Saturday, July 7, 2012

Powell’s diaries auctioned

Bids over half a million dollars have been invited for the diaries of Dawn Powell, an American writer, who never quite achieved mainstream success, but who Gore Vidal once called the US’s ‘best comic novelist’. The successful bidder will take possession of Powell’s 43 diary books, though not the copyright for the material therein. Tim Page, who currently owns the diaries and edited them for publication in 1995, is also making a condition of the sale that copies be made fully accessible to the public.

[Addendum - 20 July 2102: The deadline for sale of the diaries passed without any sale. Subsequently, Page was quoted in The New York Times as saying ‘I consider this a pretty complete failure’. The Powell diary website link mentioned below may thus thus become redundant shortly.]

Powell was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, in 1896. Her mother died when she was just seven, and, after her father remarried, she ran away from an abusive stepmother to live with an aunt. She studied at Lake Erie College, and then moved to New York City where she took up freelance writing opportunities. In 1920, she marred Joseph Gousha, an aspiring poet, and the couple had one child, and settled in Greenwich Village.

By the mid-1920s, Powell was publishing the first of her many novels, such as She Walks in Beauty, writing plays, and contributing book reviews to the Evening Post. During the 1930s, she worked occasionally as a screenwriter in Hollywood, but always returned to New York, and her novel writing. It was not until 1942, with A Time to be Born, that she achieved any critical success. She was said to be ‘a playful satirist, and an unsentimental observer of failed hopes and misguided longings’ and the chronicler of ‘two very different worlds: the small-town Ohio of her childhood and the sophisticated Manhattan to which she gravitated’.

However, Powell could never make a living from writing fiction. She was constantly dogged by her son’s mental problems, by her own and her husband’s drinking, and by financial shortages. She was also overcome at times with illness and depression. She died in 1965. A biography of Powell, and a selection of essays about her by other writers can be found at the Library of America website.

According to Powell’s Wikipedia entry, virtually all of her novels were out of print at the time of her death, but her ‘posthumous champions’ included Matthew Josephson, Gore Vidal (with whom she had been friends since the mid-1950s) and Tim Page. And it was Page who joined forces with Powell’s family to extricate her manuscripts, diaries, and copyrights from her original executrix; and this, eventually, led, in the 1990s, to a revival of interest in her writing. Most significantly, Powell’s diaries were edited by Page and published in 1995 (The Diaries of Dawn Powell, 1931-1965, Steerforth Press). These were praised by The New York Times as ‘one of the outstanding literary finds of the last quarter century.’ For links to some extracts see The Diary Junction.

Now, Tim Page has decided to sell the original diary manuscripts, ‘with the blessing of Powell’s family and her Estate’. He says that many readers consider the diaries as Powell’s masterpiece, that most of their content is unknown, and that ‘unquestionably’ this is ‘the largest trove of Powell material that will ever be made available for sale’. Extraordinarily, Page has chosen to try and auction the Powell archive, not through an auction company, but directly through a specially-devised Dawn Powell diaries website.

The website provides a large amount of information about the diaries - 43 in total and currently held by the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University - and detailed instructions on how to bid. Not only has Page set $500,000 as a minimum bid price, but he is also requiring any prospective owners of the diaries to irrevocably donate a full set of copies for public use, and to accept that full copyright for all the material will remain with the Dawn Powell Estate. A deadline for bids has been set as 15 July.

Here are few extracts from Powell’s diary found on the Washington Post website.

26 February 1930
‘Joe tight so much and mentally blurred so it’s impossible to talk with him. Makes me sick at heart and so tired emotionally to see him blah-blah drunk all the time with nights of horror that make me sorry for him yet worry so.’

4 March 1930
‘Offered $500 a week to go to Hollywood at once for three months. We need money but that stuff is not in my direction and life is too short to go on unpleasant byroads.’

8 MArch 1930
‘Worked. Dinner with Dwight at Jungle Club and then to his apartment. This luxury constantly before me would send me either to Hollywood at once or to the ghetto. Met Helen Carlisle (Mother’s Cry) who writes very good novels in six weeks.’

10 March 1930
‘Hate novel as if it were a personal foe - it’s so damned hard and moves so slow. I want to write plays that go fast. Can’t conceive of having energy ever to attack a novel again. They’re so damned huge and unwieldy.’

And here are some on the Library of America website.

1 March 1939
‘Wits are never happy people. The anguish that has scraped their nerves and left them raw to every flicker of life is the base of wit - for the raw nerve reacts at once without any agent, the reaction is direct, with no integumentary obstacles. Wit is the cry of pain, the true word that pierces the heart. If it does not pierce, then it is not true wit. True wit should break a good man’s heart.’

14 March 1939
‘A woman should attempt to be as sympathetic, amused, and understanding of a man’s vices as his favorite bar is.’

2 January 1941
‘In the last century, Thackery, Dickens, Edith Wharton, James, all wrote of their own times and we have reliable records. Now we have only the escapists, who write of happenings a hundred or three hundred years ago, false to history, false to human nature. Among contemporary writers, only John O’Hara writes of one very small section of 52nd Street or Broadway. We have Hemingway, who writes of a fictional movie hero in Spain with the language neither Spanish nor English. When someone wishes to write of this age - as I do and have done - critics shy off, the public shies off. “Where’s our Story Book?” they cry. “Where are our Story Book People?” This is obviously an age that Can’t Take It.’

23 March 1944
‘For a writer or artist there is nothing to equal the elation of escaping into solitude. The excited feeling of stolen rapture I feel on closing the door of this little room up here, knowing no one can find me, no one will speak to me. I look over rooftops into sky and far-off towers. This is exactly like my sensation of sheer exhilaration as a child when I got up into the attic or in the treetop or under a tree way off by the road where I was alone with a sharp pencil and notebook.’

8 March 1963
‘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 or desire for front. I realize I have no yen for any experience (even a triumph) that blocks observation, when I am the observed instead of the observer. Time is too short to miss so many sights. Also chloroforms, removes the weapons - de-fanging, claws cut, scorpion tail removed, leaves helpless fat cat with no defenses and maybe exposing not a sweet, harmless pet but a bad case of mange.’

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