Rediscovering Dawn Powell

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Show Notes

Hemingway called her his favorite novelist. Gore Vidal directed attention back to her work after her death. Even Rory Gilmore was spotted reading her novels in Gilmore Girls. Who was Dawn Powell, and why isn’t her work more widely known? Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine, Professor of English and Dean of the School of Arts, Education, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Lake Erie College, helps us rediscover this prolific midcentury American author who penned satirical novels that skewer New York society as well as heartfelt autobiographical fiction about her Ohio roots.

In this episode:



Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (00:00):
Well, Hemingway called her his favorite living novelist. So that I think is a very high compliment.

Laura Maylene Walter (00:08):
Welcome to Page Count, presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library.

Laura Maylene Walter (00:15):
This podcast celebrates authors, illustrators, librarians, booksellers, literary advocates and readers in and from the state of Ohio. I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. Today we're joined by Dr. Jennifer Schwartz-Levine, Professor of English and Dean of the School of Arts, Education, Humanities and Social Sciences, and co-director of the Tower Honors Program at Lake Erie College in Paynesville, Ohio. We're here to discuss the writing, the life and the legacy of Dawn Powell, a prolific mid-century writer who slipped into obscurity before her work came to light again decades later. Welcome to the podcast, and thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (00:59):
Well, thank you for having me. I'm really looking forward to talking about Dawn Powell and her beginnings here at Lake Erie College and sort of her place in the literary world.

Laura Maylene Walter (01:08):
Wonderful. Let's dive in. So listeners, if you aren't familiar right now with the name Dawn Powell, that's somewhat understandable because Powell's work all but disappeared by the time she died in the sixties. It took Gore Vidal praising her novels in the eighties that led to a rediscovery of her writing. So there's a lot for us to talk about today. I have a full, full notebook of notes I'm going to open though with a very broad question that I hope you can help us with. Who was Dawn Powell?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (01:39):
Oh my. She is, as you mentioned, sort of become a obscure writer, and I'm glad that we're going to be able to start to rediscover her here. And there does seem to be a bit of a renaissance in Powell Studies. Powell is an Ohio writer. She came to Lake Erie College in 1914, graduated as part of the class of 1918. While she was here, and I'm sure we'll talk about this a little bit more later on, she did a lot of writing on campus in, sort of like the campus newspaper, the Campus Quarterly. Participated in a lot of the Shakespeare Productions. There's this great photo in our archives of her as Puck in Midsummer Night Dream. And she was a scholarship student here. We might want to double back and talk about sort of her early life a little bit. Had a very difficult and complicated family life.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (02:25):
She was the middle of three daughters and her mother died when she was young. And her father, who was a traveling salesman, remarried to a woman that was not a particularly good stepmother. As a matter of fact, she was quite unkind to all three of the daughters. That appears in a lot of Powell's work, particularly the Ohio novels. She came to Lake Erie College because her other choice was Oberlin College and her family had settled there and she decided she wanted to go somewhere that was not Oberlin. So at the time it was Lake Erie College Seminary for women. And she arrived here in 1914 and changed the place while she was here for her four years of study.

Laura Maylene Walter (03:02):
Yes, and we'll definitely talk about that. The of the most ghastly anecdotes I think, which my information about John Powell's life will mostly be thanks to Tim Page's biography, DAWN POWELL: A BIOGRAPHY which you had recommended to me and it's really excellent. So I recommend that to listeners. But the stepmother, just one story to highlight perhaps what might have been going on with her and her cruelty and her strangeness. She had an infant who died at five days old and the baby was buried, and I believe she decided she wasn't happy with what her child had been wearing. And so she had the body exhumed and she redressed the body in the dress of Dawn's younger sister's favorite doll, like her only doll.

Laura Maylene Walter (03:51):
I mean, that is just, it's so wild and awful. But yes, it sounds that Dawn Powell's early life was in part haunted by this woman, which is why she did not end up at Oberlin and Lake Erie can claim her. So.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (04:05):
Yes. The Tim Page biography is, as you mentioned, is just absolutely excellent.

Laura Maylene Walter (04:08):

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (04:08):
I would say it's the definitive work on Dawn Powell and her life, and a read through of it is a real testament to how difficult her life was, but more so how she kind of persevered and overcame. And her life post Lake Erie had its challenges as well, which I'm sure we'll get into. But when she was here at Lake Erie, I think it was a real oasis for her as far as intellectual development and opportunity to explore her writing. Because one of the other things that the stepmother really created problems for Dawn was that she did not encourage Dawn in a writing career at all. She took her notebooks and burned her notebooks and threw away her art and creative work, and was really terrible to Dawn and her sisters. So when she got here and had the opportunity to explore and intellectually play, I think that was really valuable for her and her future work.

