Fran Lebowitz on the Best American Writer You've Never Heard Of (2002)

Fran Lebowitz on the Best American Writer You've Never Heard Of (2002)

Dawn Powell (November 28, 1896 – November 14, 1965) was an American writer of novels and stories. Her books:

She had a prodigious output, producing hundreds of short stories, ten plays, a dozen novels, and an extended diary starting in 1931. Her writings, however, never generated enough money to live off. Throughout her life, she supported herself with various jobs, including freelance writer, extra in silent films, Hollywood screenwriter, book reviewer, and radio personality. Her play Walking Down Broadway was filmed as Hello, Sister! (1933), co-written and co-directed by Erich von Stroheim.

Her novel Whither was published in 1925, but she always described She Walks in Beauty (1928) as her first. Her favorite of her own novels, Dance Night, came out in 1930. The early work received uneven reviews, and none of it sold well. Her 1936 novel Turn, Magic Wheel, the first work that received both critical acclaim and reasonably good sales, marked a turn to social satire in a New York setting. In 1939, Scribner’s became her publisher, where Maxwell Perkins was her editor.

In 1942, Powell published her first commercially successful novel, A Time to Be Born, whose central figure—Amanda Keeler Evans, an egotistical hack writer whose work and media presence are bolstered by the assiduous promotion of her husband, the newspaper magnate Julian Evans—is loosely modelled on Clare Boothe Luce, wife of Henry Luce.[3] A musical adaptation of the novel, written by Tajlei Levis and John Mercurio, was staged in 2006 in New York City.[3]

After the war, Powell’s output slowed down, but it included some of her most acclaimed New York novels, including The Locusts Have No King (1948), a portrait of the disintegration and eventual rekindling of a love affair against the background of the city and the onset of the Cold War. The novel ends with news of the Bikini Atoll atom-bomb tests.

Two late novels show Powell’s interest in the New York art world of the 1950s:

The Wicked Pavilion (1954), an ensemble portrait of the characters orbiting around the Cafe Julien (a fictionalized Hotel Brevoort)[4] and a vanished or deceased painter named Marius
The Golden Spur (1962), set in a fictionalized Cedar Tavern,[4] in which a young man’s search for the identity and history of his dead father brings him to New York, where he becomes involved with the circle around a charismatic painter, Hugow

When Powell died, virtually all of her novels were out of print. Her posthumous champions included Matthew Josephson, Gore Vidal,[6] and especially Tim Page, who joined forces with her family to free her manuscripts, diaries, and copyrights from her original executrix. The result was a revival in the late 1990s, when most of Powell’s books were made available once more. Her papers are now at the Columbia University Rare Books and Manuscripts Library in her beloved New York.

Powell is referenced in the Gilmore Girls episode “Help Wanted”, in which Rory expresses sadness over her relative obscurity. She is also referenced in the novel A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity by Whitney Otto. She is also referenced by the novelist Alan Furst in his 2014 work ‘Midnight in Europe.’

