Dawn Powell: The Unknown American Writer

When asked who your favourite writer is, you might say Hemingway, Dickens, Shakespeare, or any number of infamous authors. But, one that wouldn’t be commonly mentioned would be one of Rory’s favourite authors, Dawn Powell.

In Help Wanted, Rory recommends a book to her friend, Lane, which sparks this conversation:

“Dawn Powell, I’ve never heard of her.”

“Nobody has, which is a shame because she wrote 16 amazing novels, 9 plays and there are some who actually claim that it was Powell who made the jokes that Dorothy Parker got credit for.”

Dawn Powell is not a common name to most readers. She’s what is known as a “writers’ writer” – someone obscure that as Gore Vidal once wrote, “always just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion.”

Dawn Powell and her husband Joseph Gousha

Powell was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio in 1896. Dawn’s life was forever changed when her mother died when Dawn was only seven years old, and her father remarried a few years later to an abusive woman named Sabra Stearns. After her stepmother burned some of her notebooks in 1910, Dawn Powell moved in with her Aunt Orpha who encouraged her literary aspirations.

The Diaries of Dawn Powell written by Tim Page

Before her death in 1965 Dawn had completed 16 novels, ten plays, dozens of short stories, and been nominated for a National Book Award. Had it not been for Gore Vidal’s editorial on her books in 1987, her works would have remained out of print.

 

Vidal’s work on Dawn Powell inspired Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tim Page to begin his lifelong quest to bring her to notoriety. After publishing his biographical novel, Dawn Powell: A Biography, Page attempted to sell some of Powell’s diaries. Despite his efforts, Dawn Powell was still too unknown to warrant a bidding frenzy, and the auction was called off.

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