Reviews - What do customers think about Dawn Powell: Novels 1930-1942 (Library of America)?
An author to meet Aug 19, 2003
If you are unacquainted with Dawn Powell, as I was until just recently, this is an excellent means to begin your acquaintance, with five of her early novels arranged chronologically in one volume. Powell draws the reader along as she unwinds the thread of her narrative, slowing her pace for extended dialogue and description let her stories breath and speeding it to keep the narrative moving and reader engaged. A major benefit of having these five novels together is that the reader can trace the development of Powell's satiric style as it progresses from a spot here and there in "Dance Night" to all pervading in "Angels on Toast" and "A time to be Born".
The earlier works "Dance Night" and "Come Back to Sorrento", both of which have Midwestern small-town settings, have elements of Willa Cather, while the latter three, all New York satire, fall somewhere between Dorothy Parker and P.G. Woodhouse with punchy, sarcastic dialogue and vivid description. Like Woodhouse, Powell understands the humor of being anthropomorphic in describing inanimate objects.
The brief chronology at the end of the book, which I recommend readers unfamiliar with Powell read first, explains some of Powells returning motifs: absent parents, children farmed out to relatives, traveling salesmen, dysfunctional families and American class consciousness. She is masterful in presenting the "happily" part of the ending, but at the same time, registering misgivings about the "ever after."
"Dance Night", set in a generic Lamptown, is the story of Morry Abbot, a young man coming to maturity and sexual awareness. Powell sets this against the story of his dysfunctional parents, an absentee traveling salesman father and a mother who falls in love with the dance instructor. A whole set of fully-fleshed minor characters fill out the narrative.
In "Come Back to Sorrento", another small town narrative, Connie Benjamin's life changes when a new music teacher comes to teach at the school in Dell River. Connie, who has shown great promise as a singer, but who was restrained by her domineering grandfather who had raised her, has lived alone in her dream world for almost two decades. Professor Decker, who lives in his own artificial world, arrives and the two become fast friends. Although their pretensions, played out for before a spinster school teacher pass well into the realm of embarrassing, Powell deftly keeps them sympathetic simply by keeping the reader fully aware that these characters are lost in a world they only partly created.
Dennis Orphen, the hero of "Turn, Magic Wheel", a New York satire, has written a novelized book in which he satirizes a world-famous novelist, Andrew Callingham, having gleaned most of his information from Callingham's ex-wife, Effie. Dennis, an inveterate womanizer, has unbeknownst to himself, fallen in love with Effie and she with him.
The traveling salesman motif returns in "Angels on Toast", a story of the contrasting marital infidelities of Lou and Jay, who are continually on the road. Replete with wives, girlfriends, and at least one ex-wife, this is the fastest paced of the five novels in this volume.
"A Time to be Born", reportedly based on Clare Booth Luce, is the most complex of the five. Interspersed within the interwoven narratives of Amanda Evans and Vicky Haven are the workplace politics at Peabody Publications, the riotous family life of the McElroy's, (one of Vicky's colleague in the office) and a return of Dennis Orphen from "Turn, Magic Wheel", along with his writing and drinking buddy, Ken Saunders. Although Powell fully exploits her satiric wit in this novel, it does turn grim, especially towards the end.
These are all excellent reads and well worth the investment in this Library of America edition which has the same quality of their other publications. Library of America has also produced a second volume of Powell's works that include later novels.
An American Novelist Attains Stature Feb 12, 2003
Dawn Powell (1896-1965) wrote 15 novels which received little notice during her lifetime. Powell was born in rural Ohio. After college, she moved to Grenwich Village in New York City where she lived most of her life. Her novels have a strong element of autobiography. She wrote novels of her early experience in Ohio and novels of her life in New York City and often contrasted the different pacings and values of life in the Midwest and in New York. Her later books are sharply satirical and often cynical. She wrote of love and of affairs and of loss in unconventional situations.
In the 1990s, many people discovered Powell's works, sparked largely by the biography and other writings on Powell by Tim Page. In 2001, the Library of America published a two volumes of Dawn Powell, with notes by Tim Page, including 9 of her novels. The LOA is a wonderful and ambitious project which aims to capture the best in American writing, novels, poetry, history, philosophy. It is a record of American thought and of the American experience.
This volume consists of five novels that Powell wrote between 1930 and 1952. The first two books center upon life in the Midwest while the latter three books are satires of urban life.
The first novel in the book, Dance Night (1930), was Powell's fourth published novel and her own favorite of her works. It is a coming-of-age novel set in a town called Lamptown, Ohio. It deals with the restlessness of adolescence in a small town and with sexual frustration. The book points the way for its hero to leave Lamptown on a train bound, presumably, to seek his chance in New York City.
"Come Back to Sorrento", Powell's next novel was written in 1932 and sold very poorly. But the novel is a gem. It is set in a small midwestern town and its two main characters are a woman, trapped in an unhappy marriage who had dreamed in her youth of becoming a singer, and the town music teacher who had aspired to become a concert pianist and who is likely homosexual. The book is on the whole subdued and understated and centers upon the frustrating relationship between the two protagonists.
The next book in the collection, "Turn, Magic Wheel" (1936), is the first of Powell's novels satirizing life in New York City. Its characters are a young man who has published one successful novel lampooning a literary idol of the day, the literary idol himself, (modelled on Earnest Hemingway), and the women who are involved with both of them. There are great descriptions of the streets, bars and sites of New York City. The story is sharply, but compassionately, told. The book, I think, is ultimately a love story with an ambiguous message about the possiblity of happiness.
"Angels on Toast" (1940) is a satire of the world of business with its two main characters commuting by train from Chicago to New York City in search of money and mistresses. It is sharp and engaging, if one-dimensional. I don't think it as good as the other four novels in this volume.
The final work in this collection, "A Time to be Born" (1942) was one of Powell's few novels to achieve commercial success during her lifetime. One of the main characters in this book is modelled in part on Clare Boothe Luce. In this book, Powell juxtaposes life in midwest Ohio with life in New York City. The two major women characters in the book move to New York from the same small town in Ohio with very different results. This book is satirical but it is also -- actually primarily -- a coming-of-age novel for its young woman heroine. It gives an unforgettable picture of life in New York City just at the eve of United States entry into WW II.
Powell is best known as a satirist, but the books in this series show she was that and more. Her themes as a novelist are somewhat limited, but they are developed well and embroidered in each successive work. Her writing style develops with time until in her final novels (the second volume of the series) it becomes beautiful. She offers a vision of New York City and of the loss of innocence that is her own. The Library of America series is to be commended for finding writers describing American experience in somewhat unexpected places. Powell deserves her place in this series and in American literature. This volume will give the reader a good exposure to the work of Dawn Powell.
Satiric, witty, sharply written and observant fiction Oct 15, 2001
An author of immense popularity, Dawn Powell (1896-1965) wrote satiric, witty, sharply written and observant fiction that went out of print following her death. Then in the early 1990s a renewed awareness of this major literary figure saw the reissuing of her work, only to have it fall back into obscurity once again. Now The Library Of America has brought her work back into print again and in a format that will insure that her fiction will continue to be available to both scholarship and the general reading public for decades to come. Volume 1: Novels 1930-1942 includes Dance Night; Come Back to Sorrento; Turn, Magic Wheel; Angels on Toast; and A Time To be Born. Volume 2: Novels 1944-1962 features My Home Is Far Away; The Locusts Have No King; The Wicked Pavilion; and The Golden Spur. Dawn Powell: Volumes 1 & 2 is a very highly recommended addition to both academic and community library literary fiction collections.