Dawn Powell Analysis

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

ph_0111207105-Powell.jpg Dawn Powell Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Though Dawn Powell is known primarily as a novelist, she had originally intended to write for the theater. Her play Big Night was produced by the Group Theatre in 1933, and Jig Saw: A Comedy had a short run in 1934. Powell also wrote a musical comedy and scripts for radio, television, and film and published essays, reviews, and short stories in distinguished national magazines. A number of her short stories were collected in Sunday, Monday, and Always (1952).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

While such contemporaries as Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos considered Dawn Powell one of the finest writers of their time, she never attained their popularity. Shortly before her death in 1965, Powell was honored with an honorary doctorate and an award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, but despite occasional attempts by her admirers, such as Edmund Wilson, to call attention to her achievements, she remained relatively obscure, and her sixteen novels, all out of print, were difficult to find. Fortunately, in the next two decades, there was a revolution in the American sensibility. One of the results of the feminist movement was that critics and publishers had to admit sins of omission; they had minimized the talent of many fine women writers simply because they were women. Powell, who has been called an American equivalent to English satiric novelists such as Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell, is an obvious example.

In 1987, author and critic Gore Vidal launched the campaign to obtain proper recognition for Powell. In a lengthy essay published in The New York Review of Books, he traced her life and her literary career and concluded by bemoaning the fact that the novels of the person he considered America’s best comic novelist were all out of print. As a result of his article, several of her later books were reprinted, all with Vidal’s essay as an introduction, and the reviews that followed suggest that Powell may at last receive the recognition denied her during her lifetime.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Page, Tim. Dawn Powell: A Biography. New York: Holt, 1998. The first comprehensive account of Powell’s life and work by one of her finest critics. Includes detailed notes and an extensive bibliography.

Rice, Marcelle Smith. Dawn Powell. New York: Twayne, 2000. More of an overview than a traditional biography, this book concentrates on Powell’s novels, focusing on their creation and relation to the author’s life and experiences. Includes index and bibliographical references.

Vidal, Gore. “Dawn Powell, the American Writer.” The New York Review of Books 34 (November 5, 1987): 52-60. This essay, which also serves as the introduction to the Vintage Press editions of Angels on Toast, The Golden Spur, and The Wicked Pavilion, is an important work of Powell criticism. In it, Vidal summarizes her life, suggests reasons for her obscurity, presents a chronological summary of her novels, and discusses her importance in American literature.

Wilson, Edmund. “Greenwich Village in the 50’s.” The New Yorker 38 (November 17, 1962): 233-236. A review of The Golden Spur by one of the literary giants who shared Powell’s world. Wilson compares her genius to that of Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, and Muriel Spark.

Wilson, Edmund. The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, edited by Leon Edel. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980. An excellent source, not only because of the references to Dawn Powell but also because it provides a full picture of her period. Edel’s introduction is also illuminating. Illustrated.