Reviews of Published Diaries

What have others said about the published Diaries?

In her novels, Powell is cold-eyed and confident; in her diaries, the mask sometimes slips, and she reveals the debilitating effects of writing brilliantly and selling poorly. She is vain (“In ‘Turn, Magic Wheel,’ I believe firmly that I have the perfect New York story”) and self-pitying (“It’s too horrible a life, waking up to the jabbering of a noisy maniac, a dreadful future for all of us to face — 10,000 days of hopeless work to pay for hopeless treatments”). Saddest of all, she is forever scheming to sell out and win commercial success, at which she has no more luck than Henry James’s Ralph Limbert, the hapless hero of “The Next Time,” whose books become ever more subtle the harder he tries to water them down.

But just when the reader is starting to tire of Powell’s understandable unhappiness, her wit flares up irresistibly. “Wits,” she wrote in 1939, “are never happy people. The anguish that has scraped their nerves and left them raw to every flicker of life is the base of wit. . . . True wit should break a good man’s heart.” There is much heartbreak in these diaries, and more mirth; it is possible to read them solely for their historical interest (Powell writes vividly of close friends like John Latouche and John Dos Passos), but it is wiser to read them for pleasure. From the long set pieces to the flashing one-liners (“Never give a guest Dexedrine after sundown”), “The Diaries of Dawn Powell” is a book in a thousand, a rowdy chronicle of life in the city its author loved beyond compare.

—Terry Teachout, The New York Times Book Review, 1995 (cover story)

In this record of a writer’s life, circa 1931-1965, readers of her New York novels will recognize the originals or the prototypes of her major and bit players and the preliminary sketches of their habits and their habitats. Here, for the first time, we watch them perform. The celebrity-stricken clamor for access to Bohemia; parasites of both sexes search for hosts; the rich batten on the gifted “to feed their bleak minds and to verify their superiority.” Afloat in alcohol, they collide at hilarious and disastrous parties–parties for artists and their clients, parties for “causes,” parties for gossip scavengers, parties crashed by male and female hunters on the prowl. They congregate in beautifully rendered watering holes (Powell was a connoisseur of bars and an authority on the culture of Drink) where they interact in various stages of tipsiness, the diarist at once inside and outside the sodden company.

—Daniel Aaron, The New Republic, 1996

The diaries also reveal that Powell was admired for her strong characters and beautifully drawn contexts and criticized by editors, reviewers and readers for her weak plots. And if diaries reveal a writer’s inspiration and sources of material, then here is the stuff of Powell’s works. She recorded scenes and conversations in buses and interactions with passers-by in far finer detail than her own impressions and dramas. Her literary criticism is sharp and original. As a satirist, Powell could out-Parker Queen Dorothy, and was frequently pushed by her editors and agents to do so.

One of the thrills of a writer’s diary can be what Powell refers to as “accidental prophesy” — a part, she claims, “of the writer’s job.” Writers think, so often, that they get their material from the past and the present, and often it comes from their future as well. There are many examples of this in Powell’s diaries. In 1933, in a strange, out-of-place entry about a nightmare in which the final lesson is the importance of denying feeling, Powell writes, “. . . The cause and effect must go and, by God, will.”

Will is also the last word in the last entry of Powell’s diary, before her death Nov. 14, 1965. And she was, this career writer, astonishingly prolific in spite of everything, electric with will.

—Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Times, 1995

Powell’s books [are] eloquent as a skyscraper. A shelf of them is a skyline. They are palpable tributes to the towering city of work. The diaries document this repeatedly: Powell goes out into the streets, into bars, theaters and other people’s houses, returns home with images, chunks of dialogue, fashions them into a city on the page, sends her portrayal back into the world, awaits reviews, musters her spirits against disappointing sales, meditates on her unpopularity, sallies forth and begins again. The process was itself a magic wheel turning, each spin animating city and author alike.

—Herbert Muschamp, The New York Times, 1998