Dawn Powell, Flapper Stories, and the Pulps

By August of 1921, Dawn Powell had conquered Manhattan: she had safely navigated the way out of a broken and restrictive family in a rural Ohio town, found her way to New York, carved a career for herself as journalist and publicist, had married, and was about to have her first and only child. This was arguably the happiest moment of Powell’s domestic life. Soon, though, the addition of Jojo, her severely autistic son, put a strain on her marriage which, though long-lasting, would suffer periodic estrangements and numerous affairs for both Powell and her husband, Joe Gousha.

Yet this was also the beginning of another period of Powell’s life – one filled with story-book romances, dances, princesses and playboys, happy marriages, and happier endings – for in August of 1921 Powell’s story “And When She Was Bad…” was published in Breezy Stories magazine. This was the first of dozens of stories that would appear in popular pulp magazines like Breezy, Snappy, and Droll Stories.

a 1925 cartoon in Judge Magazine commenting on the many "snappy" magazines on the newsstand

These magazines are often categorized as “girlie pulps,” a misnomer stemming from the seedier magazines of 1930s. In the 1920s though, such magazines were incredibly popular – enough so to warrant this cartoon in Judge Magazine about their proliferation on the newsstand. More than any other literary forum, these magazines captured the interests and energies of “modern” youth culture or, a better description, flapper culture. These magazines, which I like to categorize as “situational pulps,” were filled with romance stories marketed to both men and women, but they weren’t what we’d think about as the stereotypical “romance” story. Rather, they were “situational comedies” full of unconventional romances for the Jazz Age: scandalous love found by modern men and women in speakeasies and at college dances; staid and parochial women who learned how to vamp to capture a beau or keep a husband; small town girls, like Powell herself, who come to the big city to find… well, if not always love, at least careers and cocktails. The closest comparison I can make to these stories would be to the pre-code films that appeared a few years later, such as It (1927), The Divorcee (1930), Other Men’s Women (1931), Red-Headed Woman (1932), and Baby Face (1933).

One of the many Snappy Stories containing a Powell story

Powell published at least 23 short stories in these magazines as well as numerous short plays and humorous vignettes (many of which published alongside illustrations by John Held, whose drawings came to epitomize flapper youth culture). She published most frequently in Snappy Stories (appearing eight times in 1925 alone), which was popular enough in the mid-1920s to be published twice a month. She also appeared in Breezy, Droll Stories, Brief Stories, and College Humor, as well as the more general (i.e. non-genre-specific) pulps Munsey’s and Argosy.

Anyone familiar with Powell’s novels of either the Manhattan/Greenwich Village scene or small town life in the rural Midwest may be surprised by these pulp stories. They are formulaic, but that is to be expected given their forum of the pulp magazines. The pulps were where writers of the first half of the 20th century learned their craft; many of whom, like Powell, “graduated” to big-money “slick” magazines. These stories’ tone isn’t as off-beat or sardonic as Turn, Magic Wheel (1936) or Angels on Toast (1940) nor as claustrophobic as Dance Night (1930), yet they are undeniably Powell, full of her cutting humor and snappy dialogue. They are also full of Powell-like themes and settings, often autobiographical. “The Little Green Model” (Munsey’s, February 1924), for example, is set in an affluent girl’s college much like Lake Erie College which Powell attended, and features a character from the wrong side of the tracks working her way through school by running the school elevator, which is exactly what Powell had to do.

A typical Held illustration for Snappy

“And When She Was Bad…,” though the earliest, is pretty typical of these stories – not quite as polished as those that would appear in Snappy later in the decade, but it conveys their breezy nature and lite humor. It also features a heroine from a small town who, like Powell only a few years before, is experiencing the adventures of New York City. The story concerns Amaryllis, a prudish school teacher away from rural Storville, New York for the first time in order to attend a teaching convention, even “staying in a hotel all by herself.” Up to this point in her life, Amaryllis thought that “the man who sipped a cocktail before dinner was a drunkard, all actresses were hussies, and a black Georgette negligee was sinfully and shamefully immoral. They were not stern puritanical standards of an acquired code of ethics, but were truths with which she was endowed at birth.”