Laura Maylene Walter (04:58):
Yes. And it sounds like it was the perfect place for her to explore that because she was, it seems a very driven child. She knew she wanted to be a writer when she was as young as ten, and apparently she would write for up to seven hours a day as a child. So she, she seemed to know, she seemed to have an innate confidence that she would end up making a name for herself in some way, and she wanted to be a writer and she went to Lake Erie College. And I was also struck by the fact that she was in part a scholarship student. And Vivian Small, the president of Lake Erie College at that time is quoted in the biography as saying "Poverty should not be a barrier to education". Which is, you know, beautiful and, and what I wish we all were able to put our energy into today. But, um, that really helped Dawn Powell get her education. Can you talk a bit about what life for young women, college students around that time might have been like at Lake Erie College?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (05:52):
Well, Lake Erie was actually very progressive for its time. It's modeled on Mount Holyoke that believed that women should be educated, right? Lake Erie was founded in 1856 and its mission was as a female seminary to educate young women and prepare them for wherever life happened to take them so that they did not just necessarily see that a woman's destiny was to be a wife and a mother. You know, that was wonderful and an excellent profession if that is what she chose to do. But they wanted women to have intellectual and educational opportunities. So Lake Erie was radical for its time, and Dawn kind of took advantage of that. And I think that President Small's point about financial resources not being a barrier for intellectual study is really part and parcel of what Lake Erie's ethos was then and is now. And Dawn benefited from that.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (06:45):
So she wrote a letter to President Small inquiring about admission to Lake Erie College, and just to kind of give you a sense of Dawn's sense of humor and her puckish-ness, she said to President Small in the letter, "I'd like to come to your school and we'll do anything to work my way through from scrubbing back stairs to understudying your job." So Dawn had ambitions right from the, from the get go.

Laura Maylene Walter (07:07):

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (07:07):
And to me, sort of one of the interesting things is that what Dawn wound up doing as part of what was in essence a work study student position here at Lake Erie is that she ran the elevator in college hall. It was one of the old fashioned elevators with the ropes that you would pull. And Dawn was a very small woman. I mean, she was probably five feet tall or so. She would run the elevator with the ropes.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (07:28):
And the fun thing is now it doesn't still have the ropes, but the elevator still is in College Hall, which is our primary building on campus. It's got sort of the sliding metal grate. So I think about Dawn every time that I get into the elevator, but it's also sort of fun to sort of pretend you're in like a movie from the forties, you know, sort of, you know, fourth floor men's suiting, you know, kind of thing. It's kind of like one of the points of pride as we sort of think about Dawn on campus is getting to sort of walk by the elevator where she earned her scholarship as working at the college.

Laura Maylene Walter (07:56):
I love that. I'm going to have to visit now and get in that elevator. I think that's fantastic. But yeah, it sounds like a really great place for her. She made a lot of friends that she'd stay in touch with the rest of her life she was writing.

Laura Maylene Walter (08:06):
She and her friends had a, what was it, an underground anonymous satirical newsletter or newspaper that they published?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (08:13):
Yeah, they did. It was called The Sheet. And Eleanor Farnham was one of her dear friends here at Lake Erie College. She and Eleanor Farnham and one of her other roommates were kind of behind this. And it was an anonymous thing. It took campus by storm, apparently. And they denied they were the ones that the primary writers behind it, but it was the satirical send up of on-campus events and happenings and gently poking fun at some of the campus traditions and with love at some of the professors. A lot of real good showcase of what Dawn's sense of humor was. She also wrote for the Campus Quarterly, which was called the Lake Erie Record, and some of her first fiction was published in the Lake Erie Quarterly. So there's not a whole lot of that that necessarily survives, but she talks about some of those things in her diaries.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (08:57):
So Lake Erie was kind of the start point for Dawn and her growth as a writer. She said that when she got to Lake Erie, she said in her diaries, actually, no, it was in an article that she contributed to a campus publication Nota Bene in 1958. So of course this was well after her graduation in 1918. She said, I arrived at Lake Erie College in September of 1914 with the delirious sensation of having been shot from a cannon into a strange and wonderful planet. I just have always loved that and I'm glad that she felt that way when she got here to Lake Erie.

Laura Maylene Walter (09:30):
Yeah, that's a wonderful quote. That should be on all of Lake Erie's t-shirts and coffee mugs.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (09:35):
<Laugh>. Yes!

Laura Maylene Walter (09:35):
Well, so speaking of going to new places and being enamored with them after Lake Erie College, she eventually moves to New York and begins her lifelong love affair with New York City. She is obsessed with it, loves it. And I think that Ohio/New York divide seems to be a big part of her life moving forward. But she moves to New York and she starts writing and continues writing, and she's really prolific. I mean, throughout her career, if I have this right, she writes 16 novels, at least nine plays, I think hundreds of stories.

Laura Maylene Walter (10:12):
She gets a little bit into screenwriting, I think reluctantly. But she is just writing, writing, writing. And in the meantime, she does get married and yet she and her husband seem, I don't know how you would describe their relationship today if it would be an open marriage or if they were very free and they were infidelities on both ends, but they loved each other very much. Is that how you would describe it?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (10:33):
Yes, it would be. And I, I think probably that was not how they intended for their marriage to be as they started out, but that is kind of what it evolved into. But there was always, no matter what infidelities were happening on either side, there was always this real deep connection that it was very obvious, at least in my reading of things, that they were each other's person, you know, no matter what. So emotionally and intellectually, they were each other's person, even though they both strayed from their marriage and had affairs. I think one of the other things that kind of complicated their relationship was they did have a child who was known as JoJo. He was Joseph Gousha Jr. So he was familiarly known as JoJo. We would now recognize that JoJo had autism, but of course when he was born in the twenties and through John's death in 1965, that was not something that was well known either as a medical diagnosis or how to treat it. So they didn't know what to do with their child and consulted a number of doctors. And as the decades went on, JoJo was institutionalized a number of times, eventually becoming a ward of New York State. Dawn visited him frequently, but again, this was an attempt to sort of seek out care for JoJo in ways that they did not understand what was going wrong or what kind of help he needed. And I think that that placed an additional strain on the marriage.

