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April 12, 2005

Dawn Powell: A Time To Be Born I

Dawn Powell gets "discovered" every twenty years or so, as I think Gore Vidal remarked a while back. People can't believe how much fun she is, or that they've never heard of her, and so on. After a burst of reading, everyone moves on and Powell is forgotten. At least her mature novels have broken through to the top: they've been published in two volumes of the Library of America, edited by her tireless promoter, Tim Page. Maybe this time they'll pass from fad to fixture.

The reason for Powell's relapses into obscurity are not difficult to make out, but they're a reflection of American weaknesses, not of any want of skill and talent on Powell's part. Her novels are beautifully put together and they feature an endless rogues' gallery of New Yorkers, native but mostly adoptive, on the make. Now, if I had read more Willa Cather than the first quarter of The Song of the Lark, I would venture to suggest that Dawn Powell is Cather's evil twin. She is fascinated, not repelled, by the sophisticated solipsism of the metropolitan crawl. High-mindedness is not for her. At the same time, however, she can't be thought of as Evelyn Waugh's American cousin. Her writing isn't nearly so heartless, and she is too much a realist to spin commedia dell'arte sendups in Waugh's elegant manner. There are moments - many moments - when her fiction fags, not from want of imaginative drive but because to write about Manhattan is in part to capture the fatigue that overcomes everyone here from time to time. Powell also plays with that defunct social objective, respectability. Many of today's readers are too young to have experienced the urgency of appearing to be a person of modesty and responsibility, and yet not enough time has passed for respectability to be studied. Most of Powell's characters are only barely respectable, or not really respectable at all, and they know that the people around them are no better, but the pretence must be kept up. In short, Powell isn't nice enough and she isn't nasty enough.

Oh, and did I forget to mention that she's a woman who takes an extremely sardonic view of women?  

But she is very funny. I am reading A Time To Be Born, which appeared in 1942 and quickly became Powell's best seller so far. That had to be in part because of its not-so-unintentional-and-purely-coincidental portraits of Clare Booth and Ernest Hemingway. There is also more money in this novel than there is in the usual Powell title, and money always enlarges the possibilities. The heroine, if she'd really be happy with that position, is Vicky Haven, an ingénue from Lakewood, Ohio (a fictional town on Lake Erie) who has rather messed up her life and taken to pining. Her somewhat older friend, Ethel Carey, concocts the perfect scheme: Ethel will persuade Amanda Keeler, a former schoolmate of both women who has risen stratospherically in the world, to become Mrs Julian Evans (I'm not enough of a gossip to know whether Julian is supposed to take after Henry Luce; it rather strikes me that he's not. But Julian commands a vast media empire and is certainly not Hearst.) - Ethel will beg Amanda to get her husband to find Vicky a job in New York. In the first chapter, the really rather sociopathic Amanda sullenly agrees, but presently her life takes a turn that makes Vicky's arrival in town most opportune. The upshot is Amanda's decision to lease a studio apartment for her own daytime use and to let Vicky sleep in it at night. Here's how Ethel takes this news:

Having warned Vicky not to expect any friendly or personal gestures from Amanda, who, don't forget, was a very busy and a very important person nowadays, Ethel was dumbfounded at the offer of hospitality in Amanda's own studio, hints of a welcoming dinner the first night in town, and all Ethel could conclude was that it was her own description of Vicky's plight that had won these favors. She only hoped both of them would remember this and not sit around the fire in the long New York nights ganging up on her the way old friends generally did.

Ethel is completely wrong about Amanda's motivation. The fact is that Amanda has run into an old flame, and is sufficiently bored to want to play with fire. Vicky's studio will be the scene of her trysts with Ken Saunders, a Joel McCrea type who is fatally attracted to her. Not that any work would have been performed in the studio in any case. Amanda Keeler Evans may be a celebrated writer and journalist, but she does very little in the way of actual writing or reporting. That is the job of her secretary, the profoundly unappealing Miss Bemel. It's Miss Bemel who does all the work, and who is happy to do so, because the employer's celebrity confers real, if unacknowledged, power on the employee.

To tell the truth, Amanda would have been genuinely surprised to learn that any writer of consequence had any other method of creation. There were a number of minor scribes on liberal weeklies who were unable to afford a secretary, that she knew, but she had no idea that this was anything more than the necessary handicap of poverty. The tragedy of the attic poets, Keats, Shelley, Burns, was not that they died young but that they were obliged by poverty to do all their own writing. Amanda was reasonably confident that in a day of stress she would be quite able to do her own writing, but until that day she saw no need, and in fact should a day of stress arrive she would not be stupid enough to keep to a writing career at all, but would set about finding some more convenient means of getting money.

