Dawn Powell: A Biography

Tim Page

Published by Holt Paperbacks
ISBN 10: 0805063013 / ISBN 13: 9780805063011
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Synopsis: In Dawn Powell: A Biography, Tim Page explores the fascinating ironies and sad complexities of Powell's life and work. Gore Vidal once referred to her as our best comic novelist, deserving to be as widely read as Hemingway and Fitzgerald. This biography is a celebration of her triumphant rise from the ashes of near oblivion to her establishment among the giants of twentieth-century American literature. Dawn Powell lived in New York City for forty-seven years but always maintained the perspective of a "permanent visitor." She distilled this into her many poems, stories, articles, plays, and her dizzying and inventive novels.

Review: The resurrection of the great dualistic novelist Dawn Powell(1864-1965)--who chronicled both Greenwich Village cafe society (hilariously) and small-town Ohio life (poignantly)--was initially sparked by a 1987 Gore Vidal essay that led to the reissue of several Powell novels. In the 1990s, Washington Post music critic Tim Page revivified her further. Page wrote essays about Powell, penned introductions for new reprints of her titles, and, with Powell family members, hired a lawyer and sued Powell's ineffectual literary executor for the release of the writer's amazing collection of papers. From there, he edited and guided The Diaries of Dawn Powell, which assured her standing as primary wit and social chronicler of the 20th century.

But Powell still had no biography; now Page has taken care of that, too. Dawn Powell: A Biography is the first published account of her life story, as chronicled via letters, diary entries, and reminiscences from surviving relatives and friends. Apart from some sentimental, long-winded slides describing Powell's troubled Ohio youth ("the happiest moments of her childhood were those idyllic times when she was hidden away by herself, in treetops, thickets, or attic rooms, pencil in hand, observing people, places, and events and recording everything in her notebooks"), Page's tone in this book is serious, studious, and well balanced. More detective than literary critic, Page eschews literary analysis in favor of neatly organized discussions of each of her 15 novels, setting his own textual synopses against Powell's diary entries and public and private reviews of each title (her friends Edmund Wilson and John Dos Passos frequently offered unpublished critiques).

Page doesn't justify Powell's questionable decisions (marrying Joseph Gousha, a heavy alcoholic; institutionalizing her afflicted son), nor does he ignore her less admirable qualities (her own heavy drinking, her apathy towards politics and social causes). He consults doctors about the family illnesses (Powell's son Jojo was likely autistic, not retarded; Powell's belief that the tumor she suffered in her 50s was a vestigial twin is instead attributed to a rare tumor called a teratoma). He reveals her true age (a year older than she claimed). He states her likely lovers (almost certainly radical playwright John Howard Lawson, possibly writer Coburn Gilman). He tracks down a life's worth of wild freelance jobs and job offers (analyzing songs for a radio show, which she took; writing a treatment of Frank L. Baum's Wizard of Oz, which she declined). He also, slightly abashedly, refutes his own earlier published claim that she spent a portion of her later years homeless, explaining instead that facts show that she and her husband actually lived in a series of residential hotels in Manhattan during that time.

Well-balanced, to the point of being dispassionate, this biography speaks to the converted. If you're not yet a Powell fan, grab her diaries and novels first. --Jean Lenihan

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Title: Dawn Powell: A Biography
Publisher: Holt Paperbacks
Binding: Paperback
Book Condition: GOOD

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