Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Locusts Have No King is one of Dawn Powell’s most definitive portraits of the chaotic lives led by writers, artists, and other bohemians in Greenwich Village in the years immediately before and after World War II. Her characters strive for success yet seem to spend more time in romantic entanglements and hanging out in night spots than in actually performing any work. Although Frederick Olliver and Lyle Gaynor are serious about their work, Powell is considerably more interested in their private lives and gives only the barest of hints about what their writing entails. Her method of presenting their convoluted romances is to alternate their points of view with those of a chorus of interested observers, who often see Lyle and Frederick in a more critical light than they see themselves. As in many of her novels, Powell is more interested in her male protagonist than in her female characters. Yet Lyle is a woman of obviously stronger character than any of the men she encounters, though she is nevertheless unable to prevent becoming embroiled in emotional warfare in which no one wins. Powell’s women are much wiser than her men, who are, in varying degrees, naïve or arrogant regardless of their intellects.

The narrative jumps back and forth between scenes in the lives of Frederick and Lyle: He balances writing for Swan Quarterly and similar literary journals with editing the trashy humor magazine Haw, teaching bored adult students at the League for Cultural Foundations, and juggling his relations with Lyle and Dodo Brennan, while Lyle writes the plays credited to her and her husband, Allan (which he merely outlines), sees them through rehearsal, socializes with important figures in publishing and the arts, and conducts affairs first with Frederick and later with the hapless Edwin Stalk. Numerous scenes are set in the Greenwich Village bars loved by both Lyle and Murray Cahill, Frederick’s roommate, but only tolerated by Frederick himself. As in many of her novels, Powell’s characters seem to spend more time drinking and gossiping than doing anything else.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Powell’s critics consider The Locusts Have No King to be one of her three most witty and stylish treatments of Manhattan literary life, along with The Wicked Pavilion (1954) and The Golden Spur (1962). All three focus on bohemians searching for love and understanding in Greenwich Village bars. All three have male protagonists, but the earlier novel, with its strong, mostly sympathetic portrait of Lyle, has the most vivid women characters. Lyle could easily be misinterpreted as a woman who is incomplete without a man, but Powell emphasizes that she makes a mess of her life because of her inability to recognize that she can achieve happiness in both her personal and professional lives.

Powell’s women represent a varied world of behavior and attitudes. Murray’s lover, Judy Dahl, is more than a stereotyped bohemian artist. She paints in the nude in front of Frederick not out of a desperate need to assert her individuality but out of an innocent enjoyment of life. Murray’s colorful wife, Gerda, is reconciled to dropping constantly in and out of his life. She knows that they cannot live together permanently, yet they still can love each other in small doses. Gerda becomes close friends with Caroline Drake and Lorna Leahy, other admirers of Murray, because they share one another’s interests and feel no jealousy for one another. Caroline, a successful businesswoman, reprimands but forgives Murray for saying he hates career women, because she knows “men used the term ‘career-woman’ to indicate a girl who made more than he did and who was unforgivably good at her job when he was not able to hold one.”

Powell’s women are generally fiercely independent for the 1940’s. Most know how to enjoy life and do so on their own terms. In this regard, even Dodo is admirable. Powell may make fun of her characters’ excesses and flaws, but she is essentially compassionate toward them. With subtlety and without a trace of sentimentality, her art promotes such compassion.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Feingold, Michael. “New York Stories: Dawn Powell’s Acid Texts.” The Village Voice Literary Supplement 86 (June, 1990): 12-14. Major elements of Powell’s Manhattan novels are discussed. Points out Powell’s ire toward figures such as Allan Gaynor, who is too busy being a celebrity to bother practicing his craft. Observes Powell’s consistently sympathetic treatment of homosexuals, as with Allan’s adoring press agent.

Guare, John. Introduction to The Locusts Have No King. New York: Yarrow Press, 1990. The prominent playwright explains how he was inspired by Gore Vidal’s 1987 essay to read Powell’s work and investigate her life. Provides interesting background about Powell, including her lack of interest in politics.

Josephson, Matthew. “Dawn Powell: A Woman of Esprit.” Southern Review 9 (Winter, 1973): 18-52. In the lengthiest treatment of Powell’s life and work, Josephson comments briefly on The Locusts Have No King, praising her expert blending of high comedy and slapstick.

Trilling, Diana. “Fiction in Review.” The Nation 166 (May 29, 1948): 611-612. In the most infamous review of a Powell novel, Trilling laments that Powell is one of only a handful of Americans writing satirical fiction and that The Locusts Have No King is heavily flawed. She finds...

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