What Fools These Mortals Be

Books by and about Dawn Powell

What Fools These Mortals Be

Books by and about Dawn Powell

What Fools These Mortals Be
New books dissected over email.
Nov. 2 1999 2:10 PM

Books by and about Dawn Powell

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Dear Lisa,

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Back for more! It's always fun to share favorite authors. Someone once said that the world could be divided into two categories--those who laughed at the Three Stooges and those who wondered why. Not to stretch the Dawn/Curly analogy too far, but you know what I mean.

As for my editing process, I've messed with the letters somewhat less than I did with the diaries, for the simple reason that Dawn had already edited the letters before she sent them out. With the diaries, she was writing solely for herself (at least in theory) and sometimes became a little sloppy or redundant, as we will in purely personal jottings or first drafts. Since I already felt a little uncomfortable publishing the diaries--I'd never want that done to me!--I thought it important to tidy her up here and there. (All of the words in the published Diaries are Dawn's own, but some of the external structures are mine.)

With the letters, I've trimmed them and occasionally deleted passages and names, but otherwise they're pretty much as she wrote them. Although it's a "reading edition," from the start I've always tried to be a Powell purist. As you know, when the marvelous Steerforth press brought out one of Dawn's genuine masterpieces, originally released as The Tenth Moon, I asked them to call it Come Back to Sorrento, for that was Powell's title--and we know from her diaries that she was furious about the name her publishers had inflicted on her. Moreover, I've asked Steerforth not to reissue Whither (1925), which was the first novel that she published. It's not quite as bad as she thought it was, but since she spent the rest of her life buying up any copy she found and destroying it and never mentioned it in any lists of her work, I think it ought to rest in peace, don't you?

John Howard Lawson (1894-1977) was a gifted and original playwright. Unfortunately, he was also a philanderer--what they used to call a "ladies man"--as well as a rigid Stalinist. As such, he was hardly Dawn's type--can you imagine her mouthing Marxian jargon with any sort of straight face?--but he seems to have been the great romantic love of her life, after her husband, to whom it should be remembered that she remained married for 42 years. I believe that Powell's third novel, The Bride's House (not one of her best but very interesting for a biographer), is deeply autobiographical. It was written at the beginning of her probable affair with Lawson, while she was also still living at home with her husband and son, and it is wracked with private haunting.

And yes--I think Powell had a tough life, certainly a difficult one, but it was also, as you say, a good life as well in its way. Her humor was the key, I think; that, and her passion for work. It can safely be said that Powell lived to write; her art, so rich in its laughter (even in some passages of her saddest books), buoyed her up. How could she have stood all that she went through otherwise--an impaired son, a difficult marriage, recurring health problems, impoverishment, and what was essentially a period of homelessness (this last when she was in her 60s)? She was one strong woman, and humor was her shield.

I agree with you that sexism likely played a part in her long underappreciation. On the other hand, I have found that some feminists actively resent Powell for making fun of her gender as brilliantly as she made fun of men. I think the literary left was unhappy that her workers were likely to be as silly as her bosses. I think social conservatives were unhappy with all of those Powell characters who drank too much, slept around, behaved foolishly, and yet remained funny, agreeable company. Powell was never an "uplifter." She was an equal-opportunity satirist, and took her fun where she found it. She has some of the bright, distanced amusement we find in the best comedies of Greek and Roman antiquity.

Or, if you prefer, she echoes Shakespeare--"What fools these mortals be!" And we are. But she liked us anyway.

Yours till next time,
Tim

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This week, a conversation about novelist and playwright Dawn Powell (1896-1965), whose works were out of print following her death but have recently been rediscovered by the literary world. Lisa Zeidner, professor of English at Rutgers University, has written several novels, most recently Layover (click here to buy it), and two books of poems. Tim Page, widely credited with getting Powell's works back in print, is artistic director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. He is the author of Dawn Powell and editor of Dawn Powell: Selected Letters (click here and here to buy them).