Reading Catherine Keyser’s Playing Smart: Turn, Turn, Turn, Magic Wheel

Installment 4 of the MagMods Book Club comes from Verna Kale, a Lecturer in English at Hampden-Sydney College and a Research Associate on the Hemingway Letters Project (and thus no stranger to the concept of author-as-celebrity).  Her article on girl reporters, sex appeal, and professionalism, “The Girl Reporter Gets Her Man: The Threat and Promise of Marriage in His Girl Friday and Brenda Starr: Reporter,” is forthcoming from the Journal of Popular Culture and is part of a larger book project on women war correspondents (1845-1945).

One of the side effects of studying periodical culture is the realization that, while names have changed, political rhetoric stays largely the same. In Chapter Four of Playing Smart, “The Indestructible Glamour Girl: Dawn Powell, Celebrity, and Counterpublics,” Catherine Keyser quotes a passage from novelist and short story writer Dawn Powell’s 1943 journal criticizing conservative Time Inc. publisher and Congresswoman Clare Booth Luce: “There is almost no fighting the success of combined wealth, looks, chic, and aggressiveness.” The qualities Powell names might as well be the recipe for Sarah Palin’s success today.

Whether you admire the self-styled “mama grizzly” or not, these qualifications—noted by Powell, quoted by Keyser—demonstrate the fraught role negotiated by famous women.  As Keyser points out, Powell equates “glamorous urban women” with “sirens” and we “blame women for their facilitative role within the manipulative mass media” (133).  Those who hate Sarah Palin’s politics also, inevitably, hate her big hair, and they mock her first elected office: Miss Wasilla.  The source of Palin’s appeal—her good looks, her aw-shucks affability, and her willingness to participate in such manly activities as bear hunting—is the same source of power that women writers of the first half of the twentieth century drew upon in order to be participants in an otherwise male-dominated public sphere.
(And it is in this sense that, while I personally dislike most of Palin’s politics, I at least understand her popular appeal and grudgingly respect her brand of feminism, though it differs from my own).

Keyser, via Powell, recognizes the “unexpected similarities” between “high modernism and the media circus” (127).  The negotiations of these two worlds is present not only in Powell’s novels but in her own life as well as she tried (unsuccessfully) to support herself through her writing without giving in to the necessity to produce low- or middle-brow fiction for magazines.

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself.  “Wait,” you might still be asking. “Who is Dawn Powell?”  With fifteen novels to her name and a career than spanned four decades, with (male) friends in high places (Hemingway, Dos Passos, Cummings), and with Maxwell Perkins at Scribners for an editor, why does Powell remain somewhat obscure, even in critical circles?  Keyser quotes Edmund Wilson’s explanation, and I think he’s probably right:  “no effort has been made to glamorize her, and it would be hopeless to try to glamorize her novels” (qtd. in Keyser 110).

Compared to a writer like Martha Gellhorn, who wore couture clothing and silver foxes in 1930s Spain, or to Kay Boyle, whose prolific literary output was matched by her large brood—six children and two stepchildren—Powell embraced neither Gellhorn’s girl-reporter glamour nor Boyle’s earth-mother fecundity.  Powell was thus left with few other options with which to carve out her identity in the public sphere.

Aware of the dearth of options, Powell resisted.  Keyser quotes Powell’s 1934 assessment of poet Louise Bogan and novelist and short story writer Boyle, who Powell believed make “art serve their female purpose whereas once it warred with their femininity” (qtd. in Keyser 112).  For Powell, this is not a good thing:  “Each page is squirming with sensitivity, every line—no matter how well disguised the heroine is—coyly reveals her exquisite taste, her delicate charm, her never-at-a-disadvantage body”  (qtd. in Keyser 112-13).

Keyser recognizes the difficulty of Powell’s choice here as the author navigated the “literary shame” of writing short stories for the [not-so-]“smart magazines,” and Keyser also points out how this ambivalence shows up in Powell’s novels (114). In Powell’s work and life it is clear that women, caught up in the publicity machine of modernism and magazines, must allow themselves to be objectified in order to participate fully.

What, then, would be the bigger failure of feminism—to play by these rules or to forfeit the game?  For Powell, the answer was to be found in humor and irony, deftly employed in novels that subtly point out the hypocrisies of modern literary and magazine culture. Keyser argues that Powell “depicts fame as both relentless exposure and self-making opportunity” even as she “debunks the purported independence of manly modernism from the mass media world where it makes its home” (114).

Ultimately, Powell chose not to play along, and her reputation as a writer suffered.  As Keyser rightly notes, “No one is truly outside the market,” no matter how self-aware she may be (111).  But all is not lost.  In identifying Powell’s use of humor as a “corrective tool,” Keyser offers a reading of Powell’s work and career that identifies one more example in an ever-growing list of counterpublics (111).  These insights simultaneously complicate and elucidate our understanding of 20th century periodical culture, of modernism, and, possibly, of the not-so-winding road that carries a backwoods beauty queen to Washington.

–Verna Kale

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