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Dawn Powell
November 12, 2011 7:52 AM   Subscribe

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. Powell failed on both counts. She needs no interpretation and in her lifetime she should have been as widely read as, say, Hemingway or the early Fitzgerald or the mid O'Hara or even the late, far too late, Katherine Anne Porter. But Powell was that unthinkable monster, a witty woman who felt no obligation to make a single, much less a final, down payment on Love or The Family; she saw life with a bright Petronian neutrality, and every host at life's feast was a potential Trimalchio to be sent up. - Gore Vidal
posted by Trurl (38 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Traditionally, the playwright was invisible to the audience: One hid out in a nearby bar, listening to the sweet nasalities of Pat Boone's rendering of 'Love Letters in the Sand' from a glowing jukebox."

Ah, the inimitable Gore Vidal.
posted by blucevalo at 7:58 AM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Wilson a "cultist" is just plain crazy. He was the cultist that made Am lit lovers aware of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, as well as so many others.
posted by Postroad at 8:00 AM on November 12, 2011


Who is Gore Vidal? How come I've never heard of him before?
posted by twoleftfeet at 8:04 AM on November 12, 2011


Because of this essay I went and read some Powell and it really is very good stuff. The two I read are My Home is Far Away and The Locusts Have no King. Very readable and quite brilliant, I think.
posted by zzazazz at 8:29 AM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Eh, Postroad, I think Vidal is saying Wilson, who did so much to promote AmLit, was a member of the Cult* of Dawn Powell, as were Hemingway et al.

twoleftfeet: Gore Vidal**.


----------------------
*"Cult" in the sense that a movie like "Suburbia" has a cult following, not in the sense of a real cult like the Golden Dawn (oh! now I see what Vidal did there!)...

**Unless your "Who is Gore Vidal?" is a dry echo of the question many of us are asking ourselves about Dawn Powell. In which case, pardon me.

On preview: I'm going to do what zzazazz has done: Links, zzazazz?
posted by notyou at 8:35 AM on November 12, 2011


LOL: "[Honey" was a virgin (at least you couldn't prove she wasn't), and was as proud as punch of it. You would have thought that it was something that had been in the family for generations."

If these aren't worth a read for the wit, they surely provide a great behind the scenes look at a certain society set during the time. I don't know if i could make the linkups (e.g. Ernest Hemmingway and Peggy Gugenheim) the way Vidal can, but they sound very well observed.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 9:08 AM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


Unless your "Who is Gore Vidal?" is a dry echo of the question many of us are asking ourselves about Dawn Powell. In which case, pardon me.

Well, no. It was considerably dryer. I have a problem with Gore Vidal. I don't like it when literary figures run for public office. I don't like elderly polemicists . I don't like people who talk a lot about what others are doing and fail to do anything themselves. I don't like Gore Vidal. So I make a joke about how easy it is to forget the guy.

I happen to agree with him much of the time, but I don't like the idea that someone who doesn't seem to be doing anything is someone I should care about. I don't like pundits or commentators, whatever their background, and I don't like the assumption that I have to decide to agree with them or not.

And I don't like having to read some long-ass essay. Honestly, for me the high point of that essay happened at the beginning of the second paragraph, with "One evening back there in once upon a time (February 7, 1957, to be exact) my first play opened at the Booth Theatre". That sentence alone created an explosion of meanings in my brain, but not in a good way. Let me deconstruct that one sentence for you, to try to explain my problem with Gore Vidal:
  • The phrase "One evening back there in once upon a time" is cute, possibly appealing, but it mixes a reference to a specific moment with a generic story opening.
  • (February 7, 1957, to be exact) I don't have any idea why he needs to be this exact. I don't give a shit if it was February 7 or February 8.
  • my first play is only relevant if I've read other plays of his. It sounds like he's just saying that he's written many plays and he's trying to impress me with that fact.
  • opened at the Booth Theatre. OMG, LOL!!! I had to Google this one, because, really, there is a Booth Theatre in New York, and yes really they spell it "theatre" (instead of "theater") and most incredibly, it really is named after the brother of John Wilkes Booth, whose association with theaters is more generally tied to presidential assassination nowadays.

    To me, Gore Vidal typifies an old-school stylistic inability to get to the point.

    I don't like Gore Vidal because people don't write like that anymore. We don't have time for that. Gore Vidal is the kind of person who would set up a Twitter account and then realize that there's no way to be Gore Vidal in 140 characters.

    Oddly enough, this is the longest comment I've made in quite a while.

  • posted by twoleftfeet at 9:20 AM on November 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


    And I don't like having to read some long-ass essay.