Yet something is wrong. Amaryllis, with hazy recollections of the night before, is awoken hours late (having missed the convention’s discussion on sixth-grade arithmetic) by a maid bringing in a calling card from Norman Kelsey, a strange gentleman she doesn’t quite remember meeting. She breakfasts with Kelsey and is told “You were gorgeous last night, my dear, with that convention stuff. I’ll never forget the grave way you grabbed on to the back of my chair and gave that eloquent defense of the muscular movement in penmanship.” Amaryllis has a slight recollection of stopping in at the Parkers, a neghboring suite, while on her way to bed, but is miffed at Kelsey’s innuendos that she had somehow behaved improperly the night before and she storms off.

Amaryllis later goes down to dinner and after ordering milk from the waiter is brought a cocktail. She sees the Parkers and finds out that she had consumed “quarts and quarts” of what she had thought were milkshakes. Needless to say, they weren’t milkshakes and Amaryllis had succumbed to her first taste of booze, becoming “sort of acrobatic” in the dining room and swinging from the chandelier. Mrs. Parker states “I’m afraid everyone thought you were pretty sophisticated.” Mrs. Parker eventually put her to bed and through it all Mr. Kelsey tried to protect her.  I love that one’s ability to drink alcohol and misbehave is what constitutes sophistication. I must be pretty sophisticated myself.

Amaryllis is horrified by both the way she acted and the way she snubbed nice, polite Mr. Kelsey, and even more horrified when she receives a telegram demanding her resignation from the school. Aghast, she runs to Kelsey’s bachelor quarters, breaking even more taboos of proper behavior. Assuming the worst about her morals, he attempts to kick her out, but she breaks down and explains everything, including how “I’ve lost my school, and everyone thinks I’m bad!”

“You don’t need another school” comforted Kelsey. “You’re going to stay right here in New York and marry me. Don’t you think that will be nicer than going back – and being good?”

She agrees, stating:

“Isn’t it queer […] that all these years I was so awfully good, and everyone knew I was awfully good, nothing ever happened to me? And now, when I’m bad…”

“You’re irresistible!” finished Kelsey and kissed her on the mouth.

A formulaic and story-book ending, yes, but there is more going on below the surface. Amaryllis is rewarded by not only sloughing off the Victorian and provincial small-town morality that has guided her life, but this is made possible through drinking, laughing at the men’s dirty jokes, and generally refusing to be contained in the restrictive feminine roles. And if we consider Amaryllis’s profession as grade school teacher – one whose job it is to instill proper behavior (as well as muscular penmanship) in America’s youth – then her actions become downright rebellious. Powell’s stories of this period, as well as those in the situational pulps in general, are full of such plots.

In 1921, Powell was just becoming involved with the bohemian / modernist art culture of Greenwich Village – a circle that would include Conrad Aiken, Sherwood Anderson, e.e. cummings, Hemingway, Malcolm Cowley, and John Dos Passos.[i] She was working on her first novels, which were determinedly more “literary” (darker, realistic, and grittier) than her flapper stories. “And When She Was Bad…” can be seen as carrying some of the tension of this high/low duality that Powell was straddling. Like Amaryllis, Powell was learning how to stray from the accepted literary standards of “Muscular Penmanship,” to write about modernist themes but do so in a commercial manner/form. Success/happiness, embodied by New York and Kelsey (who is “on Wall Street”) is arrived at through acting bad (modernism) but looking good (the story’s formulaic framework), which is the contrast that makes Amaryllis attractive to Kelsey (“That’s where I found the charm of you last night – in the paradox of your angelic appearance and the incredible diablerie of your conduct," he tells her). Powell’s prodigious output in the pulps and the future critical but not commercial acceptance of her novels shows that she would continue to struggle with this marriage of styles.

Gore Vidal designated Dawn Powell as America’s “best comic novelist.” One reason for this is because of her balance between sardonic wit and often heart-breaking humor attained through a realism slightly aslant. It is in these pulp stories that we see the foundation of Powell’s humorous voice. Tim Page has argued that one of the reasons that Powell never met with full-blown literary success was because she was too commercial for academic acceptance (which is defined by the traits of modernist literature) and too quirky for commercial acceptance. It makes sense to me that now, in the post-modern age where we are used to disintegrating categories, that her writing is finally gaining the appreciation it deserves.


[i] See Tim Page’s Dawn Powell, A Biography (NY: Holt, 1998), 58-59