Thursday, July 27, 2006

Terry Teachout on Dawn Powell

I’ve finally acquired a copy of A Terry Teachout Reader. Having already become a fan of Teachout’s writing through About Last Night, I’d have picked it up in any event. But what a marvellous extra lure to find, when I cracked it open, that the first essay in the book is about Dawn Powell, one of my favourite writers. Teachout’s essay originally appeared in The New York Times Book Review in 1995 when The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931-1965 were first published. In it, he beautifully sums up why you may not be familiar with Dawn Powell’s work and, if so, why you will want to rectify that immediately:

Reading My Home is Far Away, one inevitably wonders why Powell never found an audience. The most likely reason is that her books are devoid of the earnestness that has always been for most Americans the only sure sign of true art. Like all satirists, Powell was in deadly earnest, but she never saw any reason to be tiresome about it. Her touch was light, her tone whip-smart, a pair of attributes that confused even so shrewd a critic as Diana Trilling, who gave The Locusts Have No King a mixed review to which Powell replied in her diary, “Gist of criticisms (Diana Trilling, etc.) of my novel is if they had my automobile they wouldn’t visit my folks, they’d visit theirs.” Trilling is nobody’s fool, but she went to see the wrong family. Dawn Powell was one of America’s best novelists, and if there is any justice—a proposition at which she would doubtless have laughed wildly—she will soon receive her due.

I don’t think that Powell has yet received her due, but the release of her diaries in 1995 and the subsequent return to print of many of her novels certainly broadened her audience. I was among the readers who found their way to her fiction through the diaries. I read them along with several of her New York novels round about the time of my first visit to New York, and they became thoroughly bound up in my love affair with the place. The Golden Spur, set mostly in Greenwich Village, is a particular favourite. After I read it I bought several copies and for a long time pressed them upon friends and acquaintances whenever a birthday or some such occasion provided me with an opportunity for Powell proselytising.

I’m plotting now to revisit my favourite Powell novels and to search out those that I haven’t yet encountered. I’m also looking forward to reading more of A Terry Teachout Reader. Clearly it’s going to be one of those dangerous books that propels me towards many other books, not to mention CDs, films and various other art forms…

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I've read several of Powell's novels through the library and decided I should own some. However, I was really disappointed in the quality of the editing in the one I bought (The Locusts Have no King). Lots of typos and things that should have been caught, so I just couldn't have a book that frustrated me so wind up on a book shelf. But the diaries have long intrigued me--might be time to break down and buy them!