Wild-Eyed and Ready to Die

Mary Hawthorne

  • The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931-65 edited by Tim Page
    Steerforth, 513 pp, US $19.00, October 1999, ISBN 1 883642 25 6

For more than thirty years, until her death in 1965, Dawn Powell lived and worked ceaselessly in Greenwich Village. She produced 15 novels, set in Manhattan or the small towns of her native Ohio, half a dozen plays, more than a hundred short stories and countless reviews and magazine articles (she regarded her work for Mademoiselle and the New Yorker with equal disdain). I had lived in Greenwich Village during the 1980s, and though I seldom visited any more, I felt a familiar melancholy as I walked through its old streets one grey, mild, quiet afternoon in November. I was surprised to find that, in a city where change is so ceaseless, it was in many ways the same Village I had known, though how much resemblance it bore to the Village Powell had lived in was hard to say. It may once have felt more alive with ambition and curiosity and youth, but it struck me that this air of sadness, an inducement to writing in itself, would always have been there. Perhaps, with its being a kind of village, a certain small-town claustrophobia hovered over it, giving rise to doubts about the limitless possibilities of art and self-reinvention – the very things everyone came for in the first place. The Lion’s Head was gone, but there was still the Beatrice Inn, still Thomas’s White Horse Tavern, still the beautiful red Village Cigars. And there were still a few of the older solitary women you don’t see much on the street anymore, with dyed black hair, eccentric hats and furtive eyes and the garish smear of lipstick that marks the ageing female bohemian.

I had written down Powell’s addresses in the Village – there were nine in all – and as I came across them one by one, I began to feel that, even though there was no way of knowing what they had been like when she had lived in them, these dwellings, which ranged from soigné to seedy, were a record of her changing fortunes, testifying to the occasional rewards, but usually the penalties, of risky professional choices: 35 West 9th Street was a handsome Italianate prewar co-op with a green awning anchored to polished brass poles and late-blooming geraniums spilling from terraced window boxes high above; 72 Perry Street, sandwiched between stately townhouses, was a mute, shabby rowhouse painted over in a hideous maroon, with shaded windows outlined in deep blue – the off-colours of downtown Oslo – and a spidery pattern of tentacles left behind by the Virginia creeper lately torn from the side of the building; 106 Perry, a block over, just off the noisy thoroughfare of Hudson Street, was an impoverished tenement next to a parking garage: a ratty black front door opened onto the sidewalk, no clue as to who lived inside, the building’s brick exterior daubed over in another grim colour from a discontinued line of paint.

Powell’s life begins like something out of a fairytale, and becomes the Book of Job. She was born on 28 November 1896, in Mt Gilead, Ohio, into an apparently happy family: her mother was a housewife, her father a travelling salesman; she had an older sister, and a younger one with whom she remained close all her life. When Powell was seven her mother died from complications following an abortion, and the three sisters, more or less abandoned by their father, were looked after by relatives who weren’t always pleased to oblige, until he remarried. The children’s stepmother was a horror (‘her curious prim cruelties were there from the beginning,’ Powell wrote years later to her editor Maxwell Perkins). When she wasn’t busy thrashing the children with a silver-handled whip, for offences such as entering the parlour without an invitation, she neglected and humiliated them. The last straw came when she burned Powell’s earliest stories and diaries. Powell was 13. She ran away, to Shelby, Ohio, to live with her mother’s sister, who kept a kitchen opposite the railroad tracks, and never went back, though she did return to the terrain of her youth in her Ohio fiction, notably the hypnotic novel Dance Night, set in a languorous factory-town modelled on Shelby, and in her affecting autobiographical novel, My Home Is Far Away, published in 1944. She writes there of the thrill every prisoner experiences at the prospect of escape:

She woke up in the night with a shock of fear, remembering that she was going to do something tremendous … She didn’t know how or when she was going to do this but every day seemed the last. Every moment sharpened her sensations … It was funny having that other person inside you … when outside you were resigned to whatever came up.

At Lake Erie College for Women a few years after she made her escape, Powell dreamily told her classmates that she might not get a man but predicted that she would be famous within ten years. At the same time, writing in her diary, she confides prophetically to Woggs, an imaginary friend, her worries about the future:

I must make myself strong for the knocks that are to come, for no matter what you tell me – ‘You’ve had enough knocks, you’ll have happiness the rest of your life’ – something in me says that life for me holds more knocks than joys, and the blows will leave me crushed, stunned, wild-eyed and ready to die, while the joys will make me deliriously, wildly, gloriously happy. It’s the way I am made, Woggs … I must have days of rushing excitement.

