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Angels on Toast satirizes the ego, vulgarity, superficial “go-getterism,” and alcoholic self-indulgence of a type of American businessman common in the 1930’s. At the center of Dawn Powell’s comedy of bad manners are the attitudes of representative males Lou Donovan and Jay Oliver toward their women. Wives are to stay home and keep up a dignified front while their husbands carouse with showgirls or sexually liberated career women. When they marry the type of women with whom they like to indulge themselves, the marriages fail, as they do when a proper wife such as Mary Donovan attempts to be more flamboyant. Powell also comically contrasts the staid Midwest with the comparative decadence of Manhattan and the energy of urban America with the sleepy countryside.

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Angels on Toast opens with Lou and Jay on a train from Chicago to New York. Ebie Vane joins Jay, her lover, at the Pittsburgh stop. When they arrive in Manhattan, however, Jay is shocked to discover himself greeted by his wife, Flo, and his mother-in-law, who have decided to accompany him during his stay in New York. Lou covers for his friend by pretending that Ebie is a business associate, but everyone, including another passenger, Mary’s uncle, the staid Judge Harrod, assumes that Ebie is Lou’s mistress.

Lou has previously considered Ebie a snotty artistic type, but circumstances having thrown them together, he discovers her warmer nature, leading to their spending the night together in her luxurious apartment. Lou feels more guilt for being unfaithful to Jay than to Mary. In Lou’s world, a man can like but rarely respect a woman such as Ebie, even though she is much more intelligent and sophisticated than he, but can instinctively respect a crude wisecracker such as Jay, whose business success is based less on ability than luck, because he is “one of the boys.”

This opening section sets the tone for the novel. Lou and Jay alternate between dealing with the women in their lives and paying some occasional attention to business; Ebie and Mary examine their lives and their relations with men and find themselves lacking. Jay tries to ignore the chains binding him to the possessive Flo, always looking for an excuse to escape to New York and Ebie. Lou sincerely admires Mary, but she remains primarily a symbol of his success because of her social standing in Chicago as Judge Harrod’s niece. Lou invites women to the private bar he has created in his office to entertain him and his associates. On the road, he takes his pleasure where he can before being ensnared by Trina Kameray, Ebie’s temporary roommate and the protégé/mistress of Rosenbaum, a businessman Lou hopes will help him launch a real estate development in Maryland. Lou is used to treating women according to his whims, but the immigrant Trina, determined to find a reasonably wealthy American husband, has a mind of her own, openly taunting him with her indiscretions. The efforts of Lou’s first wife, Francie, to gain a loan for her gambler husband remind Lou of his humble past and his inability to shake it.

After the Maryland project falls through because the major backer has a stroke, Lou and Jay are at loose ends. Jay finally leaves Flo and consoles himself with Ebie, the two of them carrying on a rather passive existence in rural Connecticut. Lou is confused by the behavior of Mary, who has started drinking and going to nightclubs with a Spanish gigolo. Angels on Toast ends with Lou and Ebie uncertain about their futures and their identities.

Context

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Angels on Toast was published at a time when only a few American women writers (such as Dorothy Parker and Mary McCarthy) wrote witty fiction, and her satiric approach to the novel was appreciated much more by critics than by readers. Reviewing the novel in The New Republic, the distinguished critic Otis Ferguson wrote, “Dawn Powell is one of the few writers with a first-class wit who has the kind of understanding that combines appreciation with analysis, a curious ear and eye for everything that goes on, with an endless capacity for getting around.” (His not qualifying his praise by labeling her a woman writer is notable.) Ferguson also points out a possible reason Powell never received the popular attention that most critics felt she deserved: “Miss Powell likes what you might call the parquet type of novel: one scene starting here, then another at right angles to it, then something else laid alongside that.” This unconventional, sometimes demanding style, combined with her satiric barbs aimed at both sexes and all classes, perhaps made her unappealing for the average American novel reader of her time.

Powell is particularly notable as well for avoiding clichés. Popular fiction, plays, and films of the 1930’s, 1940’s, and 1950’s presented career women as empty vessels without strong male companions. Ebie Vane resists such easy stereotyping. She is equally unhappy as a serious painter, as a successful commercial artist, as a free-and-easy bohemian, as Jay’s lover, as a small-town midwesterner, as a Park Avenue sophisticate, and as a Connecticut suburbanite. Ebie has talent, intelligence, and personality, but she is still unfulfilled—and a husband and family are hardly what she needs. She is a typical Powell protagonist for whom life offers insufficient challenges and rewards.

Angels on Toast is the third of Powell’s seven New York novels in which the glamour of the advertising, art, music, theater, and publishing worlds offers her characters numerous opportunities for romance and adventure. Because these protagonists are tools in Powell’s satiric vision of Manhattan life, none will achieve happiness, regardless of their professional success. Yet Powell is a far from cynical satirist, and she presents her wriggling specimens, both women and men, with considerable compassion.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342

Feingold, Michael. “New York Stories: Dawn Powell’s Acid Texts.” The Village Voice Literary Supplement 86 (June, 1990): 12-14. Characterizes the New York City depicted in Powell’s fiction as filtered through a small-town Ohioan’s inherent suspicion of big-city life. Shows how Powell combines social analysis and psychological insight with slapstick farce and one-liners. Feingold points out that Angels on Toast is Powell’s only New York novel without a writer as a main character.

Ferguson, Otis. “Far from Main Street.” The New Republic 103 (October 28, 1940): 599. A perceptive review of Angels on Toast. Praises her ability to combine rigorous wit, analytical skill, and forgiveness for the excesses of her creations.

Josephson, Matthew. “Dawn Powell: A Woman of Esprit.” Southern Review 9 (Winter, 1973): 18-52. An overview of Powell’s life and career combining biography with an analysis of selected novels (although not Angels on Toast). Show how Powell drew from her life and the lives of her friends. Argues (wrongly) that her novels never received the popularity that they deserved because Powell was incapable of creating sympathetic characters. Contains useful information from Powell’s diaries.

Van Gelder, Robert. Writers and Writing. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946. This collection of interviews includes a 1940 profile of Powell. Van Gelder explains that while the rich and poor are acceptable targets for humor, the middle class is confused and angered when it is satirized. He describes the businessmen in Angels on Toast as enjoying life to the full because of their freedom from puritanism.

Vidal, Gore. “Dawn Powell, the American Writer.” New York Review of Books 34 (November 5, 1987): 52-60. Vidal summarizes and comments on all fifteen of Powell’s novels while reprimanding critics and readers for ignoring a major comic writer. Argues that Americans have never known how to take witty women and that Powell’s greatest achievement is her brilliant dialogue. Sees the main strength of Angels on Toast as its masterly evocation of time and place. Observes the importance that Powell places on chance in shaping lives and the failure of her characters to learn from their experiences.

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