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To this day, scholars wonder if Miss Cather consummated any of her relationships with women — a debate whose ferocity might be keeping her from transcending a claim to the canon as a possibly lesbian token of literary pluralism to one based strictly on literary merit.

Novelist A.S. Byatt argued a few months ago in the Guardian that Miss Cather should be considered a great writer. “Americans I met,” she recalls, “usually knew only ‘My Antonia,’ and saw her as a writer they read at school, who specialised in ‘local colour’ about frontier life.”

But Miss Cather has explored, perhaps better than anyone else, the spirit that built America. And as New Yorker writer Joan Acocella has said, “Her world has so much to do so directly with the most central problems of living.” She wrote men as well as she did women, with clarity and insight into the human heart.

When Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he said Miss Cather should have won instead.

In considering Miss Cather’s critical reputation, Terry Teachout, writing in the March 2000 National Review, cited reasons similar to those for Miss Wharton’s neglect: “Her cool chronicles of prairie life and its discontents contained no Joycean word-juggling, no torrid sex scenes, no class consciousness — none of the ingredients, in short, that literary intellectuals of the ‘30s deemed indispensable.”

Those same reasons — minus the lack of sex — might also be why the name Dawn Powell isn’t on everyone’s lips.

Tim Page, a Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic for The Washington Post, is almost single-handedly responsible for reviving her reputation. Miss Powell, who died in 1965, was virtually unheard of amongst the wider public until Mr. Page wrote a 1998 biography and arranged for many of her 15 novels to be reprinted, including in the Library of America.

Miss Powell’s masterpieces include 1936’s “Turn, Magic Wheel,” a deliciously satirical but sensitive look at literary life in New York, and 1942’s “A Time to be Born,” a thinly veiled send-up of Clare Boothe Luce. She also wrote novels, like “Come Back to Sorrento,” about her Midwestern roots.

“These are great American novels,” Mr. Page declares.

Mr. Page, who lives in Baltimore, suggests two reasons she didn’t receive more acclaim.

“She upset social conservatives with her characters, who tend to sleep around and drink a lot, and are not necessarily admirable role models for anybody,” he muses. “Then she ticked off the left because she was not a utopian. When she was writing, a lot of the literary world was left of center. She never believed in revolutions, she never believed in inspirational literature. She saw humanity in a mess — always was, always would be. … There are still people offended by her willingness to look at life head on.”

Female scholars have championed many neglected female writers. But Mr. Page notes that Miss Powell’s biggest fans have been men. “She doesn’t present women as any nobler than men,” he observes. “Everybody is a target for her pen.”

Miss Powell did drink heavily, but she was no one’s image of the dashing authoress. “She was short and plump and unpretentious,” says Mr. Page.

“She was not great at self-promotion,” he adds. “Hemingway was nonstop publicity. Fitzgerald too.”

Miss Powell’s New York books re-create a milieu every bit as richly imagined and unforgettable as Mr. Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County — and a lot more, um, intelligible. “I can’t read Faulkner,” confesses Mr. Page. “He does absolutely nothing for me.”

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