(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

According to an entry in her 1932 diary, Dawn Powell wrote because she had no one to talk to. The accounts of the social life she led and recorded for almost forty years suggests, however, that she had plenty of people to talk to: John Howard Lawson, John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, Coby Gilman, Margaret De Silver, and scores of others who inhabited the literary circle of which, for four decades, she was a significant member. Her statement nevertheless identifies one of the demons Powell battled during most of her life; she had a bipolar personality, a manic-depressive tendency that fired her creativity one day and brought her crashing down emotionally the next.

Tim Page, chief music critic of The Washington Post, has edited Powell’s diaries, currently housed in the Columbia University Library’s Rare Book and Manuscript Collection. Although the book’s subtitle suggests that the diaries begin in 1931, Page has included very sketchy diaries that are little more than appointment books for the years from 1925 to 1931, when the more full-fledged diaries, recorded in a separate notebook with dated pages for each year, began. The original 1931 diary has been lost but is preserved in a photocopy to which Page had access.

Page at times did some cutting and at times omitted the names of people who are still living. He did, however, refrain from doing anything that might alter the basic tone or content of what Powell recorded. He provides twenty-one pages of biographical notes following the main text and has also compiled an extensive index. Readers might have been better served by the index, however, if he had added subheadings to its major entries. As the index stands, each major entry is followed simply by page numbers.

In order to keep readers oriented, Page supplies footnotes that identify people whose names—often only the first or last name—appear in Powell’s text. The footnotes also provide the titles of plays or novels that are being discussed in the text but are not clearly identified there.

Unfortunately, the footnotes are uneven. For example, when Powell writes of visiting her husband’s mother, she does not say where the mother lives. A footnote or a bracketed indication would serve readers well in situations such as this.

As editor, Page has intruded little, perhaps too little, on Powell’s text. While readers would deplore substantive editorial alterations of texts, they might surely expect to have a bit more editorial assistance than Page provides. Despite this, these diaries are of considerable literary importance and interest. Literary historians owe Page a debt of gratitude for having unearthed them and made them available in this form. His forthcoming biography of Dawn Powell should be a worthwhile addition to literary and feminist studies.

Powell was an immensely gifted writer who was capable of writing fast and well. She had to write fast often, because she was constantly faced with financial crises that necessitated her whipping out a short story or a short novel in order to pay the rent and buy food. She was often in debt to her friends; her loyal housekeeper, Louise Lee, sometimes went for weeks without pay because Powell was penniless.

During these bleak times of almost absolute penury, however, Powell continued to lead her vibrant social life, continued to dine out with friends, continued to travel to Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard to visit fellow writers, and continued to spend her summers at Mt. Sinai on Long Island. Also, even when the rent was due and creditors were pressing, she repeatedly declined offers to write for Hollywood at fees ranging from five hundred to fifteen hundred dollars a week, although she capitulated a few times and served short stints as a script doctor.

Powell wrote from her earliest youth. When she was twelve, her mother destroyed her notebooks and other writing, whereupon Dawn left home. An aunt, Orpha May Sherman Steinbrueck of Shelby, Ohio, reared her from that time until she went to Lake Erie College, from which she was graduated in 1918. As soon as she finished her education, she moved to New York, where, in 1920, she married Joseph R. Gousha, a poet and music critic who had become an advertising executive. She was deeply in love with him, and the two remained married until Gousha’s death in 1962.

When she became pregnant, Powell dreamed of having a “golden-haired boy in blue rompers.” On August 22, 1921, her son, Joseph R. Gousha, Jr., was born. From...

(The entire section is 1841 words.)