A Time to Be Born

The inclusion of snippets from Dawn Powell’s journal in one of the latest New Yorkers left me hungry for more of her work. This was pub’d in 1942, the New York society people agog with wartime fervor, patriotism sweeping the furs and jewels off ladies’ backs so they can be more serious about their efforts. It takes a while for you to be introduced to the character you’re supposed to care about most, Vicky—first we hear about how cold-hearted Amanda slept her way into getting her book published and then married the important publisher, Evans. This couple is brutal in its quest for prestige and fame, very two dimensional. Vicky’s introduced back in Ohio, her lover having run off with her business partner, humiliating her. Vicky rents a room from her brother and shares a bed with her niece; once they get wind that she wants to move to New York they start to panic about missing the cash she adds to the household, but not to miss her. They put out word around town that they expect her to fail in NYC and be back in a few months (she doesn’t). Amanda is pressed into service by her childhood friend Ethel to help Vicky, and she sets her up with a job and apartment, conveniently used as a spot during the day to tryst with her on-again-off-again lover Ken. Of course Ken falls for Vicky (as does another extremely old wealthy man), and the bad people fall from grace while the good ‘uns happily ever after. It felt a bit like reading a script for a 1940s movie.

Powell does great work humorously depicting the characters, like this summation of the woman who stole Vicky’s hometown boy, now pregnant and married but visiting Vicky’s NYC apartment: “Eudora Brown had been assured by her physician that a glass of wine could not possibly injure her coming heir, and on the strength of this medical support was drinking straight Bacardi whenever she could get he bottle out of Mr. Elroy’s or Ken Saunders’ hands. After her initial hearty but shamefaced greeting of Vicky, she allowed her conversation to lapse into one chief word, which was ‘stinks.'”

Also the feeling of the world spinning apart:

The Diaries of Dawn Powell: 1931-1965

Perhaps these would have been better off in another editor’s hands. Tim Page admits to “gently—algebraically—tightening many of the entries… had somebody else edited these diaries, for better or worse, it would have been a different book.” Well, the book is well-nigh unreadable, so Page does Powell a disservice. A more deft knife would have excised the fat and given us the gleaming stuff underneath.

Powell struggles to support herself, a drunk husband, and a disabled child with her writing. She constantly complains about how slow she writes, how tired she is, how worried about money. Frequent mention of getting drunk herself, at speakeasies during Prohibition, including with e.e. cummings (“we went to Sam’s and drank with E.E. Cummings till five in the morning—a simply heavenly spree. Cummings’ conversation (in its drunken fantastic aspects) permits no interchange—it is a dazzling, glittering spectacle, a parade of wonders and fantastic nonsense. His sarcasm is savage but I note that art and humor both vanish when pretty young girls ask him the meaning of his work—his explanations are as pompous and flattened as any Floyd Dells.”)

Turn, Magic Wheel

I am giddy with the knowledge of yet another forgotten woman writer who deserves resurrection. This book was spotted at Malaprops bookstore in Asheville earlier this summer and promptly added to my to-read list. A dazzling, spare, witty writing style that takes down the 1930s New York publishing stereotypes while weaving a complex tale of the author (Dennis Orphen) on the eve of his exposé novel about his older friend/paramour, the ex-wife of a famous literary giant (Mrs. Andrew Callingham, aka Effie Thorne). Dennis also has a married girlfriend, Corrine, whom he has to visit at her home for dinner parties and put up with the piercing eyes of friend Olive, who knows all. So many great characters in this, including the city of New York, always present, pulsating, provoking.

Originally published in 1936. Unceremoniously trashed in the dust bin of history and forgotten, but should be read far and wide. Now I’m on the scent of Powell’s posthumously published journals… onward!