- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 4, 2001

Edited by Tim Page
Library of America, $35, 1,068 pages

DAWN POWELL: Novels, 1944-1962
Edited by Tim Page
Library of America, $35, 940 pages

When her favorite Greenwich Village watering hole, the old Hotel Lafayette, got torn down in 1953, the novelist Dawn Powell hastened to the site near Washington Square and took photographs of the rubble. Spurred by indignation and her fond memories of the place, she constructed an arch comedy of manners out of the ruins. That stodgy yet bohemian hotel became the fictional Cafe Julien in Powell's 1954 book, "The Wicked Pavilion."
The Ohio-born author who was once called the Balzac of New York City would never have imagined her adopted home undergoing the catastrophe of September 11. Nor could the rest of us, of course, until it happened. We'd do ourselves a favor now to take up her lively Manhattan satires and let ourselves be cheered by their special verve, humor, and intelligence. New York perennial magnet for the talented and the ambitious may be bruised but it is still in there pitching, rather like the legions of experience-saddened but still tenacious men and women in Dawn Powell's 15 novels.
The opening description of the Cafe Julien, the "wicked pavilion" of Powell's imagining, comes during an off hour, when only two of its marble-topped tables are occupied.
The temporary lull is "a state of business perversely satisfactory to [the] waiters, who had the more leisure for meditation and the exchange of private insults. A young Jersey-looking couple peered curiously in the doorway looking for some spectacular rout that would explain the place's cosmopolitan reputation, then drew back puzzled at seeing only two patrons. Karl, the Alsatian with the piratical mustaches, turned down a chair at each of his three empty tables, indicating mythical reservations, folded his arms again and stared contentedly at the chipped cupids on the ceiling. The more excitable Guillaume, given to muttering personal comments behind his patrons' backs, flapped his napkin busily as if shooing out flies, and shouted after the innocent little couple, 'Kitchen closed now, nothing to eat, kitchen closed.'"
You have to win insider status to be accepted in such a joint. The entire metropolis, in Powell's rendering, is that way. She captures the cruelty but also the awesome vitality of capitalism; the buzzing energy, but also the demoralizing success-snobbery, of New York's writers, editors, artists, publishers, promoters, and advertising executives.
Powell left behind an unhappy home life in small-town Ohio as a 22-year-old, arriving in New York in 1918. By 1925 she began publishing a steady stream of stories, plays, and journalism. Most of her novels nine of which have been collected in two new Library of America volumes have to do with the sensitive Midwesterner's yearning, sometimes fulfilled, sometimes not, for a wider world of culture. Her view of New York was perpetually that of a newcomer because she played and replayed in her creative mind's eye the arrival in the big city of the scruffy but hopeful provincial.
The hopeful provincial in "The Wicked Pavilion" is eager Rick Prescott, a young man convinced within hours of arriving that he is bound to become a successful insider in "the city of his dreams":
"New York loved him as it loved no other young man, and he embraced the city, impulsively discarding everything he had hitherto cherished of his Michigan boyhood loyalties. In Radio City Gardens he looked up at the colossal Prometheus commanding the city's very heart and thought, Me! He … strolled happily down Fifth Avenue, finding all faces beautiful and wondrously kind, the lacy fragility of the city trees incomparably superior to his huge native forests."
Rick, like many another Powellian newcomer, soon runs up against some notably unkind faces, and some large hindrances to gaining the professional and romantic objects of his desire.
Powell's people drink a lot, fail a lot, and wonder why the next guy who isn't half as deserving gets so much further in life. Disillusionment never quite wins, though; these "battered bon vivants," as she calls them, are never so whipped as to want to retire from the great city. And sometimes, as with the unsung and modest writer Frederick Olliver of "The Locusts Have No King" (1948), perhaps her best book, fame and fortune arrive almost accidentally. There is a kind of madcap arbitrariness at work in Powell, a "fairyland strain of Welsh fantasy," as Edmund Wilson observed in a short consideration of her work in the early 1960s.
Lewis Gannett of the old New York Herald Tribune also summed up Powell's work well, calling it "at once mercilessly catty and ruefully impish." One of her most remarkable qualities as a comic novelist is that she writes with a ribald sense of humor even while passing judgement upon her sexually lax characters the whole time. (As she once told the publisher who brought out her books in Britain: "My characters are not slaves to an author's propaganda. I give them their heads. They furnish their own nooses.")
Why, her female characters often wonder, can't a woman have a fling or two and keep her reputation? Ebie Vane, the winsome protagonist of "Angels on Toast" (1940), is a commercial artist torn between her career and her desire for a settled married life. She parties and has a good time, despite lacking the social credentials to do so with impunity. "A girl alone had to have an above reproach background in which to be Bohemian," says Ebie Vane. The "gay visiting duchess" can cut loose in the Greenwich Village bistros and her money will protect her from being thought "either a nut or a tramp. A good address was a girl's best mother in New York."
The "gay visiting duchess" that is, the wealthy and wild patroness of the arts is a Powell specialty. One of her funniest has to be Cassie Bender of "The Golden Spur" (1962), who regales the artistic elite with "one plump but shapely leg thrown across the other … One gray millionaire sat at her feet … while another leaned over the back of the sofa, gazing down hungrily into the generous picnic of her decolletage."
The sexual satire in Powell's novels is multidirectional. On the one hand, she presents marriage as a boringly bourgeois institution that stifles women. On the other hand, she invites us to laugh at her hapless career women like Ebie Vane for being so indulgent toward their philandering beaux, so weak and unable to get the men to tie the marriage knot.
Though Powell died in 1965, a decade before feminism reached grand political heights, she picked up on the impact that greater equality was already having on the battle of the sexes. One genial cad, a minor character in "The Wicked Pavilion," is typical: "He was hardly more than an hour and a half late for their date and it made him sore that she should have gone out instead of waiting around like a lady for him to stand her up." This fellow moves in with the woman in question, and plans to write his first book while being financially supported by her: "I tell her marriage would only tie her down."
What saved Powell from becoming too sophisticated for her own good was her died-in-the-wool, Midwestern good sense. Intellectual fads were fodder for her work. Influenced for a time by communism (in the late 1920s she was a friend, and possibly a paramour, of John Howard Lawson of Hollywood Ten fame), she eventually cast it aside. Freudianism never attracted her at all; in fact, she was displeased by its effect on her fellow artists and writers. Young writers were self-absorbed, she thought.
Powell's characters deride the trendy behavior of their fellow Manhattanites, never more pungently than when Walter Kellsey, an NYU professor in "The Golden Spur," vents his spleen about his mistress being in psychoanalysis:
"The shrinker had certainly filled her up with self-confidence this time, Walter thought, and he wondered how long before it would start chipping off like the lipstick and eyeshadow. Whatever was making her so satisfied made him jealous, but then he was jealous of everybody nowadays, jealous of the President of the United States for all that free rent and gravy, jealous of cops for their freedom to sock anybody who annoyed them, jealous of students who could skip his classes …"
When he reviewed "The Golden Spur," Edmund Wilson wrote of his friend Dawn Powell's "complete indifference to publicity." Wilson may have overstated the case but it is true that, for whatever reason, scant recognition came to Powell during her lifetime. She was nominated for a National Book Award once but didn't win.
Several of her works deserve to be on a short list of the best comic novels in American literature. For her to enter the Library of America pantheon in 2001 is more than Dawn Powell ever would have expected, but it is no more than she deserves.

Lauren Weiner's reviews have appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the New Criterion, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications.

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