Fran what about you you chose Don Powell mm-hmm I chose Don town I chose on palette because I had to choose someone although my first choice to be involved in this project would have been to take out 50 people as opposed to add 50 people this it always be my choice I chose I chose Don Powell just in the hopes that more people would read Don Powell that every little mention of Don Powell would help her gain a readership because there had recently been you know somewhat of a vogue for Don Powell I mean relative to previous condition where no one including myself had ever heard of her I heard of her for the first time probably the way most people who have heard of her I heard of her which is an essay that gore Vidal wrote in the New York Review of Books I have no ability to remember dates sometime in the late 80s I believe you might even know it might even be in this book and he wrote a very long essay very appreciative essay about Don Powell which cause in fact a very small press to republish certain of her novels from New York novels in fact this was such a small press that when they after they had published maybe the first one and I talked to quite a number of people about it how great I thought it was I got a message on my answering machine saying I don't remember the guys name my name is so-and-so I own this little publishing company published on pound we heard you like term we'd like to know if you'd give a blurb you may remember me I met you once before I am the butcher at the Jefferson Market so he was the betrothal Jefferson market during the day and by night he was this very fine publisher of course unfortunately I believe he's probably now still the butcher at the Jefferson market and this publishing company doesn't exist any longer this in fact is a history of American letters anyway Don Powell was not unknown in her time which I think a lot of people believe to be the case but she was very commercially unsuccessful in an era where there were writers were very commercially successful far inferior of course to Don Powell she was very critically well-received particularly by Edmund Wilson who at that time was able to really make people's entire careers but unable in the case of Don Powell to do this she wrote in my opinion she has almost two totally discrete bodies of work she has these Midwestern novels she grew up in a Highland very unhappy circumstances which really probably defined anyone's child in Ohio but she was abandoned and you know her parents died and then the next people she live at they died and then they throw out them they died and it was unusually unhappy child in Ohio she wrote a whole series of Midwestern ah was very good a very bleak and then she wrote as she came to New York and wrote these wonderfully hilarious New York novels I think the reason that they were not successful is their their very harsh and there just was never a time in this country where that was appreciated they are exactly the opposite of stories of redemption there is not a moment of redemption in a Don Powell novel because they're so real to life so their hair is not just not even a fleeting thought of redemption in a non pala novel and also she did something incredibly bold and foolish how often these things go hand in hand she wrote a novel about Clare Boothe Luce um and you know the exact moment where that would have been just about the stupidest thing you could possibly do if you had any interest in earning two cents it is really Oh funny funny book and now see what happens is Clare Boothe Luce is dead and we still have this wonderful book so that but at that time of course Clare Boothe Luce was married to mr. Luce and so that this hurt on Powell's career quite a bit she are she also role plays almost everything she wrote no one bought the these books you know because they're their satires might seem in a certain respect as if they would date and because they're very specific in in certain respects however they really don't at all and this is because human nature has not improved one bit so the head although you know bars have different names and advertising you know is not at the center of the of that kind of bar life as it was at the time and when it was a quite a new thing and although Clare Boothe Luce is dead many other women have come to take her place so the head you will say that really these exact same people are still with us and so if you did write such a novel now you would have exactly the degree of success that dawn Powell had in her career even though you know in most respects she is a profoundly American writer having this incredibly strong unshakable bond to the Middle West and this very kind of typical American you know a kind of story of bohemian aspiration of coming to New York and she's very unamerican in how really harsh her work is and which is why she's really one of my favorite writers and that is why I chose nine pal brain I'd also had a question for you where I found in your introduction to Don Powell get a really intriguing statement about how her work was somehow intact because it was neither it was ruined neither by great success or great failure of the of the of the author somehow that you know that she was not hugely lauded or demonized somehow you know there's something in that stayed pure you tell me a little bit more about about sort of the idea does the success somehow distort you know especially something that's a written work sort of how we view you know people's sort of cannon from the past well it doesn't distort a work that's finished right it distorts the life work for right of course it does I mean there are numerous examples of that a success or failure it depends on the person you know some writers can handle success um in fact many writers especially a writer like Don Powell you know I mean all satirist are very social people they're not you know a satirist is never a person you know who lives in a barn in New Hampshire so because um you have to have something to satirize and it turns out people are perfect for this particularly that sort of writer often usually that sort of writer either it becomes very fashionable which is tremendously problematic for a writer or is ignored which is tremendously enraging and that has either one can have a very deleterious effect on writers work you know basically don't impose New York novels or novels and manners and it's very unusual for a writer like Don Val to have had neither extreme reaction to her work because there was you know this is very kind of a legal but people who appreciate it that was sufficient kind of success for her not to take poison in the boarding house um but she didn't really succeed you know the way that other writers that ilk do sometimes and so that can be quite oppressive to a writer she had tremendous crushing financial obligations which is that she had a son who was retarded or brain damaged and was institutionalized and and she had a husband who was kind of a poet so also very expensive type of husband half so that but she was very and this is very unusual for someone with that kind of a terma turn of mind that she had she she was kind of feisty although you know thank goodness it does not appear in her work there's no feistiness at all in the work which would be death to a satirist but she she she was very prolific I don't think that she would have been that prolific you know had she been very successful because there have been too many occasions to observe as opposed