    I think I see your problem.
    posted by brennen at 9:28 AM on November 12, 2011 [7 favorites]


    I don't like pundits or commentators, whatever their background, and I don't like the assumption that I have to decide to agree with them or not.

    You don't have to fucking read them at all if you don't care to, but I'm not sure that being an anti-intellectual with a short attention span is such a unique accomplishment that you need to take the time out of your action-packed modern life to type so many words just so you can tell us about it.
    posted by strangely stunted trees at 9:33 AM on November 12, 2011 [15 favorites]


    twoleftfeet, I don't understand a single one of your objections. A few examples:

    The phrase "One evening back there in once upon a time" is cute, possibly appealing, but it mixes a reference to a specific moment with a generic story opening.

    The problem you reference in the 'but' clause is deliberate. It's not like he accidentally stumbled on those words. What else was 'cute, possibly appealing' about it?

    Why is the fact that it's called the Booth Theatre a problem with Gore's writing? That is either its name or it isn't.

    In my experience it's always spelled 'theatre' when they put plays on in it, the exception being the occasional, consciously unpretentious university venue. 'Theater' almost always indicates a cinema.

    I don't like Gore Vidal because people don't write like that anymore. We don't have time for that.

    Well, that's an opinion, I suppose.

    Also, you were making a point by asking "who is Gore Vidal?", then you had to explain it. That's pretty much by definition not a very good example of effective writing, if you were trying to set one.
    posted by George_Spiggott at 9:34 AM on November 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


    good writing is that which is taught to involuntary readers

    ...teaching them to hate reading.

    Not that I'd advocate Dan Brown in the classroom, but I am kind of calling for an end to mandatory Shakespeare for anyone below the age of 20. There's plenty of middle ground that is good but also not hella boring/impenetrable.
    posted by DU at 9:45 AM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


    so, ummm, two left feet, it may be just me but I'm getting the impression you just don't like Gore Vidal, which if you just said it, would be a tight, concise statement. Instead, you just go on and on, bouncing from half-relevant point to completely irrelevant peeve, often within the same sentence.

    Either way, long or short, my response is the same: "So?"
    posted by philip-random at 9:55 AM on November 12, 2011


    Not that I'd advocate Dan Brown in the classroom, but I am kind of calling for an end to mandatory Shakespeare for anyone below the age of 20. There's plenty of middle ground that is good but also not hella boring/impenetrable.

    You know, I don't think it has to be Shakespeare per se (I'm sympathetic to this whole hey let's find some voices that aren't long-dead white European dudes notion), but I am incredibly grateful that they made me read (and hear and see) a lot of Shakespeare as a kid, because reading something on that level was really good for me. And not much in English is on the level of Shakespeare. What's more, I don't think anyone should ever be told that stuff on that level is too hard for them. You get 20-year-olds who are good with the language by creating an environment where they can grapple with the language long before they're 20.
    posted by brennen at 9:56 AM on November 12, 2011 [6 favorites]


    I don't like Gore Vidal because people don't write like that anymore. We don't have time for that. Gore Vidal is the kind of person who would set up a Twitter account and then realize that there's no way to be Gore Vidal in 140 characters.

    Hmm, funny. That's probably why I like him so much, and can't wrap my head around twitter. And pardon, plenty of people still write like that. And while they are obviously all "tl;dr" for you, I(and I'm sure many others) still enjoy a well written essay that spans more than 140 characters.
    posted by meowf at 10:05 AM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Gore Vidal typifies an old-school stylistic inability to get to the point.

    His style is American Aristocractic; he's someone who knows very well how and when to drop names and events, and you occasionally get the feeling that he's faking it but that he's too well equipped for you to pick him apart. He's basically a very literate man who was born into both political and cultural advantages who likes to talk literature, gossip and politics. His style is built on that, and he does the reminiscint, knowing, conversational tone very well. He even reminds us of his own insider status sucessfully, as much as that's possible; he drops names and anecdotes only when they also add to the scene he's setting (that those scenes tend to obliquely flatter his own tastes and observations is, I suppose, a valid criticism but it's debatable that it cripples his style). Where he comes apart is if you read 3 or 4 essays one after another, and you see the same anecdotes repeated nearly verbatim, as though they're intended to be deployed socially rather than in print.

    For what it's worth, reading him in long stretches can leave me very ambivalent, and I suspect his fiction might fail for the same reasons his non-fiction engages. He's quite good, but by various criteria the people he talks about in this essay are better. And he may be personally abrasive or unsavory. But if he comes off as doing nothing while criticizing the Man in the Arena, I think that says more about the status of public intellectuals in the US than Vidal himself.

