One of the few female satirists of the twentieth century, Dawn Powell realized early on that "you both confuse and anger people if you satirize the middle class." Unfortunately for them, the middle class was her favorite target. Described as "always sharp, never cranky," Powell and her work are reentering the public eye with a vengeance. As new readers are turning the cult favorite into a religion, they apply her criticism to our own time, and find many similarities.
Although Dawn Powell was born on November 28, 1896, after she turned thirty, she would list her birth year as 1897. She was the second of three daughters of a Mt. Gilead, Ohio family. Powell never had much faith in the traditional family structure, once writing, "Any barroom brawl is better than the persistent pinpricks of the happy little family." Though harsh, her opinion is forgivable-her experience with the "happy little family" was extremely limited. When Dawn was seven years old, her mother died from what was believed to be a failed abortion. For four years the girls were spread around to various relatives; when their father remarried, they moved in with him and their new stepmother at a Cleveland farmhouse. Their father, an alcoholic, left the family, and their stepmother became severely abusive. After many attempts, all three of the Powell sisters ran away from home, though they remained close to each other for the rest of their lives.
Dawn herself escaped when she was thirteen, after her stepmother burned her beloved notebooks. She moved in with her maternal aunt in Shelby, Ohio, where she attended high school and continued writing. "Auntie May" was a strong influence on Dawn: "She gave me music lessons and thought I had genius and when I wrote crude little poems and stories she cherished them…" Even more than providing her with praise and encouragement, her divorcée aunt was the social misfit Dawn would grow up to be. She regularly opened her home to wild friends, lovers, and strangers who stopped by for dinner. Even more rebellious than that, Powell considered women to be equal with men.
After graduating high school, Dawn attended Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, where she wrote and acted in plays and edited the literary magazine. She then spent a small amount of time on a Connecticut farm, writing and campaigning with the suffragist movement, later joking that friends thought she needed a "summer in artistic atmosphere where I could develop my genius."
On September 2, 1918, Powell moved to New York, where, except for a few brief vacations, she would live all her life. Her books, if not autobiographical and therefore in Ohio, were all set in New York; the city's vibrancy sustained Powell through many hard times, and she truly loved it. She wrote, "There really is one city for everyone just as there is one major love." After failing the U.S. Navy physical, (she had Spanish influenza), she settled into a series of small jobs, working with the Red Cross, being a movie extra, and writing freelance articles. She met fellow author and New York immigrant Joseph Gousha in 1920, and they married and had a son a year later.
The son, nicknamed Jojo, had problems almost immediately after birth; although then he was dubbed "retarded," historians believe he was actually autistic. Though his parents tried to care for him, Jojo would be transferred between home and hospital the rest of his life. His mother always kept careful and loving records of his time at home.
Powell's early family life was not easy. Amid her husband's drinking problem, her son's issues, and the financial problems of the Great Depression, she kept her household afloat with small plays and articles she wrote. Her passion, however, was for novels, and she churned out sixteen over the course of her career. In 1925 she published (and immediately disavowed) her first novel, Whither. Her second, She Walks in Beauty, was released to moderate success, as was The Bride's House. Though her critics and contemporaries celebrated her talent, Powell never experienced vast commercial success in her career. It didn't seem to affect her when, in 1963, she found out The Golden Spur didn't win the National Book Award it was nominated for; she wrote in her diary "Was told yesterday I had not won the National Book Award. I felt some relief as I have no equipment for prize-winning-no small talk, no time for idle graciousness and required public show, no clothes either.…"
Still, Powell continued to write her satires, criticizing the same life she lived. Her diaries are filled with night after night of plays, parties, and restaurants, dotted with tales of her friendships with e.e. cummings, Gore Vidal, Ernest Hemingway, and Dorothy Parker. It is told she went through several affairs with fellow writers, including one so secret she did not write about it in her diary. Her time was divided between her family, her friends, and her cherished writing period, when she relished her time along with her thoughts. Once she confessed to writing the majority of a novel in the children's room of a Public Library:
"They have those low little tables in there that are just the right height for me. And it is always quiet in the children's room. Children aren't allowed there, so far as I know…. Another advantage of the children's room is that you don't come up against the eye-twitchers and ear-twiggers of the third floor reference rooms. You know the people across the table from you who keep twigging their ears or screwing up their faces, and each time they do it you can't avoid looking up?"
After receiving an honorary doctorate from Lake Erie College in 1960 and a lifetime achievement in literature from The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1964, Powell found her writing in high demand. Tragically, her health was slipping, and she had begun to lose weight and energy. She was diagnosed with colon cancer and returned to her home. Of course, she was more concerned about her unfinished writing projects than anything else, and at the last minute, she signed a will donating her body to medical research. Five years later her friends buried her in New York City Cemetery.
Though Dawn Powell is not yet on any required reading lists, her popularity is growing as generations of new readers discover her works. Her unrestrained humor may be hard to digest for some, but for many it will read as true and biting as it was in her time. For Powell, her satires never seemed too bitter, after all, she wrote of her characters "I give them their heads. They furnish their own nooses."