Laura Maylene Walter (12:01):
Yeah, absolutely. It was heartbreaking. It sounds as if his autism was fairly severe and he did have a caretaker, I suppose, for many years that he was very close with. But yeah, so it just sounds hard. And there are some points in the biography that Tim Page writes about Dawn. I think she loses JoJo once he runs out into the city. I mean, it's really hard and that's a lifelong struggle for her to try to get him care and make sure he's safe and protected and in a good place for him. Yeah.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (12:30):
The thing that I have always found just utterly extraordinary is that given all of these concerns that she had, all of these family issues that she was dealing with, that she still managed to write and produce as much fiction and criticism and you know, plays and short stories as she did. I mean, it's an extraordinary body of work, a lot of which is not yet still available. A lot of it went out of print. But again, with some of this renaissance that is occurring going in fits and starts, I would say, over the years, more and more of her work is becoming publicly available again.

Laura Maylene Walter (13:05):
And when it comes to her novels, which it sounds like they were the nearest and dearest to her heart. In general, it seems that her work could be divided between her satirical, kind of sophisticated New York novels, often satirizing, for example, New York society or the literary and publishing worlds. And her Ohio novels, especially MY HOME IS FAR AWAY, which is a kind of a more lyrical and very different in tone, very autobiographical. And it says it right there on the cover of the book, an autobiographical novel. She didn't shy away from admitting that it was very close to her life. So she has these two categories almost within her body of novels. What are your thoughts on these two different types of novels? Not that it's that binary, but it seems like a lot of them can be split into those categories.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (13:54):
Yeah, I would agree with that. And I mean, I think that that split kind of speaks to kind of the two parts of Dawn, because Ohio is very important for her. I mean, she's, she's a daughter of Ohio. She grew up here, she went to college here, Ohio, and her Ohio family shaped her and formed her into the woman that she became. My home is far away, is just beautiful. I mean, it is painful and heartbreaking and there's moments where it's funny and it is absolutely lyrical and it is just truly a beautiful, beautiful novel that is deeply moving. And it is very much at odds with the New York novels, which again, those are more satirical, more sort of embracing of the city...the city as much a character in the New York novels as any of the people that she places there. It's a really a love letter to New York and Greenwich Village and her true adoration of life in the big city. That's something that really was a big part of who Dawn was. And I think that the split between sort of the Ohio novels and the New York novels really allowed her to explore both sides of herself and sort of work through, particularly in the case of MY HOME IS FAR AWAY that difficult childhood as she kind of reframed it and reclaimed it in some ways as her own and told her own story.

Laura Maylene Walter (15:06):
And she did later in life. She was hoping to write a follow-up to that book, but she never completed it. It sounded as if the, the loose sequel to it wasn't quite as autobiographical, but she was trying to carry that story on, but did not end up completing it, unfortunately.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (15:22):

Laura Maylene Walter (15:23):
So in terms of her satire though, which she is really known for, and I do, I do have to point out that one of her contemporaries was Dorothy Parker. And it was really interesting reading the Tim Page biography where, you know, some people make a point of saying that they think Dawn Powell is a sharper wit than Dorothy Parker. One person comments that Dorothy Parker is known for her kind of one-liners, but Dawn was not as easily quotable or as famous for her wit just because at parties, et cetera, she would tell full rich, detailed stories that aren't quite as easily quotable. Which I just found really interesting and I think also Dawn Powell, she was definitely competitive and would sometimes resent the success of writers that maybe she didn't think always deserved it. She really struggled throughout her career as prolific as she was, to make a strong name for herself.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (16:14):
Funnily enough, my way to Dawn Powell was through Dorothy Parker. I discovered Dorothy Parker years ago when I was an undergrad. I'd always loved Dorothy Parker. Did a lot of research about Dorothy Parker, genuinely enjoyed a lot of Dorothy Parker's work. And then when I came to Lake Erie College, of course I'm reading up on the place that has just hired me and discovered that Dawn Powell was an alum. And I'd not read any Powell at that particular point. And when I picked some up and started to look at it, I thought, gee, this feels an awful lot, like a lot of Dorothy Parker work. Then I talked to a couple of folks who were big Dawn Powell fans and mentioned what I saw were some of those connections. And was roundly told that no, absolutely not. They disagreed with me because for exactly the reasons that you just articulated.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (16:55):
But it does seem to me that there are a lot of connections there because not only were they contemporaries, if you look at both of their work, I mean, New York, as I said, is a character in Dawn Powell's novels. That is absolutely the true for Dorothy Parker's work as well. They both had difficult childhoods, difficult home lives, terrible stepmothers. Dorothy Parker had more problems with alcohol than Dawn Powell did. But that was still a through line in some of her life. Challenging marriages, literary friendships...and in some ways there are some more connections there, at least in my view, than probably Powell herself would have like discussed. But absolutely Dorothy Parker has sort of the bigger, more well-known reputation, but they seem to me to have similar sensibilities and similar senses of humor as well. But for whatever reason, Powell did not kind of take off in the same way that Dorothy Parker did. As a matter of fact, I think her bestselling novel sold what roughly 8,000 copies during her lifetime. She was prolific, but she was not as well known as Parker was or has continued to be since then.