    If nothing else, like another famous political writer who ran for public office, he is completely and unapologetically American (though they have little else in common). See his dig at Fitzgerald and the rest, that they wanted Paris but Long Island and social climbing would do (the dig itself being perhaps a little kick from a higher rung of the ladder). Vidal disdains many things about America, but he never doubts that the country is his heritage. He's a flavor of American we don't often taste.

    Anyway, I have to remind myself to pick up some Dawn Powell, and thanks to Trurl and Vidal if she's as good as she sounds.
    posted by postcommunism at 10:20 AM on November 12, 2011 [6 favorites]


    Gore Vidal is the kind of person who would set up a Twitter account and then realize that there's no way to be Gore Vidal in 140 characters.

    Judging by the length of your angry comment, apparently there's no way to be twoleftfeet in 140 characters either.
    posted by yellowcandy at 10:27 AM on November 12, 2011


    This thread has put me unpleasantly in mind of early university tutorial experiences.

    Opinions!
    posted by urschrei at 10:39 AM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


    To me, Gore Vidal typifies an old-school stylistic inability to get to the point.

    Or that you should get from here to your point with style.
    posted by mhoye at 10:47 AM on November 12, 2011


    That was nicely said, postcommunism.

    My tolerance for Vidal is maybe not exceptionally high, but I do wish we had more skilled practitioners of this genre (and would be interested in recommendations, especially for people who write this kind of thing with perhaps a touch less of the gratuitous namedropping).
    posted by brennen at 11:01 AM on November 12, 2011


    Ironically, while Gore Vidal has the capacity to occasionally make things about him, that's not what he did in the article, but seems to be what's happening in this thread.

    Meanwhile, Dawn Powell's diaries are available in print as well.
    posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 11:12 AM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Meanwhile, Dawn Powell's diaries are available in print as well.

    Thanks for that. I think I will see if I can find this at the library this afternoon.
    posted by brennen at 11:19 AM on November 12, 2011


    As another 'Unthinkable Monster', thank you for the links - she isn't an author I was aware of, and so I get to learn whilst swimming in a new ocean.


    It's not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it's the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses
    . Virginia Woolf.
    posted by Cheradine Zakalwe at 11:23 AM on November 12, 2011


    Trurl, thanks for posting this; I'll definitely check out Dawn Powell. Always glad to hear of a new (to me) writer from the early to mid 20th century. And I'm one of those people who's glad that they don't write like John Steinbeck any more, although I think some living writers manage to outdo Steinbeck both in wordiness and painfully detailed descriptions of circular conversations or thinking. Gah. I'm amazed any of us ever voluntarily picks up a book again after high school.

    The mention of Gore Vidal made me think of J. R. Ackerley, a British cultural critic and a gifted autobiographical writer in his own right. I found out about Ackerley when I saw My Dog Tulip earlier this year. When I sought out some of Ackerley's writing, which hadn't been checked out for years from my local library system, I wasn't disappointed. Writing like his has made it into my own personal canon.
    posted by Currer Belfry at 11:38 AM on November 12, 2011


    Dawn Powell is a blast, sharp and funny, and her breakout novel, A Time to Be Born, deserves to be read by anyone who can quote All About Eve.
    posted by roger ackroyd at 12:02 PM on November 12, 2011 [3 favorites]


    I am kind of calling for an end to mandatory Shakespeare for anyone below the age of 20

    I think there is great value in reading above your current level even if it's difficult to articulate what that value is. And I don't think trying to do something beyond your current abilities should stop in school, we should keep doing it all our lives. (obviously trying to do something too far beyond your abilities is not what I'm talking about)

    I don't like it when literary figures run for public office

    I don't see that so-called professional politicians have done a demonstrably better job. I'm not sure what the answer is but our current system of the wealthy grooming their kids to successful at getting elected is not producing spectacular results.
    posted by sineater at 12:21 PM on November 12, 2011


    This picture of Gore Vidal from 1949 is one of my favorites, see his comments underneath.
    posted by stbalbach at 12:50 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


    'twoleftfeet', your post reads like something out of Catcher in the Rye, totally retro. 'stunted trees' caught it too with his comment "anti-intellectual.. action-packed modern life". But 'postcommunism' really nailed it, thanks for that.
    posted by stbalbach at 12:58 PM on November 12, 2011


    opened at the Booth Theatre. OMG, LOL!!! I had to Google this one, because, really, there is a Booth Theatre in New York, and yes really they spell it "theatre" (instead of "theater") and most incredibly, it really is named after the brother of John Wilkes Booth, whose association with theaters is more generally tied to presidential assassination nowadays

