The Great Unread: Dawn Powell

Last December on the Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire blog, I talked about how to round out your reading list, which included tips on reading essays, non-fiction, literary magazines, and finding your Great Unread.

By Great Unread, I mean an author who others are mostly unaware of. An author who – should you mention their name – will mostly be met with a puzzled look and the question, “Who?”

The story of my Great Unread starts last New Year’s Eve when a friend asked me if I was aware of a famous author from my hometown.

Now, my hometown has one stoplight – and we got that in the 90s – so I was pretty sure if there was a famous author from my hometown, I’d know.

After some Googling we discovered the author was not from my hometown, specifically, but the next little town, five miles away. They have the distinction of three stoplights.

Scrolling through my phone, I learned very little. Her name was Dawn Powell, she hailed from various small towns in Ohio, had lived most of her life in New York City where she was close friends with the literary stars of her time, though her own work never quite broke through.

Even so, I was fascinated.

Last January I read eight of her novels. They were stunning, and I, in turn – was stunned. How did I not know more about this woman? How had I lived five miles from where she was born and never heard her name? Why weren’t people talking about Dawn Powell – then, or now?

Her biographer – Tim Page – has valiantly poured himself into righting this wrong. Mostly due to Page’s efforts, Powell’s works have found their way back into print.

Powell’s novels are either firmly set in the Bohemian lifestyle of New York City, or bucolic Ohio towns – the two settings she knew best. Her life began in the latter, and did not have an easy start. Her mother died when she was young and her stepmother seems to have been nothing short of mean. Powell ran away from home twice, once at the age of 13 after her stepmother found her writings, and burned them.

Powell was passed around different relations after that, living in many different small Ohio towns. Reading her biography has been of great interest to me, as I get to see the names of tiny towns I’m familiar with, that otherwise have never been in print.

Powell graduated from Lake Erie College, and headed for New York City in 1918. She got a job as a typist, and managed to scrape together a living between that and writing columns for newspapers and magazines. She married, and had a son, although her family life would never be stable.

Her household always had too much alcohol and not enough money, her husband was in advertising and a heavy drinker, and as her son grew it became obvious that something was not quite right. Today he would more than likely be diagnosed as severely autistic. He would spend his life in between institutions and home, while Dawn attempted to be a mother while also fast becoming an alcoholic – alongside her husband, and barely scraping together a living.

Powell’s novels never truly found a footing, and her reviews could swing from glowing to derisive, occasionally for the very same novel. She tried her hand at plays, and had little luck there. One of her novels was adapted for film and released in 1936 under the title, “Man of Iron.”

Still, she was struggling.

With little popular acceptance of her work, a child in need of constant care, an unhappy marriage peppered with affairs on both their parts, and the ever present specter of alcoholism, Dawn was unwell.

Her health began to deteriorate, and she was often short of breath. In her fifties she was hospitalized when a tumor in her chest had grown large enough to crack a rib. The tumor was a rare kind called a teratoma – it had hair and teeth growing inside of it, and Dawn became convinced it was her vestigial twin.

Powell died in 1965 and donated her body to the Cornell Medical Center. They returned the remains five years later into the custody of the executrix of her will. Uninterested, the executrix had Dawn’s remains buried in an unmarked grave on Hart Island, the potter’s field of New York City, where the unknown and unnamed are interred by the inmates of Riker’s Island. Adults are buried in trenches holding 40 to 50 people. Children and infants trenches hold up to 1,000.

Dawn Powell was largely forgotten until 1987 when Gore Vidal wrote about her for the New York Times, and her biographer, Tim Page, became interested. Page joined forces with her remaining family in the 1990s to sue the executrix of her will for possession of Dawn’s diaries, manuscripts and copyrights to her novels.

Throughout her life Dawn Powell was the author of 15 novels and over a hundred short stories, plays, articles and diaries. But you’ve never heard of her.

I hadn’t either, and she grew up five miles from me.

So I talk about her now, whenever I get a chance.

I encourage you to find your own Great Unread, an author who means something to you personally, either geographically or emotionally. Find someone whose work you admire that deserves more exposure, or even, a resurrection.

Read deeply, read widely, and then share your love.