Laura Maylene Walter (17:57):
Well, let's hope this podcast changes that <laugh>.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (18:01):

Laura Maylene Walter (18:03):
So one of Powell's most famous satirical novels is A TIME TO BE BORN. But today, in preparation for this interview, you and I took a look at another novel, another satirical novel, THE LOCUSTS HAVE NO KING, which we can just chat about a little bit. We won't give everything away so that readers can go out and read it themselves. Really enjoyable. And I love a literary or publishing related satire, so I'm definitely game for this. But this novel was originally published in 1948. It surrounds Frederick Olliver, a writer in New York whose longtime affair with the married Lyle, disintegrates, and he ends up pursuing Dodo, who is a flighty, unsophisticated, brash young woman from Baltimore. She's the big character. Now, Dawn Powell, this was, as I read in the Tim Page biography, her poorest selling novel when she was with Scribner. She did change publishers a lot throughout her career, which is common today for, for writers as well. But it didn't sell as well as any of them might have hoped. But it was a really fun read. And I know you've told me it's one of your favorites. So can you tell us why you enjoy this novel so much?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (19:12):
It's just consistently funny all the way through. I also enjoy a good satire about publishing, so that's probably why I'm drawn to this one in particular. But to me it's kind of an interesting combination of satirizing the New York publishing world, a lot of...sort of upper class society because Lyle's friends are more high class than a lot of Frederick's friends.

Laura Maylene Walter (19:37):

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (19:37):
Which causes some tension within the course of the novel. I love Dodo.

Laura Maylene Walter (19:40):
She's wild.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (19:41):
Oh, she's absolutely wild. Schemer, social climber, uses relationships to sort of advance her own agenda. The descriptions of the various bars in New York City are just a delight. And I also love that this is a love story. I mean, it's a satire, but it's also a love story about how Frederick and Lyle work their way back to each other despite a lot of challenges that they both face, both professionally and personally throughout the novel. But there's a happy ending of sorts.

Laura Maylene Walter (20:10):
Yeah. It's both happy and yet also pretty dark too.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (20:14):

Laura Maylene Walter (20:14):
We won't say too much so that readers will get to enjoy it themselves, but it was a beautiful ending. I enjoyed the last page very much.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (20:22):

Laura Maylene Walter (20:23):
Well, and since a lot of writers do listen to this podcast, I thought it would be fun to talk about just some of the, some of the way Dawn Powell skewers the publishing industry, or artists and writers in the book. So I have a short list. Feel free to jump in at any point or raise your own because there's, there's a, a lot of different categories here of what Dawn Powell is doing. One of the publishers Strafords, that Frederick is working with. We go through several things that I feel like, you know, this was written in the forties, it feels like it could just be taken from today.

Laura Maylene Walter (20:55):
It was weirdly reassuring how much maybe hasn't changed or things. I know things have gotten worse in a lot of ways, but writers were dealing with some of the same issues back then. Which is publishers, for example, starting to allow the sales staff to pick out which books they're going to publish because they're trying to make them determine who are the best sellers. The publisher having a brilliant idea of using older public domain writing from magazines so that they could just cut out the pesky problem of having an author that you have to pay for the book and just publishing these things under a made up company name. I have a quote here from the publisher.

Laura Maylene Walter (21:31):
"Not only have they analyzed bestsellers for the past five seasons, but they've also analyzed reviewers. So we can put into these books special features to attract each reviewer. None of them care about fiction we've discovered. So we put in bits about gardening, cooking, baseball, sailing, whatever hobby they fancy."

Laura Maylene Walter (21:48):
Which is just so depressing <laugh>. And then we have just the corporatization of a publishing house where they're changing all the titles of the employees. The reception is the contact manager, the salesman are traction engineers, the office boy is inner communications chief. I mean, you could just really feel all the kind of resentment and rage of modern day office workers and corporate mumbo jumbo. I have more, but I will take a pause. Do you have favorite?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (22:20):
Those were some of the highlights for me as well, because I just love that she skewered the industry because she had such a complicated relationship with the industry.

