John Cowper Powys's years in America, 1905 to 1934, are still largely undocumented.
This appears to be a matter for regret, though some will always consider that Powys's
own vigorous renderings of his American experience within the final three chapters
of his Autobiography
(1934) are all the revelation we need. The gap in our knowledge has been narrowed
by the publication of the late Malcolm Elwin's edition of Letters to his Brother Llewelyn, 1902-1925
in 1975, since when Powys scholars and readers have been anxious to receive the second
volume from the Village Press. Some information, directed towards the writings rather
than the life, was given in a selection of extracts from John Cowper's letters to
his brother Littleton of 1927 to 1934 (in an appendix to Essays on John Cowper Powys,
University of Wales Press, 1972), indicating how informative will be the eventual
publication of a selection (Powys is repetitive in letters!) from the complete collection
to that brother. With these and Alistair Tilson's edition of the letters to Theodore Powys, now in progress, we should have at least a narrative of John Cowper Powys's
"thirty years of train-life and hotel-life" and other life in all but two of the
American states. (Some future biographer may be busily employed in tracing the newspaper
and other records of those thirty years of itinerant lecturing.)|
The two short essays about America contributed by Powys to American periodicals, thus for an American readership, and now reprinted in this Review, were published in 1927 and 1935, that is, towards the end and after his time there. They have been selected from his three known descriptive essays about America because they survey his own total experience of that country. (The third essay, "The American Scene and Character: A Resident Alien to Alien Critics", published in Century, December 1927, though based on personal recollection, is more an objective comparison of the merits and faults of American and European people.) The first essay, "Elusive America", March 1927, begins with an account of what Powys expected to find in America, envisaged in a Liverpool coffee shop as he listened to Sousa's "Stars and Stripes" and awaited his first voyage across the Atlantic. It is, of course, with this memory that he later was to begin the "America" chapter of Autobiography, only to pursue it very differently. The essay describes his twenty years' search for some real approximation to his imaginary America. "Farewell to America", of April 1935, postdates the Autobiography, apparently written after his final departure and during his year's residence in Dorset before his retirement to Wales in the summer of 1935. It gives a concentrated and completely retrospective analysis of the effects of America upon him, an expansion of his reference to the "improvement in (his) character" a few pages from the end of Autobiography, but again different and much more outward looking.
In "Farewell to America" Powys refers to his close friends, Theodore Dreiser and Edgar Lee Masters, as "the greatest novelist and the greatest poet of America today" and in Autobiography they appear as "the two greatest Americans of our time". Brilliant personal portraits of them are given in the early part of "The War" chapter of Autobiography, and he lectured and published on the works of both. But Dreiser appears to have been the most important giant among Powys's friends: this number of the Review is given to him. In Autobiography (beginning, "Dreiser and I are both Magicians"), Powys himself provides a vivid analysis of the similarities and differences between himself and Dreiser, based on the image of the wrestling "game of wrists" which they often enjoyed (to the discomfort of the spectator, according to Miss Phyllis Playter), neither making "the other kneel".
Dreiser was only a year older than Powys, but he reached his height as a novelist years before Powys. They first met in October 1914 (John's letter to Llewelyn about this is more enthusiastic and illuminating than the retrospective description in Autobiography). This was only a few days before Powys's first prose work, The War and Culture (The Menace of German Culture), was published, his first book of critical essays, Visions and Revisions, and his first novel, Wood and Stone, appearing in the February and November of 1915. By the time of their first meeting, Dreiser had already published Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, The Financier and The Titan. Powys's review of Dreiser's semi autobiographical novel, The 'Genius' , in November 1915 appeared only a month after that novel's publication, curiously already defensive. (The publisher withdrew the book from the market in 1916, after the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice banned it as immoral.) Powys published his third novel, Ducdame, early in 1925, the year of Dreiser's completion and publication of his hugely successful An American Tragedy, and his own success as a novelist came when Dreiser's reputation and inclination to write prose fiction were declining.
Perhaps sometime someone will write a detailed study of the interaction of the two novelists, but from a surface view their friendship does not seem to have been influential in any way on their fictional works. Apart from their important, shared concern for the poor and oppressed (in which, of course, Powys's interest in the structure of American society seems flimsy compared with Dreiser's involved, intense documentation), their manner of life and views seem very different (to begin, one has only to oppose War and Culture with Dreiser's pro-Germanism). But, no doubt, their friendship was important as a balance (the fault of our cover photograph, ordered by Dreiser (see page 21), is the difference in head sizes), for the comfort of knowing another literary genius, and for the stimulation of difference: the latter was one of the gifts which America itself gave to the alien John Cowper Powys. It is John Cowper Powys as an affectionate critic of America and Dreiser who concerns us in this Review. With gratefulness for the various generous help of Mr Jeffrey Kwintner, Mr Gerald Pollinger and Ms Marguerite Tjader in providing texts and photographs, we are able to include some of Powys's criticisms of Dreiser's work which cover the thirty years of their friendship, that is from the review of The 'Genius' to the Introduction to Notes on Life written in the year after Dreiser's death in 1945.
|The Powys Review||Number Six||Volume II, ii|