to record to record yeah that's interesting friendly woods made a joke about rather than adding 50 people to the list but 50 people should get taken off so my question is if you're if you're taking part in these intellectual projects to reclaim all this territory how do you juggle that with the idea that maybe in the popular head there's only so much room only I mean seriously how many people in the popular mind can we remember and truly value some security about how you guys juggle those two notions you mean how many how many people do I think the popular mind can juggle luckily they didn't ask us about the popular mind I don't really understand how do you take the conflicting issues of we have all you know hairdresser in Cincinnati all these narratives just to house in piles you don't have to remember them that's why we have books yeah right I mean that to me that's a great thing about books is once it's 8 you have the book you don't have to remember it right you can look it up again right and if you're in my field your job is to bring more and more back I mean when Casper and I started talking about this you know if we could get what 3,000 we thought that would be a lot right but now we're up to 7,000 you know whatever and the more the merrier if we can get 10 I mean I'd love to have 18,000 you know black people brought back from the dead just so that nobody ever has to do that man you know the the curse the mixed blessing of the being a scholar of african-american tradition and many other I think women's tradition and women's studies as well is that you're doomed of resurrect before you explicate you have to go out and find it you know my PhD is an English literature if I'm writing about Milton you know 20,000 secondary sources on Milton and I can find them online I could find concordances I can find all this text I can scan them you know all that's we're just doing that my generation is just doing that for African American in the african-american tradition so my job is not to worry about the popular mind but to say with the more the merrier but it also has an impact on the popular mind you don't have to remember or know about the individuals but once you get a sense that there are in fact a flood of people out there in this category that previously was represented only by few individuals it changes the way you think about both the past and about the way the world works in the present it's not a matter of individual data it's a matter of the impact of the collective resurrection I think but do you really mean the more the merrier I mean should there should be an ambition I presume presumably going to be you know I mean you must impose some sort oh sure I can't have it because I can't have the well in that biographical dictionary of the AME Church in New Jersey yeah it's every stewardess in the church but then don't get to be and you're not gonna beat him know that I got beaten I mean we have but it's always arbitrary isn't it I think they're called church attendance now so bad scene I went to Tony we were together in Stockholm for Toni Morrison's a nobel-prize thing and I never let laughs thought I'd done more questions yes I I like to follow up on his question and all sort of reference the history young people do not know history because it's not taught they know last week maybe last month maybe even a decade if it's hip-hop or something like that's something pop okay – we have the electronic error people do not read books they go up on the web and then print out trees okay oh they read it online given the distribution of knowledge or information see a convergence – how do you convert it to knowledge and taking your 18,000 why can I not have 20,000 a hundred thousand and your job would be to help me index it my Curie I want to learn about a certain type of person where are they we're honest technology impact on your job as is called scholars and keepers of the faith of history if one young people are not taught about history then I'm inclined to believe in it and so we have the electronic distribution of masses of information where's editing I don't agree who you callin a scholar you must have me mixed up with these guys I'm not a scholar everything young people know is history everything else they're just guessing that's what young means so that would be my answer the rest you have to ask the scholars well for my in my case I wasn't sure I understood your question but we but I'll never say I never stopped me before just because I mean the the important word in your sentences to me was reading as long as I'm reading I don't care what form they read and we have all kind of tools to direct them to organize their reading whether it's the great thing about the internet or cd-rom is that you can index instantly yeah you know you can you can line up you push the button and line up all the articles on scientists in all these pages that's fantastic that's great that makes things accessible in a way that it wouldn't be or it's much more difficult through the 24 volumes we do lesson plans for Africana I mean I created anthing I created a company Oh calm just to put up free lesson plans that so a teacher could teaching a fifth-grade science course could figure out how to include information about the black world even in a 5th grade science course instantly because teachers teach what they were taught and they're overworked and underpaid so you have to make it easy for them to digest if you want to easy for them to implement if you want to introduce new new subject matter so I think that we're benefited enormously by the technological advances rather than hampered well I'd speak up I'm but I but I think is implicit in your in your question the problem of information overload and the necessity for editing it's just that I think that there are two different things I mean I agree that what you want as it were is an enormous database and the bigger the better and then you have to think of the kind of tools that are useful for going into it but most people don't absorb information that way they absorbs through stories and that's the job of writers and historians and and anybody's scholars are no you know face it and history defined in a mad empirical way is an infinite number of events that have happened in the past and to recount all of those would be infinitely boring and take an infinite amount of time you like reading the phone book or reading you know just endlessly through one after another what is important is to have some people who go into these sources of information and pick and choose some of them that they think are important arrange them in some sort of order and flow and tell a story but for an historian unlike writers you can't make the stuff up so in the more data that's been assembled the richer the possibilities are of the kind of story that you can tell I think we do our bit don't we writers and bookstores and publishers are still continuing to do it I mean this book it's here it's there I mean you may cast the school system there are parents there are bookstores there are it's all there we're doing our bit we hand the blame to somebody else look I want to thank everyone for coming out this evening and especially to thank our panelists here


  1. Never heard of Dawn Powell? lol. Apparently the kind people at The Film Archives don't take their audience for being a particularly bookish bunch. Dawn Powell is far from obscure.

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