Laura Maylene Walter (22:28):

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (22:28):
You know, Frederick Oliver, when we first meet him, he's writing important novels, right? But they're not selling a minor plot point is that he winds up then writing for this humor magazine called "Ha". It's a humor publication which winds up being better for him financially. It improves his, uh, you know, bank account quite significantly. But, you know, he's a guy that wants to write novels and important novels and that's kind of where Dawn Powell was as well. I mean, she was trying to write novels that were meaningful and that were going to change the readership, you know, sort of speak to people. And that wasn't particularly lucrative for her. At one point she, like a lot of her contemporaries like Dorothy Parker and Fitzgerald and all of those, wound up going to Hollywood to try and write scripts for a while.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (23:12):
And she kept coming back because she couldn't stay away from New York. And in some ways I think that she felt that that would be selling out in some ways. And I mean, again, this is just as you said, so contemporary. I mean, if any of the listeners have gone to see American fiction, that is one of the plot points. I mean, it's sort of one of the major points in American fiction is, you know, we have a character who is writing important novels and they're not selling and the things that he does to write something that is going to be consumed by the masses. So.

Laura Maylene Walter (23:43):
Yes, it is wild how so many of the same concerns for writers were present back in the forties when, when I think of it as, you know, back then we didn't have the competition of Netflix and TikTok and all these other things. You know, reading does seem to be on the decline in some ways, but it is a good reminder that these problems have always existed. One of the moments I loved is Frederick teaches part-time at the League for Cultural Foundation. And the classes there are just cringey where they're teaching these adult learners how to be cultured without actually enjoying or learning about the real pieces of culture. For example, in the literature course, they're not reading the books, they are studying the reviews and the critics and learning to parrot back exactly the same thing that critics have said. One person, they get into kind of a heated argument where they're just again, mimicking what other newspaper critics have said. And one person says, I don't need to read the book to know it isn't up to standard, at least not to us studying here at the league, which just feels perfect. It makes me think of today with Goodreads and people reviewing books that they haven't even read. I was just talking with someone about that. So I thought that was really a really enjoyable part of the book for me.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (24:58):
Yeah, no, same. And I think that what she's trying to get at there is, again, making fun of people who are not engaging with the text or art or literature or culture.

Laura Maylene Walter (25:08):

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (25:08):
Because they want to become more cultured or learn more, or are intellectually curious. It's about having things to talk about at those cocktail parties.

Laura Maylene Walter (25:17):
Right. And impressing people. Yeah.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (25:19):

Laura Maylene Walter (25:20):
So I thought that was really great. And along those same lines, two other moments that I quite enjoyed were just these little throwaway comments about characters basically discounting the whole process of making art, as if that's beside the point. That you can be famous as a writer or an artist just by luck or by happenstance. So for example, one character, he is reflecting on a business manager's client who's a violinist with a hit at Carnegie Hall. And he thinks to himself, "...made him puzzle anew over the fellows fool luck. He himself could have done it better if he had ever learned to play the violin. But the thing was, how did they manage to attract luck?" And then goes on to say, "The reason I never went in for painting is that I'd want to do it so much better than anyone else."

Laura Maylene Walter (26:07):
He stated once, "My great ambition has always prevented me from doing anything." Which is just so, so funny. I mean, who hasn't met people like that in real life who are convinced they could play the violin well enough to be in a symphony or write the next great American novel, but they've never played a note or written one word. So, yeah. And then there's another one that, with Lyle's husband is a playwright, although it seems like she does most of the work, even though he gets more than 50% of the credit.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (26:37):
Surprise <laugh>.

Laura Maylene Walter (26:37):
And he's, he's frustrated that their play is being delayed because she hasn't been, you know, doing the work because he needs her. And he's thinking, "It seemed ridiculous that his play all ready to be put in rehearsal except for the routine business of writing it should be held up merely because a pretty woman was finding her court dwindling." So, I mean, that's great too. Like I am ready to go, you know, my book is going to be a bestseller and a National Book Award winner. I just have to sit down and write it first. You know.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (27:04):
Yes. Now it's one thing to imagine and hope for wonderful things that might happen as a result, but this book also does mock those that aren't willing to put in the work.

Laura Maylene Walter (27:13):
Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (27:13):
Right. Yeah. And you're right, what she does, Lyle's husband is named Alan, and Alan is very used to being the revered great man.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (27:20):
But then when you look at what is actually happening, the one that is doing the actual work is Lyle. You know?

Laura Maylene Walter (27:27):

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (27:27):
And to a certain extent, Alan's business manager lines up, you know, dates and theaters and that kind of thing, but the great man isn't doing anything particularly well, let alone greatly.

Laura Maylene Walter (27:37):

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (27:37):
And but he's the one that has the acolytes. I mean, he's got young women that are pursuing him and wanting to learn from his wisdom. But the one they should be talking to is Lyle.

Laura Maylene Walter (27:46):
Is Lyle. Yep. And Lyle, throughout much of the book, she maintains a loyalty to Alan, which prevents her from being with Frederick, which is a central line of tension in the book. So, as you said earlier, kind of the romance mixed in with this fun publishing, scathing publishing commentary and writing commentary. Are there other moments from this book or themes from the book that are anything you'd like to point out or among your favorites?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (28:11):
Oh, like I said earlier, I absolutely adore Dodo. She is completely amoral and that's partly why I love her, is that she is willing to take advantage of whatever situation she can in order to work her way up the social ladder.

Laura Maylene Walter (28:26):

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (28:26):
I mean, that is completely what is driving Dodo and she knows that about herself.

