Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"I give them their heads. They furnish their own nooses."

Dawn Powell--Sunday, Monday, and Always: Stories

"For decades Dawn Powell was always just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion. But despite the work of such dedicated cultists as Edmund Wilson and Matthew Josephson, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, Dawn Powell never became the popular writer that she ought to have been. In those days, with a bit of luck, a good writer eventually attracted voluntary readers and became popular. Today, of course, "popular" means bad writing that is widely read while good writing is that which is taught to involuntary readers."  --Gore Vidal

Vidal's introduction to the Library of America's edition of some of Dawn Powell's many stories (over one hundred), sixteen novels, and nine plays is a good place to start with a writer whose style, subject matter, and approach toward writing--she disdained the commercial and wrote in her own way, courting, of course, rejection and 'failure'--should appeal to any aspiring talented reader. Born in Ohio in 1896, Powell moved to New York City, to Greenwich Village, in 1918.  There are many things to like about Powell's writing--she is wry, satiric, humane, and never sentimental--but I confess what I like best is her love of a New York that I feel as if I know at second-hand from reading books by John Dos Passos, e.e. cummings, Henry Roth, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Malcolm Cowley, and dozens of others.

Grand and Thompson Streets, 1927On those occasions when I am in New York--too infrequently of late--I enjoy nothing better than walking the streets of Manhattan's Lower East Side, imagining the lives being lived in the brownstones of Alphabet City--and I might think about the denizens of one of Miss Powell's apartment buildings, as in her story 'The Roof': "Mrs. Coltman had gone below [out of the building] last December and done Christmas shopping at Namms, in Brooklyn, but she had brought back from this safari the word that the city had gotten so dirty and crowded she wouldn't leave her roof again till they carried her out. Mrs. Taylor herself never went below anymore, not since she'd fallen on the icy street two years ago." 

Dawn Powell's New York is dirty, crowded, and full of what used to be called 'characters'--the snoozing Mrs. Parsons in the delightfully cynical tale called "Cheerio," or Aunt Mag in "You Should Have Brought Your Mink," or, my favorite Powell oddball, money-loving Eddie in "Audition." Powell's characters, whether in Ohio or New York, are often full of themselves, unaware of and disinterested in what is going on around them, specimens of a collective human endeavor that Powell consistently portrayed as futile. 

Reading Powell's collection Sunday, Monday, and Always--which contains many of her best stories, and some that couldn't find a publisher (Powell's dismal home life precluded writing as a hobby)--I think about Richard Yates, writing a generation later, and mining some of the same terrain as Powell, though without the dose of wit that makes the harsh medicine of ordinary life palatable. I also think about the origins of the now-canonical "New Yorker story"...the cynical, mordant, minimalist, pointless, amoral little tales that focused more on style and detachment from life than from the real-life grittiness of a Yates story (Yates was never published in the New Yorker) or many of Powell's best stories (she was, but just as often rejected).  Katherine White and William Shawn liked their stories bloodless, and Powell's can be that, but not often.  What I liked best about this 1952 collection was the fact that  Powell shows off all of her gifts--for brisk characterization, for witty dialogue, for loving descriptions of New York, and for what I've come to think of as unresolved resolutions--stories that are such brief snatches of real life that the reader is left with a great deal of work to do deciding for himself what precisely might have transpired.

Sunday, Monday, and Always is published by The Steerforth Press of South Royalton, Vermont, with a nice (but too brief) introduction by Tim Page.

George Ovitt (3/13/13)

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