Like Mark Twain, I have a whole library of books not by Jane Austen. Though my knuckleheadedness in not being able to appreciate Ms. Austen is as incurable as it is inexcusable, I can appreciate the fanatical devotion of her admirers, because I feel almost the same way about Dawn Powell.
Just as the Janeites cannot understand why everyone doesn't fall under the spell of their adored one, so do I find it unfathomable that a Dawn Powell novel is not in the hands of every literate person in the country. Alas, the truth is that the coterie of Dawnites remains fairly small, despite periodic attempts to boost her.
The latest noble effort is by the Library of America, which has brought out a two-volume collection of her novels under the supervision of Tim Page, Powell's biographer and editor of her collected letters. The two new volumes are Dawn Powell: Novels 1930-1942 and Dawn Powell: Novels 1944-1962, each $35. Anyone seeking to discover one of the most twinkling wits and deftest satirists of 20th century America can find her here.
They will also discover one of the keenest chroniclers of Midwestern small-town life, because Powell's 15 novels (nine of which are included here) fall into two camps: Those set in Ohio (Powell's native state) in the early 20th century, and those set in the sophisticated Manhattan world of artists, writers and actors from the 1930s through the 1950s. Both are autobiographical, the former more heavily so.
While the Manhattan novels are unquestionably wittier urban pretensions and disputes seem to offer readier targets than rural the Ohio novels are far from being simple accounts of grim life on the late Middle Border. The human comedy is no less comical among the bumpkins than among the glitterati.
For instance, in My Home Is Far Away, probably the most directly autobiographical of all, the mother in a family dies, and three young girls are left to the untender mercies of their feckless father, a blustery, hail-fellow-well-met type who believes possessions can cure any woe, though he has neither possessions nor the gumption to acquire them.
The girls are bounced from pillar to post, from relative to relative, including their grandma, whose nurturing is less than fussy. Grandma has a brother, Wally, whose daughters and sons refused to take him in because, they claimed, he had turned Unitarian in his travels. Later, when one of the daughters breaks down and takes him in, she makes him sleep in the barn, where after not showing up for meals for a couple of days he is found dead, and the horses wouldn't touch the hay for days. When Midwestern provincials get to New York which journey, Edmund Wilson wrote, is Powell's essential theme they (and we) find life no less piquant. Angels on Toast is my favorite of the Manhattan novels, but A Time to Be Born is worth a special look because of the way in which characters can be traced to real personages familiar to Powell.
Like Angels, A Time to Be Born concerns a set of characters who use, and scramble over, each other to achieve their ends in life and love. It employs a catalog opening, a trademark of Powell's, in which she lists happenings, trends, things in the air, to set the scene.
The story line, too, is standard Powell, and in its basics is nothing more than feuding and fussing over men or, in a word, sex. (Compared to Powell women, Powell men seem more passive than predatory, though they rarely pass up goods on offer.) Men and women want women and men who want other men and women a constant mismatching, until everyone begins to wonder if his or her original choice was wrong.
The chief predatory female is Amanda Keeler Evans, supposedly based on Clare Boothe Luce, who uses her ruthless but somewhat dopey husband, a publishing magnate, to further her career. As in other Powell novels, other characters have real-life models, such as Andrew Callingham, a Hemingway figure.
In My Home, the girls' grandpa, an enthusiastic if undiscriminating reader, says, If books was anything like real life nobody'd want to waste time reading 'em. I'm afraid Powell is using grandpa to pull our leg. There's no time wasted in reading these and other highly lifelike novels collected here: Dance Night; Come Back to Sorrento; Turn, Magic Wheel; The Locusts Have No King; The Wicked Pavilion and The Golden Spur.
Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.