Dawn Powell was a gifted satirist who moved in the same circles as Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, renowned editor Maxwell Perkins, and other midcentury New York luminaries. Her many novels are typically divided into two groups: those dealing with her native Ohio and those set in New York. “From the moment she left behind her harsh upbringing in Mount Gilead, Ohio, and arrived in Manhattan, in 1918, she dove into city life with an outlander’s anthropological zeal,” reads a recent New Yorker piece about Powell, and it is those New York novels that built her reputation for scouring wit and social observation.
In this critical biography and study of the New York novels, Patricia Palermo reminds us how Powell earned a place in the national literary establishment and East Coast social scene. Though Powell’s prolific output has been out of print for most of the past few decades, a revival is under way: the Library of America, touting her as a “rediscovered American comic genius,” released her collected novels, and in 2015 she was posthumously inducted into the New York State Writer’s Hall of Fame.
Engaging and erudite, The Message of the City fills a major gap in in the story of a long-overlooked literary great. Palermo places Powell in cultural and historical context and, drawing on her diaries, reveals the real-life inspirations for some of her most delicious satire.