Dawn Powell’s eye for paradox may be what made her novels such accurate portrayals of upper-middle-class life in New York and small-town Ohio from the 1920s to the mid-60s. Her characters are painfully realistic, full of flaws, at once sympathetic and despicable. Ruth Page wrote in her 1944 review of My Home is Far Away: “It is, in fact, the combination of surface warmth and generally humorous tone with a more or less acrid reading of character which gives this novel its quality.”
Powell’s reception was as well infused with paradox. Critics and authors like Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and Edmund Wilson loved her work; the public, however, ignored it: her books sold few copies and none had second editions. Powell believed she depicted life accurately and honestly; others called her writing satire. In her diary she acknowledged the contradiction: “The satirist who really loves people loves them so well the way they are that he sees no need to disguise their characteristics—he loves the whole, without retouching. Yet the word used for this unqualifying affection is ‘cynicism.’” She died penniless and, after donating her body to science, was buried in an unmarked grave.
Dawn Powell did not leave the world unmarked, however. Recently authors like Gore Vidal and critic Tim Page have begun reviving her work and reputation. Her books have been reprinted and she’s accumulating a new following. Though she wrote prior to 1965, her commentary on humans’ antics and affairs still has extraordinary relevance today.