    Um...Edwin Booth was one of the most greatest actors of the nineteenth century, and he founded Booth's Theater. Just because his brother was a whackjob (as well as a great actor in his own right) is no reason to deny him his legitimate claim to fame.
    posted by yoink at 1:02 PM on November 12, 2011 [4 favorites]


    Oh damn. "Most greatest" because I originally had "most famous" and failed to remove the "most" on edit. But, you know, he was the most greatest, too.
    posted by yoink at 1:03 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


    I favorited postcommunism's post because of the comparison with Hunter S. Thompson. Good catch! But come to think of it, the reason I like to read Vidal is probably the American voice.
    /not American
    posted by mumimor at 2:21 PM on November 12, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Thank you, I'm really glad to learn about Dawn Powell. I can't wait to read her take on an era I'm familiar with. Unfortunately, only two of her books are available as e-books. I'm starting one of them now.
    posted by Anitanola at 2:48 PM on November 12, 2011


    'twoleftfeet', your post reads like something out of Catcher in the Rye

    My guess is that Salinger didn't have his tongue quite so far in his cheek.
    posted by twoleftfeet at 3:25 PM on November 12, 2011


    twoleftfeet - I don't like Gore Vidal either. That much self-importance in concentration is toxic. But apparently you can add to your complaints about him that not enjoying him makes you anti-intellectual. Good to know.

    Jesus Christ...
    posted by Navelgazer at 6:28 PM on November 12, 2011 [2 favorites]


    That said I'm very happy to learn about Dawn Powell and I look forward to reading her.
    posted by Navelgazer at 6:29 PM on November 12, 2011


    I suspect his fiction might fail for the same reasons his non-fiction engages.

    Eh, speaking of Vidal's fiction as a unified thing is a little problematic. He's written books about: an obsessed gay man who drifts from career to career; Time traveling T.V execs., seeking to recruit St. Timothy to be the commentator on a live broadcast the Crucifixion; Lincoln; and two books about Myra Banks (Wiki link, so spoilers in the article), which I wouldn't couldn't even begin to describe the plot of. Sure, you've got the phone-book length historical novels, but you've also got his satires, and other shorter novels. While they're all obviously written by Vidal, it's only in the same way that Bitches Brew and Kind of Blue are both obviously Miles Davis recordings.
    posted by Gygesringtone at 7:57 AM on November 13, 2011


    Hell yeah, Dawn Powell; I've been recommending her in AskMe for years. The New York novels are great - sharply witty but unpretentious, scathingly satirical of various aspects of "society" and yet capable of being so sweetly gentle you'll ache. I imagine there's even more of the latter in her Ohio novels, which I haven't gotten to yet because the New York novels are so much fun:

    Turn, Magic Wheel, 1936.
    The Happy Island, 1938.
    Angels on Toast, 1940.
    A Time to Be Born, 1942.
    The Locusts Have No King, 1948.
    The Wicked Pavilion, 1954.
    The Golden Spur, 1962.

    Folks with grudges against Gore Vidal should be sure to check the 5-page Richard Lingeman essay at the LOA site instead, which includes neat passages about Powell's life, work and the critical reaction like this:

    She considered herself no better than the people she gossiped about with such witty but (mostly) affectionate malice; for she had the same vices and odd virtue or two (e.g., love, honor, loyalty), the same ambitions and failures. She never expected much of her characters, let alone demanded of them heroic deeds, violent behavior, grand suffering. She was well schooled in failure, and her aim was deadliest when she had some swollen urban success in her sights, like the character Amanda Keeler Evans in A Time to Be Born, who was based on Clare Boothe Luce and who is perhaps Powell's most caustic fictional portrayal—a scheming, self promoting Ice Queen with the soul of a hedge-fund trader.

    Thanks, Trurl. That LOA site is full of good stuff; shame about the derail.
    posted by mediareport at 8:44 AM on November 13, 2011 [1 favorite]


    Thanks for the pointer to Powell, trurl. She's new to me.

    This quote struck me, and I'm still mulling it over:
    "Descriptions of warm, mature, heterosexual love were—and are—woman's writerly task, and the truly serious writers really, heartbreakingly, flunk the course while the pop ones pass with bright honors."

    PS: another Vidal fan here. Anyone else read _Messiah_?
    posted by doctornemo at 8:45 AM on November 13, 2011


    I love Dawn Powell and recommend her books all the time, too. I'm jealous that a friend of mine studied literature under her biographer, Tim Page.
    posted by vickyverky at 1:45 PM on November 14, 2011


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