Cat Playing by Oliver Herford. Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
What’s your favorite Dawn Powell book? I’m beginning this way because critical essays on Dawn Powell always emphasize her obscurity, her failure to achieve fame or fortune in her lifetime (1896–1965) despite her enormous output. Just once, I want to skip that part. Let’s pretend I’m writing this from a parallel universe where Dawn Powell is the literary legend she deserves to be, where everyone knows the story of the Ohio-born New Yorker whose sparkling, lacerating fiction distilled the spirit of the city. And maybe you really do have a favorite Dawn Powell book. Mine is A Time to Be Born (1942), no question—the other day I was rereading it in the park and attracting stares because I kept laughing at its farcical scenes and snappy one-liners (“They couldn’t have disliked each other more if they’d been brothers”). But you might instead be partial to The Locusts Have No King (1948), or to her luminous short-story collection, Sunday, Monday, and Always (1952). Or maybe you prefer The Diaries of Dawn Powell, 1931–1965, which weren’t even written for publication (they weren’t printed until 1995) but rank among her funniest work. If you love those diaries and have a trollish sense of humor (which, if you love Dawn, you probably do), you might give me a joke answer: Your favorite Dawn Powell book is Yow.
Yow was Dawn Powell’s first and only children’s book project—as she put it in her diary, “a story to be read aloud.” All its characters were cats; the conceit was “a complete cat-world with humans as pets.” She wrote it in 1950. No, 1952. Actually, 1954. Make that 1955. Okay, 1956. Just kidding. Yow doesn’t exist. Or, rather, it exists only in the diaries, as a project that Powell is constantly on the verge of starting. She spent the final sixteen years of her life resolving over and over—for real this time!—to write “the cat book.” Even on her deathbed, Powell refused to give up on Yow. “Drying up, weak, no appetite,” she wrote in one of her last entries ever. “Will take liquid opium plus pills I guess. God how wonderful if I could get some writing done—if, for instance, I could knock off the cat book just for fun.”
Heaven knows it’s not unusual for writers to have ideas and not follow through on them. (You should see my diaries.) But it fascinates me that Powell was so utterly defeated by a kids’ book about kitty cats, because writing usually came so easily to her. From the twenties onward, she published a new novel every other year, in addition to ten plays and around a hundred short stories in her lifetime. On the side, for extra cash, she churned out book reviews and the occasional Hollywood screenplay. She did all this while managing her institutionalized son’s medical care, her husband’s alcoholism, and her highly active social life in New York City (and, relatedly, her own borderline alcoholism). Powell had many problems, but writer’s block was never one of them. On February 14, 1962, she recorded the death of her husband: “Joe died at about 2:30.” Five days later, she wrote: “Fatigued, numb, brainfogged yet must reassemble novel. … Must have it done by Monday.” And she did.
Yet Yow wouldn’t come. Hubris, it appears, was at least partly her downfall: she assumed that a children’s book would be easy to write, a mindless hack job. Her diaries are full of self-reminders to get Yow over with, as if it were a dental cleaning. On April 2, 1950: “Remember to do cat book for Julia Ellsworth Ford juvenile prize.” July 15, 1954: “Plan to finish Eva story, also ‘Yow’ story over weekend, maybe.” December 16, 1961: “Will do the Scrubwoman story and ‘Yow.’ ” March 15, 1965: “Getting excited and clarified on novel. Would like to rush it—also do the lovely play and the ‘Summer Rose’ one and the cat one.” Even in that deathbed entry, “the cat book” isn’t a grand plan; it’s something she hopes to “knock off.”
Perhaps a lesson here is that writing a children’s book is much harder than it looks. But it really is a loss for children’s literature that Powell never got the hang of it, for she understood children as very few writers do. She may not have been particularly fond of them (March 23, 1952: “The Child Dictatorship. Visiting parents must use language and ideas suitable for children. … Censor is present. Revolt possible”), but enjoying the company of children is not necessary for understanding them. A Time to Be Born contains a throwaway observation about childhood that knocked the wind out of me the first time I read it:
For some reason women, flouted in love, invariably find an incomprehensibly satisfying revenge in soaring socially. “I will give a white-tie dinner for eighteen,” they promise themselves. “How he will burn up when he hears about it.” … The idea that the defaulting lover will be hopelessly chagrined by this social soaring (no matter how he may abhor such a formal life) is as fixed in the female mind as is the child’s dream of avenging itself on Teacher by slowly flying around the room with smiling ease.
It’s so casual, so tossed off, and yet this turn toward childhood fantasy is so vivid. Had she had traveled through time and read my fourth-grade diary, in which I detailed this exact fantasy? No, she simply remembered—genuinely, viscerally remembered—what it feels like to be little.
She remembered it well enough, in fact, that she got an entire novel out of it, the autobiographical My Home Is Far Away (1944)—my second-favorite of her books. As the novel recounts in lightly fictionalized form, Powell was seven when her mother died, and her traveling-salesman father remarried a monstrously abusive woman. A precocious child, Powell kept diaries and wrote stories even then; when she was twelve, her wicked stepmother burned them all as a punishment. In response, Powell ran away from home to live with her favorite aunt. One could easily imagine a version of this as a novel for children, but Powell rendered it as adult literary fiction. As she wrote in a 1945 diary entry, “This book must not be merely the story of an ‘interesting child.’ It must show the adult which is already in this child and her impatience with the delay.” It’s a view of childhood that echoes another one of my favorite passages from A Time to Be Born:
As a child she could not remember having any child feelings, but only a sense of outrage at the indignity of a superior person, a full-grown princess, like herself being doomed by some mean witch to what seemed endless imprisonment in the form of a child, suffering all the humiliations of smallness, dependence, tumbles, and discipline. It disgusted her to be buttoned into leggings on some one’s lap and to be afraid alone in the dark and to hurt when she fell down when her mental inferiors, namely her parents, suffered none of these things.
It’s a classic Powell cocktail of comedy and empathy, and it hints at what might have blocked her from writing Yow. Powell was a cat person, and her diary is quite sweet on the subject of her cat, Perkins. Named after Powell’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, she was the only pet Powell ever had; when the cat died in 1945, Powell declared, “I cannot have another pet—it would be unfaithful to my little dear who liked no one but me, knew no other cats, no mice, no love but mine.” Her obituary for Perkins is one of her most charming character sketches: “Very dainty from the start, she waited like a modest bride till I was in bed with the lights out, then washed herself and leapt softly onto the bed, tucked herself in my neck and nuzzled off to sleep.” But sweetness and charm were not what animated Powell as a novelist, and maybe cats weren’t complex enough to sustain the attention of an author whose interest was human beings in all their undainty immodesty. To put it another way: Powell liked cats, but she loved people. “The artist who really loves people,” she wrote in a 1948 entry, “loves them so well the way they are he sees no need to disguise their characteristics—he loves them whole, without retouching. Yet the word always used for this unqualifying affection is ‘cynicism.’ ”
I won’t speculate that the name Dawn Powell would be better known if she’d succeeded at writing for children. It would be greedy, in any case, to wish for more than the treasure trove of work she gave to us. Still, I’m a little obsessed with the slender empty space on the bookshelf where Yow should be. You’d think the cat book would have been easy to write. You never know what’s possible and what isn’t, in the span of a lifetime, until you try, and try, and try, and try, and try.
James Frankie Thomas is the author of the novel Idlewild.
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