors. First Revision Vol. 5–8. Detroit, MI: Gale Research.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycraft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

Page, Tim. Dawn Powell: A Biography. NY: Holt, 1998.

Powell, Dawn. The Diaries of Dawn Powell, 1931–1965. Edited by Tim Page. Steerforth, 1995.

Publishers Weekly. August 3, 1998, p. 61.

The Women's Review of Books. Vol. XIII, no. 4. January 1996, p. 6.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania

More From encyclopedia.com