Laura Maylene Walter (28:31):

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (28:31):
You know, and I appreciate her authenticity and sort of knowing herself well enough to know what her goals are and to go after them. I also like that one of the things, and again, I'm going to step carefully here because I don't want to give too much away...But there's a lot of anxieties here about the nuclear age and sort of what that means and sort of this transition into where we're headed with, you know, geopolitical tensions and what ultimately turns into the Cold War. So those particular anxieties kind of are an undercurrent for the novel as well, and really drive a lot of decisions that characters make. They feel very unsettled. And I think that that's sort of where they both push away from each other and then are pulled towards each other at various points throughout the novel.

Laura Maylene Walter (29:16):
Yeah, I think that's really well said. Well, this definitely made me want to go back and read more of Dawn Powell's satirical work. It's enjoyable spending time with her writing, and again, the shock at how little seems to have changed in publishing. There's a few other things from, not this novel, but from Dawn Powell's life that I thought writers might be interested in hearing, which is, for example, we always hear today how hard it is to publish a short story collection and they don't sell. Dawn would be able to commiserate with you because she really wanted to publish a collection for years. And her publishers wouldn't do it. She had to really fight to get it to come out. And she had written hundreds of stories. And of course we all like to think of the times when publishing was a little different when magazines like Cosmopolitan and Mademoiselle were places you could publish fiction and make money from your fiction.

Laura Maylene Walter (30:06):
That must be nice. I did enjoy in the biography...Tim Page just points out that in 1918, that was the year Dawn Powell moved to New York. At that time, there were more than 50 daily newspapers published in the city, 250 weeklies and 450 monthly journals, including publications published in dozens of languages. So we just think about that landscape for the printed word back then. That is definitely different a hundred years ago. But then finally in the New Yorker did publish five of Dawn's stories throughout her life, which to a writer today, that might sound like a lot, but she was submitting to the New Yorker a lot and apparently got enough rejections from them to wallpaper a small room. So writers, Dawn Powell was there too, with the rejection <laugh>. Yeah.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (30:54):

Laura Maylene Walter (30:55):
I haven't read her diaries aside from the excerpts in Tim Page's biography, but she did keep a diary for, I believe, over three decades. Have you read a lot of her diaries?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (31:07):
I've not read a lot of the diaries. Sort of...that's kind of my next move is to kind of dip into some of those. But that is the wonderful thing about Dawn Powell is that she chronicled everything. I think there's a couple of years that she wasn't writing very much, if at all, in the diaries. And I'm so glad that she did that because as you said, Tim Page's biography is just terrific. And a lot of what served for resources for him were those diaries. I mean, it's the writer's life sort of page by page in those diaries. And it's absolutely fascinating.

Laura Maylene Walter (31:36):
Yes. And just the snippets I saw through the biography, you know, like all writers would get frustrated with her publishers, how they were positioning her work. And it did seem that some of her publishers really did not know how to position it.

Laura Maylene Walter (31:47):
And, you know, frustrated when a novel wasn't going well, doubting herself other times, being supremely confident in herself. And I think these are all standard things with the writer. I was reading a lot of this and thinking, oh, I identify with her so much. At one point for the writers out there who have applied to or gone to residencies, she kind of slams MacDowell , which is a really big famous residency. And I haven't been to MacDowell. I have applied and been rejected. And I was like, Dawn Powell didn't like MacDowell. Because she clearly seemed to be an extrovert.

Laura Maylene Walter (32:19):
She loved the energy of New York and going out in the bars. She was a fixture in Greenwich Village. And I was like, well, she and I weren't the same because I would love to go to MacDowell and write in seclusion for a month. But then later she goes to Yaddo and I have been to Yaddo and it was one of my favorite experiences in my life and she did seem to like Yaddo. So that's just for writers, the hot gossip from 70 years ago is Dawn says, McDowell's out Yaddo's in <laugh>. If anyone from MacDowell is listening to this, whenever I apply again, please accept me. Okay. <laugh>.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (32:52):
As they should. As they should. <laugh>.

Laura Maylene Walter (32:54):
Oh, shameless. Okay. So I do want to just briefly touch on her Ohio work, including MY HOME IS FAR AWAY. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences with this novel and your thoughts on this novel?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (33:07):
I love this novel. I'd actually read some of the New York novels first and read MY HOME IS FAR AWAY after that. And I mean, I enjoyed the Lake Erie references. I'm like, oh, I've been in college. Oh, I've been in that elevator. But really truly it is a meditation on love of family. Her aunt was a particularly important figure in her life. Her aunt was a refuge for her. When Dawn ran away, she wound up at her aunt's house. She'd kind of bounced around to various relatives prior to that. And just knowing what her family life had been like and sort of seeing her fictionalize it here in MY HOME IS FAR AWAY, is extraordinarily moving. You see her from a very young girl. And sort of the opening scenes of MY HOME IS FAR AWAY is when she and her mother's still alive at this point.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (33:55):
She and her older sister and little sister and father are moving houses and they're packing up and the girls don't quite realize that they're moving. They think they're just going on a little adventure, because they're so young that they don't realize that they're not coming home.