Perhaps it was the dread of disappointment that steered Powell towards the satirical New York novels on which her reputation largely rests. (The Satyricon was her favourite book.)

Inevitably, her view of Manhattan was also a view of the Midwest. On her return from a trip to Ohio, Powell wrote to Perkins of ‘the familiar combination of open hearts and closed minds that represents so much of the country except New York, where we have closed hearts first, and minds so open that carrier pigeons can fly straight through without leaving a message.’ These two worlds, Ohio and New York, flawed in symmetrically opposite ways, were essentially what made up Powell’s life experience, and in all her work there is a mythical undercurrent – the wanderer in the wilderness, embarked on an improbable search for redemption. Powell’s friend Edmund Wilson claimed that her theme was not love but the Midwestern naif who makes the city his home, ‘without ever … losing his fascinated sense of an alien and anarchic society’. This is true; and there is at times something naive in the naif’s send-up of that society. But the two things are not mutually exclusive. Powell’s other great theme is the peculiar psychology of love. She returned again and again to the subject, always with the same conclusion: sexual desire was at the root of it, often the extent of it. There was nothing that engaged her more fully for the simple reason that there was nothing she valued more deeply.

In 1920, two years after moving to New York, Powell fell in love with Joseph Gousha, a poet and music critic who went on to have a successful career in advertising. Nine months later, they married, and in another nine months, she gave birth to a son they called Jojo. The fairytale abruptly ended. The birth was horrendous: the boy was born with a clot on his brain and his skull was damaged by forceps. Over the course of several years, he was variously diagnosed with schizophrenia, autism, ‘retardation’; he may also have suffered from a form of cerebral palsy. In any case, he was disturbed and he was a terror and his parents were bewildered by him. In 1925, Powell and Gousha agreed to a temporary separation and she went back to Ohio, taking Jojo with her. But she missed her husband, and Ohio was no longer her home. And there was Jojo: ‘He has been thoroughly hateful and no one can do a thing with him. I have beat him until I’m weak but really, dear, you wouldn’t believe how downright nasty our little treasure is.’ Also: ‘He would break your heart. He waked up in the middle of the night to say, “Daddy will come back – he will come back.”’

Powell returned to New York but thereafter she and Gousha appear to have led separate lives, even though they lived together until his death in 1962. Powell had affairs; probably he did, too. She wrote many affectionate letters to him, but he rarely appears in her diaries except as a source of complaint. He is a shadowy figure – sarcastic, hostile, drunk, a spendthrift; by the end, pathetic. Both were inept with money, and Gousha, especially, thought nothing of living beyond his means. In 1958, he was ‘retired’ from his advertising job, and shortly thereafter he and Powell were evicted from 35 West 9th Street for non-payment of rent: their possessions were actually thrown out on the street. By then, Powell was 61 and had completed the bulk of her life’s work; after a year of living hand to mouth in hotels and sublets, an old and wealthy friend, Margaret De Silver, started a trust fund to save them from destitution. Not long after Gousha’s death, Powell wrote in her diary: ‘Old retired couples … are each other’s prisoners, as Joe was mine and I was his. Lovers become prisoners, eventually needing each other against the world, protecting each other, kind to each other through necessity.’ And a few weeks later: ‘Someone asked me about the long marriage to Joe – 42 years – and I reflected that he was the only person in the world I found it always a kick to run into on the street.’ Years earlier, still in her forties, she had written: ‘At 40, a woman should not gamble; she should bend all her energies to retaining whatever she has, if it’s family, marriage, job, etc, because from now on the losses begin and the diminution of courage.’

As early as 1931, Powell seemed resigned to the prediction she had made to Woggs when she was still in college. ‘Did three pages on novel,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘Tired to death but work out of sheer nervous desperation … What other fate need I have expected after my first 21 years training in work, worry, insecurity and frustration? One has to be born and raised fortunately in order to be forever fortunate.’ Apart from her difficulties with Joe, apart from unrelenting financial anxieties, apart from the fact that none of her novels, with the exception of her last books, A Time to Be Born, The Wicked Pavilion and The Golden Spur, received any serious critical attention during her lifetime, there was always Jojo, who was eventually confined to the state asylum on Ward’s Island. She loved him and worried over him continually, and her allegiance was unwavering. He appears constantly in her diaries. 1 July 1939: ‘Jojo, thin, only 120 lbs, but very good. I read a chapter of David Copperfield a day to him, explaining points of conduct, geography, history, character, ethics, etc, and it seems a means of awakening him to realities.’ 7 February 1940: Jojo is ‘better than I ever knew him – in the thrill to his mind his walk changed from institutional shuffle to perfectly normal … Coming across Manhattan Bridge by taxi at twilight the city again looked magical, ever challenging, ever unconquerable, and yet always alluring.’

