For more than thirty years, until her death in 1965, Dawn Powell lived and worked ceaselessly in Greenwich Village. She produced 15 novels, set in Manhattan or the small towns of her native Ohio, half a dozen plays, more than a hundred short stories and countless reviews and magazine articles (she regarded her work for Mademoiselle and the New Yorker with equal disdain). I had lived in Greenwich Village during the 1980s, and though I seldom visited any more, I felt a familiar melancholy as I walked through its old streets one grey, mild, quiet afternoon in November. I was surprised to find that, in a city where change is so ceaseless, it was in many ways the same Village I had known, though how much resemblance it bore to the Village Powell had lived in was hard to say. It may once have felt more alive with ambition and curiosity and youth, but it struck me that this air of sadness, an inducement to writing in itself, would always have been there. Perhaps, with its being a kind of village, a certain small-town claustrophobia hovered over it, giving rise to doubts about the limitless possibilities of art and self-reinvention - the very things everyone came for in the first place. The Lion's Head was gone, but there was still the Beatrice Inn, still Thomas's White Horse Tavern, still the beautiful red Village Cigars. And there were still a few of the older solitary women you don't see much on the street anymore, with dyed black hair, eccentric hats and furtive eyes and the garish smear of lipstick that marks the ageing female bohemian.
LRB 22 February 2001 | PDF Download