Laura Maylene Walter (34:08):

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (34:08):
To that particular house. And it follows her and her parents to this journey to the new house. And I just love the way that she describes the trip as they're moving to the new house. It's this adult reflection on childhood memories that as she sort of works her way through those and mediates them and kind of draws some conclusions about what the grownups in her life at the time were really like. And I really enjoy seeing her do that. And then sort of the bookend, and again, I don't want to give too much away, but towards the end of the novel, there's a scene where Dawn is on a train headed towards Cleveland.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (34:45):
And to me those are sort of both beautiful moments in the novel where they are pensive and full of pathos and they're also full of hope.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (34:56):
That's the thing that I think this novel does particularly well is mediates between sort of deep grief for what her childhood had been. Great love for the family that treated her well and great hope for the future. I, I think that's something about Dawn Powell novels that I enjoy just across the board. There's always a sense of hope and moving towards the future no matter what the past has been.

Laura Maylene Walter (35:15):
Yes. That's really beautiful. Yeah the scene with her on the train, it made me think of Alice Monroe a bit. And I think just because a young woman on a train and the tone maybe, but I mean that as a compliment. But yeah, the writing is really beautiful. And actually I will read just the first few lines of that novel to give our listeners a sense of what the writing is like. So this is MY HOME IS FAR AWAY...

Laura Maylene Walter (35:36):
"This was the month of cherries and peaches, of green apples beyond the grape arbor, of little dandelion ghosts in the grass, of sour grass and four-leaf clovers, of still dry heat holding the smell of nasturtiums and dying lilacs. This was the best month of all and the best day. It was not birthday, Easter, Christmas, or picnic, but all these things in something else, something wonderful, something utterly unknown."

Laura Maylene Walter (36:04):
So you can get a sense of kind of the lyricism and the tone, the reflective voice of this book, which is really beautiful. Where would you recommend listeners start if they're going to pick up a Dawn Powell novel for the first time? Of course. I think this would be dependent on someone's taste if they would prefer.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (36:22):

Laura Maylene Walter (36:22):
Maybe the literary Ohio novel like MY HOME IS FAR AWAY. But what would your recommendations be?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (36:27):
If you want to start with lyrical, start off with MY HOME IS FAR AWAY because that really kind of gives you a sense of who Dawn was. And for the New York ones, I genuinely love THE LOCTUS HAVE NO KING. I also very much enjoy THE TIME TO BE BORN. That's kind of, I think probably my other favorite one of the New York novels, because it also skewers New York society, but in that particular case it's sort of more society matrons and some minor politicians. So depending on, on what your tastes are. But for the Ohio novels, absolutely start with MY HOME IS FAR AWAY.

Laura Maylene Walter (37:02):
I did write down a few things that I found interesting about her and maybe you can add to this list if anything comes to mind. But in no particular order, Dawn Powell named her cat Perkins after the famous editor Max Perkins. She worked with him for a while. She loved Mad Magazine, which I find kind of funny. She was contemporaries with writers like Hemingway and Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams. But as Tim Page points out, she was not a snob. And she could get along just as well with people on the buses or on the subway or in bars. It sounds like she was in bars a lot.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (37:35):
<laugh>. I think so.

Laura Maylene Walter (37:37):
She said at one point she compared the process of writing novels to the creation of a bird's nest and the bird is a magpie, she said, which I love. Like just gathering things over time. And then finally her only academic acknowledgement was an honorary doctorate from Lake Erie College in, I believe, 1960. So that is really special. Do you have other facts about Dawn Powell you'd like to add?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (38:03):
Well, Hemingway called her his favorite living novelist. So that I think is a very high compliment. As I mentioned earlier in our archives, there are some really lovely pictures of her performing in Midsummer Night's Dream. The picture of her as Puck is just delightful. And the honorary degree was 1960. She came back to talk to the girls. Lake Erie didn't go co-ed until the eighties. So she came back to talk to the girls a couple of times. And part of that was Professor Peterson, professor William Peterson had invited her to come back and she received an honorary doctorate there at that particular time. So that was 1960, roughly five years before she died. And then probably the thing about Dawn Powell that's not a fun fact, is that she is buried on Hart Island in New York. So her husband died 1962-ish I think. So she outlived him by two and a half or three years.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (38:55):
And at that particular time, her body went unclaimed. So she is buried on Hart Island, which is in essence the potter's field in New York. Here we have this magnificent, well-known to a degree in her lifetime author. While people know that she's there now, they certainly didn't for a lot of years until some of this renaissance went on. But back to fun facts, because we don't want to sort of end on a downer. Part of what I think sort of inspired the Dawn Powell renaissance is Gilmore Girls. So if you watch the television show Gilmore Girls, when Rory is reading, you know, sort of the through line of the series is that Rory's always reading something. And one of the things that you see is she is reading collection of Dawn Powell novels. So that kind of kicked things off, I think, in sort of a larger way for people to start to be aware of who Dawn Powell was. And ever since then, there's been this sort of slow trajectory back towards Dawn Powell becoming part of the greater consciousness again.