When Jojo was 26 he attacked Powell on a visit home and she was in hospital for four weeks. On the day of the attack, her 51st birthday, she wrote in her diary: ‘Evidently life gets incredibly more terrifying – the childish “foolish” fears of the bogeyman waiting in the dark are sounder than any hope. Beaten – head bashed – knocked down – and the monster face at last revealed was my birthday present today.’ Again, many years later, when he attempted suicide, she records:

Jojo, after the most astonishing weekend at home, concentrating on 38 Christmas cards and work – then had disappointment at party at Ward’s so was in M5 (disturbed) and no permit for Christmas. Saw him and really was shattered by the monstrous madmen there this time (madmen never smile – except in crime, I suppose) – really murderous looking. He had cut his wrists.

Powell’s health had never been good, but this, too, was something she took in her stride. In 1949 a longstanding problem was finally diagnosed as a tumour growing on her heart which had already broken nine of her ribs. ‘It is made up of parts of various things – hair, teeth, sometimes an eye or jawbone,’ she wrote mischievously to her sisters. ‘It lives off your heart and lung and is “benign” – unless it gets overgrown and shoves out the organs you need, which mine started to do … It was as large as a grapefruit and had cut off all but 1/3 of my lung space so it was about ready to shove me out.’ The recognition of life’s unfairness never left Powell, but neither did her amusement in the face of it – it was the only way to disarm the enemy.

Much the same strategy can be seen at work in the New York novels, wry, engrossing portraits of egotism, greed, opportunism and general frailty. Powell was criticised by Diana Trilling for devoting her attention to characters who, in their venality and shallowness, were unworthy of her gifts, but this doesn’t seem quite right. We delight in Powell’s tales of ‘types’ because we know them well: hacks like Dennis Orphen, discarded celebrity wives like Effie Callingham (Turn, Magic Wheel), cynical unrecognised artists like Dalzell Sloane (The Wicked Pavilion), social climbers like Amanda Keeler (A Time to Be Born), sensitive souls like Frederick Olliver (The Locusts Have No King) who throw over their ideals in exasperation and shame at their lack of worldly success and then later, realising their mistake, sheepishly attempt to reclaim them. And Powell’s depiction of everyday power struggles, in families or between the social classes or the sexes, is sometimes as good as Trollope’s, or Balzac’s. On reading Frederick Olliver’s meticulously researched manuscript on medievalism, the meretricious Tyson Bricker remarks indignantly: ‘It’s an outrage that you’re not more appreciated.’ And immediately beams ‘at Frederick with the honest affection one could feel toward a man who will never be a rival, a man one is sure will never be anything but a disguised failure, a man one can praise freely and honestly without danger of sending him zooming up the ladder ahead of oneself’.

It’s fun to run into these characters, from novel to novel, in much the same way that it’s fun to meet their contemporary counterparts in the bars and restaurants of New York today; their presence has a grounding effect in a rapidly shifting landscape. On the other hand, we don’t want to spend an immense amount of time with them. Their weaknesses are insufficiently complex, their plight insufficiently hopeless, their cruelties insufficiently awful and their souls insufficiently troubled. There are no Cousin Bettes or Père Goriots in Powell, and Amanda Keeler, who was modelled on Clare Booth Luce, is the closest thing to Lizzie Eustace, but without her delectable pathology. Such are the limitations of satire.

Powell’s diaries are something else. Not only do they contain much of the raw material she eventually wove into her books: they are full of vignettes, anecdotes and miniature stories that reveal the stuff of the city in a way her novels seldom do. Some are told to her by strangers at parties (Powell was a tireless socialiser); others she has observed or overheard on the street. But most of all, Powell reveals herself in a way that rarely comes through in more conventional modes. She is depressed, hungover, fretful about her weight, annoyed with Hemingway’s ‘gusto’. It is all refreshingly direct, free of the obligation to charm. The diaries are the gritty underside of her more cheerful tales, and lead us straight into her stoical nature. Powell’s most interesting story is the story of her own life, and for this reason, the diaries are the best work she ever did.