Dawn Powell (1896 --1965) is an American novelist whose works have captured some attention in recent years. Powell grew up in a small town in Ohio but spent most of her life in New York City. Her 15 novels are autobiographical. They feature characters who move from the constraints of small-town America to attempt to make their way in New York City. The earlier novels focus on small town life while Powell's later novels are sharp, satiric pictures of New York.
Powell's "A Time to be Born" (1942) takes place in New York City just as the United States is preparing to enter WW II. It is a mixture of cutting satire, a coming-of-age novel, and a comedy of manners. The two major characters are two women who have left the same small Ohio town to come to New York and their varying and interrelated fortunes. The first, Amanda Keeler Evans, has become the wife of a powerful publisher, has written a novel, participates in highly-publicised war relief efforts, and is a syndicated columnist on world affairs (which are written for her). Her childhood friend, Vickie Haven, comes to New York after a failed love affair, and her life becomes intertwined with Amanda. In the complex plot, both women share an apartment, which Amanda uses for an affair with Kenneth Saunders, a lover from the days before her marriage. A triangle develops among Saunders, Amanda, and Vickie.
The book tells the story of Vickie Haven's coming-of-age as she gradually weans herself from dependence on her family in Ohio and from Amanda. She begins to act independently when she takes her own apartment and leaves the situation into which Amanda has manipulated her. As with all Powell's writings, the awakening is only partial and bittersweet.
This book presents an unforgettably picture of a bygone New York City as the United States prepares to enter the war. The story is sharply and wittily told, but there is an undercurrent of sympathy, compassion, worldly-wisdom and perhaps hope.
This novel will interest readers of American literature willing to be adventurous and to explore little-known works of the mid-20th Century.
Gore Vidal, admired and respected Dawn Powell and wrote a long article called,"Dawn Powell, The American Writer". Here he explains her writing "The novels of Dawn Powell have no truck with hypocrisies. She does not judge, excuse or sentimentalize, viewing her characters with a fine indifference to their manifold failings. Her almost Flaubertian aesthetic morality was often misread as sour detachment, but it was anything but. As she noted in her diary, "The satirist who really loves people loves them so well the way they are that he sees no need to disguise their characteristics -- he loves the whole, without retouching. Yet the word used for this unqualifying affection is 'cynicism.'" The Powell Effect is strikingly evident in her handling of the Clare Booth Luce character in her roman à clef "A Time to Be Born." The character is, in every conventional sense, a monster of sexual and literary deception, and a consummate liar and user, yet seen through Powell's clarifying lens her actions become understandable -- one even comes to accord her energies a respect akin to that we have for Becky Sharp. To feel, really feel, the heartbreak of an objectively contemptible character is an exquisitely mixed literary experience.. ." For his part, Gore Vidal offered a simple reason for Powell's sudden popularity: "We are catching up to her."
Dawn Powell came to New York City from Ohio. Many of her characters also were transplanted Midwesterners in the big city. The characters she writes about with her perfect economy, the writers and gallery owners, the publishers and businessmen juggling their mistresses, the gold diggers and sexual misfits and those that just slum, she offers no judgment about but is amused by their actions. We are all wise about these people, we see that virtue goes unrewarded and that luck smiles and frowns. However, her characters are rarely wise about themselves. We see through these people but at the same time understand their actions, they are not unworthy. Lisa Zeidner, writing in The New York Times Book Review, tells us Powell "is wittier than Dorothy Parker, dissects the rich better than F. Scott Fitzgerald, is more plaintive than Willa Cather in her evocation of the heartland, and has a more supple control of satirical voice than Evelyn Waugh." Ernest Hemingway called her his "favorite living writer." She was one of America's great novelists, and yet when she died in 1965 she was buried in an unmarked grave in New York's Potter's Field. It has only been recently that Dawn Powell's legacy has come to fruition. Her satire is perfect and biting and humorous.
"A Time To Be Born" is a study of cynical new Yorkers stalking each other. The story centers around a wealthy, self involved publisher, Julian Evans and his novelist wife, Amanda Keeler. Amanda Keeler has always been thought to be based on real life Clare Boothe Luce, who married Henry R Luce, cofounder of "Time" magazine. Her character is a monster of sexual deception, and a liar and user, yet we seem to agree that her actions are understandable. Dawn Powell always denied that Amanda Keeler was based upon the real-life Clare Boothe Luce, until years later when she discovered a memo she'd written to herself in 1939 that said, "Why not do a novel on Clare Luce?" Which prompted Powell to write in her diary "Who can I believe? Me or myself?" When Vicky Haven shows up in NYC from Ohio, Amanda assists her with a flat that Amanda uses as her love hideaway. Vicky falls in love with Amanda's lover, and thus all these characters in pre-war America 1942, are in "for a bumpy ride". We feel the heartbreak of all of these characters and that keeps us off-stride. A fast paced and literary novel, the like of which I have not read in a long time. Dawn Powell has written twelve novels, and I am set to read them all . She is an extraordinary satirical novelist and one to be admired. As she aptly states:
"Satire is people as they are; romanticism, people as they would like to be; realism, people as they seem with their insides left out." --Dawn Powell
Highly Recommended. prisrob 5-27-06
on 31 January 1999
This novel, set in early World War II, could have been written yesterday. The author masterfully portrays complex characters with ranges of selfishness, naivete, cynicism, humor, everything. It's a great story of twenty-something's making their way in New York City. Enjoy!
on 5 August 2009
Absolutely worth reading. The book was first published as early as 1942 and new editions appeared in 1991, 1996 and 1999. It tells us the success story of a beautiful, cynical and extremely ambitious female journalist and author of mediocre literary talent who does not shy away from any means to attain her targets. It all happens in New York in the beginning of the Second World War.
To succeed in building her career, Amanda Keeler Evans exploits her friends and her acquaintances in writing as well as in bed. To be a successful author, Amanda does not have to be able to write: she just needs to find someone with enough power and money to support her financially, to find the proper co-authors to do the writing for her and to smooth her path in high society. The satirical style of Powell is hilarious, e.g. when she writes : "..The tragedy of the attic poets, Keats, Shelley, Burns, was not that they died young but that they were obliged by poverty to do all their own writing".
The theme of the book makes one think of The Devil Wears Prada, and Powell's style of writing evokes the psychological perspicacity of such masters as Marcel Proust or Thomas Mann.
on 12 January 2008
I`ve never read a Dawn Powell book before and I`m so glad I did - it`s an undiscovered gem - it`s brilliantly written and could have been written yesterday. Dawn shoots down her targets with savage accuracy which is scathing and hilarious by turns, vivedly capturing the villians and inflated egos basking in the febrile atmosphere of New York prior to America entering the Second World War. Amanda Keeler is a study in opportunism, self centredness, and cynicism which may never be equalled - an outstanding achievement!
Mick Drake author of the comic novel All`s Well at Wellwithoute