Laura Maylene Walter (39:48):
Yeah, that's really interesting. I did not know that about the Gilmore Girls. Because by the time of her death, most of her novels were out of print. So she died at a point when her work was not really being read and remained in obscurity. There's also some confusion about her executor of the will, who was a woman who didn't seem to communicate well with anyone. And maybe it was a misunderstanding. It's hard to know. Tim Page goes into this a bit, but she never contacted the family to say that Dawn Powell's body could be moved to Ohio.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (40:18):

Laura Maylene Walter (40:18):
She argued that Dawn would not want to leave New York, which I would believe that she wouldn't want to be buried in Ohio, but who knows, the family didn't get to make that choice. So it's kind of sticky and complicated that Dawn ended up buried there. It's a bit sad, but after decades of obscurity, I believe it was in 87, Gore Vidal wrote an article about Dawn Powell's work, which started the process. Her book started to be republished and then Tim Page's biography in the nineties surely helped that. But Gore Vidal and a beautiful exhaustive biography are no match for the Gilmore Girls.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (40:52):
Exactly. <laugh>

Laura Maylene Walter (40:53):
We'll thank, we'll thank them for that. I'll have to look that up and see if I can find a screenshot. And now today the Lake Erie College still carries on Dawn Powell's legacy. You mentioned the archives. Are any of those photographs, are they available online or is it something people can physically go to the college to look at?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (41:11):
Yes, the answer is yes to both of those.

Laura Maylene Walter (41:12):
Okay, great.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (41:13):
The college archives are available if people would like to come see, they could just send me an email and I can set that up and arrange things for them. But a couple of years ago we decided to digitize the archives and they're available on the Ohio Memory project. That got started because I'm on the executive board of the College English Association of Ohio and Lake Erie hosted the spring conference a couple of years ago. And we had someone come from Indiana who was happy to present a paper, the CEAO, but he mostly came because he wanted to see the Dawn Powell archives. So he was a big Powell fan. So I thought someone should not have to drive all the way from Indiana to come see Dawn Powell. So we started the process of getting the archives digitized.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (41:53):
So those are available in the Ohio Memory Project. And again, also people can come here if they would like to see things in person. So we can make that happen. We also celebrate her legacy by having our literary prize is named the Dawn Powell Prize. So there's one for poetry and there's one for prose and one for sort of both students and then we also have one for alumni. So if we have any Lake Erie College alumni that want to try their hand at writing some fiction or poetry, part of the Dawn Powell prizes are available for them as well. Our students love it and we get a lot of wonderful submissions every spring.

Laura Maylene Walter (42:23):
That's so great. I'm sure Dawn Powell would love that to know that there's a prize named in our honor at Lake Erie College, which she loved so much. Do you have anything you'd like to share about writing at Lake Erie College about students who are interested in writing, what your writing programs might be like and or how much Dawn Powell might have influenced some of your past students?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (42:43):
One of my former colleagues who was a specialist in American literature, he would teach Dawn Powell all the time. As a matter of fact, part of how we first started to celebrate Dawn Powell and her legacy here at Lake Erie is he was inducted to the New York State Writers Hall of Fame in 2015, I believe. And our then president and one of our vice presidents went to accept the award on the college's behalf. And at that point we started to talk about, well, we really need to sort of do a better job of celebrating Dawn Powell's legacy here at Lake Erie College. So at that point, that's when we renamed the writing prize. And my colleague, Dr. Adam Steyer, who was moved to a different institution at this point, he taught Dawn Powell's work a lot. And students loved her because it seemed so modern and fresh and relevant to their lives. A lot of our students who enjoy creative writing very much enjoyed seeing how she talked about writing and what it was like to work with publishers and just the travails of when you're writing and what things are like in process and sort of those ups and the downs of those. So they really loved her novels and we do try to make some of her work available so that students get into that. But our big thing is that we really do try to celebrate that legacy with the Dawn Powell Writing Prize.

Laura Maylene Walter (43:56):
I can link to that. I think in some of the past years you have or you have links to some of the winning entries. Or some videos maybe of people reading their work.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (44:03):

Laura Maylene Walter (44:03):
I think that's great. We'll share that. This has been really fun. I feel like we could definitely talk for four more hours, but we are coming up on our time. Is there anything I didn't ask either about Dawn Powell, about her work or anything else that you would like to make sure that we share about her?

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (44:17):
No, I think we've covered it. And like you said, we could go for a lot longer, but I don't know that people are going to want to listen to a lot longer. But no, really truly, I'm so grateful that we get a chance to talk about Dawn Powell and her life and her legacy. Again, if anyone wants to come see the archives or, or the elevator <laugh>, you know, we can make that happen. So we're always happy to host visitors.

Laura Maylene Walter (44:37):
Great. Well, you'll definitely have to count me in. I'll be in touch in the future to do that. And I thought we could wrap with just a line from the biography.

Laura Maylene Walter (44:46):
"For her, Ohio was the past fixed and forever, while New York was the rushing, furious, chimerical present, sweeping her along toward her destiny.

Laura Maylene Walter (44:57):
I feel like that can sum up Dawn Powell fairly well. Dr. Swartz-Levine, thank you so much for chatting with us today. And listeners, check our show notes for lots of links to all things Dawn Powell.

Dr. Jennifer Swartz-Levine (45:09):
Thank you.

Laura Maylene Walter (45:15):
Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcast. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at Follow us on Instagram @ohiocenterforthebook or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email and put "podcast" in the subject line. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.

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