Monday, January 16, 2012

Celebrating Dawn Powell

I am reading short stories by Dawn Powell (1896-1965).

I came across glowing references to Dawn Powell's comedic gifts during my holiday time spent researching twentieth-century comic essays and short stories. I reacted in my characteristic way: I bolted to my local library's catalog in search of Dawn Powell short stories, struck out, and then logged into my trusty Interlibrary Loan to request her out-of-print collection of short stories Sunday, Monday, and Always from any library, college, or university in the nation willing to loan it out. A week later a worn copy of the collection, the edges of its cover boards reinforced with heavy-duty black tape, arrived from the public library of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The collection contains eighteen stories, dating from 1933 to 1952, and not a dud in the bunch.

Dawn Powell was coming on the scene just as Ring Lardner was exiting it (dying of complications of tuberculosis in September 1933). I can only guess how much Dawn Powell was influenced by Lardner. Many of her stories share Lardner's satirical perspective. And in her stories that poke fun at her Ohio upbringing (e.g., the delightful You Should Have Brought Your Mink), the crisp prose and snappy idiomatic dialogue rival Lardner's own.

Here is an excerpt of her New Yorker story Blue Hyacinths from July 15, 1933. To my ear, this particular story seems borrow a bit of Robert Benchley's lively style.

Mrs. Delcart, as was her custom, had spent the first few hours on deck examining the passengers, chatting with the purser and various ships officials who knew her well as a restless widow who swooped from continent to continent, sometimes with a dachshund, sometimes with an adopted Turkish orphan, sometimes with a great bunch of Easter lilies and occasionally with the merest volume of verse, all depending on where she had been. She had sent cables to the friends who had so gladly seen her off, and had sat for a while in the lounge with a fixed sociable smile which fooled nobody.

It was invariably at this point, as the lost shore was drifting away softly into the distance like a vagabond glacier and the ship definitely committed to some opposite goal, that Mrs. Delcart has a momentary crise. Why had she left the West, why was she traveling east (or vice versa) -- and why Mallorca or Mexico or the Bahamas of all places? Never could she honestly say it was because she like to travel for she'd never had time between trips to think out exactly what she did like; certainly she hated all the countries which had ever served as her destination as much as she'd ever disliked her homeland. It was more than probable that Mrs. Delcart was one of those people who travel out of sheer nervousness when it would be far better for all concerned if they just stayed home and twitched.

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