Powell has worse, much worse, to say about Amanda - "At thirty Amanda had all the beauty, fame and wit that money could buy, and she had another advantage over her rivals, that whereas they were sometimes in doubt of their aims, she knew exactly what she wanted from life, which was, in a word, everything" - but this passage is an efficient double-hitter, knocking off the strangely contemporary-sounding apparatus of celebrity and Amanda with one blow.

Vicky Haven is a delightful little rube. She has almost no self-confidence, at least since her former lover, a drunken architect fifteen years older than she is, eloped with her real-estate agency partner, Eudora Brown. "Eloped" may not be the right word, because at the beginning of the novel Eudora is still Vicky's partner, and Vicky derives no satisfaction from the new Mrs Turner's growing regrets about her marriage. This is the mess from which Ethel Carey wants to extricate Vicky. It's very hard to decide what to quote from the beginning of Chapter II, because it's all pretty delicious.

Vicky, like everybody, was sure she was far smarter than the average and it sometimes surprised her that she was so dumb about the simplest things, such as understanding politics, treaties, who was who, the use of oyster forks, service plates, back garters on girdles, the difference between Republicans and Democrats, and the management of a lover.

"There's no doubt about it, the female mind can't hold anything very long," she reflected sometimes, blaming her own shortcomings on the entire sex. ... Yes, Vicky decided, the female mind, in its eagerness to shine afresh every day, had to have a very rapid turnover. There was no attic treasure chest or ice box where the good education was stored, moth-proof, mouse-proof, and shrink-proof. There was only a top dresser drawer where names, dates, fragments of facts were flung without mates as the information hurtled through. Vicky sometimes examinedher own top drawer, horrified at these things she once knew but now only recognized the face; names like Bunsen burners, retorts, grids, Wagner Act, Robinson-Patman Act, Seabury Investigation, Diet of Worms, pons asinorum, Catiline, Hatshepsut, Munich, Chapman's Homer - or was it Homer's Chapman - egg-and-dart, Smoot-Hawley Bill, Muscle Shoals, Boulder Dam, plum circulio, Brook Farm, Kerensky, Glazounov, geometric progression, Javanese scale, pituitary, and five hundred rags and tags that must have belonged to a whole fct at one time but in their present futile tangle were nothing more than cues in a quiz program.

(Baffled? Plum circulio? pons asinorum? Smoot-Hawley? Ah, what Vicky might have done with Google!) Vicky's Cinderella-like abasement is tested even further by her brother and sister-in-law when she announces her plan to go to New York: they count on the rent she pays to share a room in their house and they can't conceal their anger and spite. But Vicky does get to New York, and is promptly dropped into an existence that's fairly enchanted. On her first night, she had dinner at the Evans's, and it is here that she meets Ken Saunders, who gets a bit tipsy and is quietly rude to everybody. Her pre-arranged job introduces her to the kind of Junior League debutantes who have only recently disappeared from the precincts at Vogue. One thing leads to another, and that's as far as I've gotten today.

Undoubtedly responding to the war, impending when she began to write A Time To Be Born in 1940, Powell opens the novel with an uncharacteristic grandeur that nonetheless manages to take issue with the title.

This was no time to cry over one broken heart. It was no time to worry about Vicky Haven or indeed any other young lady crossed in love, for now the universe, nothing less, was your problem. You woke in the morning with the weight of doom on your head. You lay with eyes shut wondering why you dreaded the day; was it a debt, was it a lost love? - and then you remembered the nightmare. It was a dream, you said, nothing but a dream, and the covers were thrown aside, the dream was over, now for the day. Then, fully awake, you remembered that it was no dream. Paris was gone, London was under fire, the Atlantic was now a drop of water between the flame on one side and the waiting dynamite on the other. This was a time of waiting....

...There was no future; every one waited, marked time, waited. For what? On Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Fifth Street hundreds waited for a man on a hotel window ledge to jump; hundreds waited with craning necks and thirsty faces as if this single person's final gesture would solve the riddle of the world. Civilization stood on a ledge, and in the tension of waiting it was a relief to have one little man jump.

This could have been written by Norman Mailer. I can think of no woman novelist, until very recently, capable of such dry-eyed, worldly-wise anxiety - buried under a light coating of satire. But I fear that American women were not - until very recently - expected to express themselves with such uncorseted candor.

Posted by pourover at April 12, 2005 08:03 PM

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