New York finally turns out for Dawn Powell

Love fest for the novelist the Big Apple once spurned.

Published January 27, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

"I hate slightly familiar people," read novelist Kate Christensen to a group of about 100 New Yorkers who braved a snowstorm Tuesday night to attend a tribute to the late Dawn Powell. The quip, which comes from Powell's diary entry for April 6, 1931, made the whole audience laugh -- it was the kind of dead-on Powell line that rings true for anyone who's done time on the literary party circuit.

Dawn Powell and New York -- seldom has the match between a city and a writer been so felicitous. The wise, wickedly funny Ohio-born author loved New York better than any place else, but her writings went virtually unnoticed during her lifetime, and when she died in 1965 she was pretty much forgotten. At Tuesday's tribute (hosted by Housing Works Used Book Cafi), six authors, all Powell devotees, read selections from her work and it was clear that, finally, New York adored her right back.

The evening's readers included novelist Susan Minot and Tim Page, Powell's modest, persevering biographer and the editor of recently published collections of Powell's letters and journals. He presented a trademark passage from Powell's diary describing a fancy party she attended at which some pretty young thing inconveniently died in the middle of the festivities.

Christensen selected other passages from the diary that highlight the fear and despair Powell confronted as she tried to navigate a busy life, a writing career and motherhood. Should she try to make a buck writing for dumb women's magazines? How would she ever finish this novel? Her demons are the same ones facing any marginally successful writer today, but her combination of acid wit and dry-eyed emotional honesty are hard to find in any era.

Novelist Francine Prose picked up the theme by reading Powell's bitterly funny descriptions of her writerly travails -- idiotic reviewers, intransigent publishers, the anxiety of facing an empty page -- with which Prose identified all too well. "I'm currently waiting for my book to be published this spring," Prose said. "It's the period a friend of mine calls 'the calm before the calm.'"

Salon columnist Cintra Wilson read from "Turn, Magic Wheel," dramatizing the novel's craven, philandering, love-seeking cast of characters. Taking on the voices of this typical Powell foursome -- a married couple, the wife's lover and the wife's best friend, Olive (the way Wilson uttered the name alone spoke volumes), whom the lover hates because he knows she knows everything about him -- Wilson captured the nuances of personality and motive that Powell layers into the novel.

The surprise of the evening came when Doubleday executive editor Gerald Howard, who edits Powell's old buddy Gore Vidal, read from the manuscript of Vidal's forthcoming novel, in which Dawn Powell is a character. The passage imagines Powell deep in party conversation with two young editors of a New Republic-like magazine. At some point Vidal himself joins the group, and he and Powell mercilessly trash Ernest Hemingway. ("The he-man and his boy-wife, Mary," they snort.) As Howard read, it was hard to tell which lines were Vidal's and which were Powell's, until Vidal turns to Powell and tells her that it must be annoying to know you're so much better than someone like Hemingway, but because you're a woman you don't get any credit. Subtle it was not.

Melissa Bank, who knows a thing or two about the vagaries of literary fortune (the story of how she was plucked from obscurity in her mid-30s when she received a huge advance for her book "The Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing" was circulated ad nauseam last year), read from Powell's autobiographical novel "My Home Is Far Away." The book describes a rural Ohio childhood in an emotionally bare, at times almost plaintive voice that many wouldn't recognize as Powell's. It's a far cry from the boozy, sophisticated world of the New York novels, but on its deepest level the passage expressed a conflicted desire that seems to lie in Powell's -- and New York's -- secret heart: to be simultaneously dazzled by worldly novelty and comforted by familiarity; to be rooted somewhere, yet to be part of the glamour and hurly-burly of the larger world.

By Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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