Dance Night by Dawn Powell

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Dance Night by Dawn Powell

Post by dsimpson on Fri Aug 28, 2009 8:15 pm

Hi all. I think our discussion group may be on the small side this time around--this is a busy time of year. Hopefully a few people will be joining in a little later in the week. I hope everyone enjoyed the book!

I had mentioned to Dorothy I read in a book of criticism how the structure of the story is "musical". I thought I would share what I read:

"In Dance Night's bold structure, there are no chapter divisions. While writing the novel, Powell recorded that she felt it was 'damned huge and unwieldy' (Diaries, 14). The structure does parallel the largeness of the subject matter, but rather than being a 'huge and unwieldy' read, the novel is very tight, as it is broken up into a series of vignettes--or melodies--held together by a thrumming bass note that is an omnipresent reminder of the trap that is the town. This novel evidences Powell's growth as a writer, as she apparently realized that the Midwest is not well suited to the improvisational jazz of Dos Passos. The novel moves smoothly from melody to melody, marked by particularly harmonious transitions at some points, as a note echoes in the following segment. In this example, the action shifts from Mrs. Bauer's drawing room to the dancing lessons taking place two floors above her:"

'A temper, that Jen,' said Mrs. Bauer, and counted four stitches under her breath.

*******
'One, two, three FOUR, one, two, three, FOUR, one, two, three, FOUR, ' chanted Mr. Fischer, walking backwards, and the line of thirty wooden figures advanced toward him, one, two, three, steps, then kicked out a stiff left foot on the fourth count.'

"Powell's control is evident in the way that the movement of the language echoes that movement of the story as Powell guides the reader through the chapterless novel with prose occasionally interlaced with a song floating up from the dance hall that is the focus of action in the novel. The dance instructor's booming 'One, two, three, FOUR' pulses through the novel, punctuating the metronomic pace of the town."

So, there's more, but you get the idea. I never caught on to this pattern, but I don't think it matters. I always wonder how much the author meant and how much is read into the work later on. In any case the repetition is effective.

Danielle


Last edited by dtorres on Mon Aug 31, 2009 8:21 pm; edited 1 time in total

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Re: Dance Night by Dawn Powell

Post by Rebecca H. on Mon Aug 31, 2009 7:44 pm

I really enjoyed this book! It did seem a little cold at times, but that was okay with me, because the ideas were so interesting. I'm curious about when this was written exactly. Did Powell have any idea about the stock market crash and the coming depression, or was it written in a more optimistic time? I really liked the image of America she creates, of a place that's being built up and transformed. with lots of opportunities for people to make money, if only they can figure out how to do it.

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Re: Dance Night by Dawn Powell

Post by dsimpson on Mon Aug 31, 2009 8:40 pm

Dorothy,

I was copying over my comment at the same time you were making yours--sorry this is a little out of order. In the Time Page bio it says that she signed the contract for the book on April 9, 1930 and wrote furiously finishing it on June 15--it was actually in stores less than four months later! However she originally started it in 1928. By this time she had been living in NYC since 1918 and would have seen the boom time and then the bust (though it never reaches that point int he novel). It must have all been pretty fresh in her mind. I think this is part of why I liked this novel so much--she captures the era so well. I read that this was her favorite novel. It was a little confusing as I kept thinking of the story taking place at about 1930 when according to the book description it was really sometime after WWI.

It was a little hard to warm up to any of the characters, though I felt the most sympathy for Jen. Actually how Morry was treated by his mother was a little sad. He seemed to look to her the most yet received very little back. His relationships with women were pretty shallow and even with Jen and her sister it was more about what he got out of things than what he could offer.

Danielle

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Re: Dance Night by Dawn Powell

Post by Litlove on Tue Sep 01, 2009 10:39 am

I think I read somewhere that this novel came out in a kind of wave of extraordinary American fiction that included Dos Passos's Manhatten Transfer and The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald. Is it possible that Faulkner was writing at this time too? (not sure). Anyhow, I felt there was an interesting and fairly coherent modernism linking all the works. That focus on hustle and bustle, vividly depicted, on entrepreneurial activity (often doomed), huge ambitions alongside this uneasy sense of dirtying the beautiful landscape of America. Characters who are all aspiration. You know the kind of thing. The portrayal of desire and damaged people made me think of Tennessee Williams (although he wrote later - 40s and 50s). And I also thought it was interesting to compare to other novels of adolescence - Colette's The Ripening Seed sprang to mind, with the teenagers behaving cruelly to one another because they are so raw and unformed. Actually the character I really disliked was old Mrs Delaney. She needed a few home truths, I felt, and was sorry no one delivered them.

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Re: Dance Night by Dawn Powell

Post by dsimpson on Tue Sep 01, 2009 9:00 pm

I think this was a great time for the arts as weird as that sounds with the Depression happening, but with the WPA creating so many jobs within the arts among other sectors--things really flourished. And I read somewhere that Powell and Dos Passos were friends and that he admired her work. I think Faulker was also writing at this time. It seems like an exciting period for literature in the US. I'd like to read Colette (have had that book for a while now) to compare! And you're right Mrs Delaney was a terrible old busy-body! How could someone have everything so wrong? She assumed too much and never listened.

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Re: Dance Night by Dawn Powell

Post by iliana on Wed Sep 02, 2009 7:29 am

I really enjoyed the book too! Actually there were several things that struck me about it, one was the musical quality to it too Danielle, and the other were the women characters. Especially among the younger women they all seemed very independent which was not really what I was expecting out of women of that time. I mean, yes, they all wanted to find love, etc. but they all had to carry on with work and make do. They didn't seem to rely on anyone else but themselves. For example, Jen gets kicked out of Mrs. Delaney's house and she's still a teen really but she just moves on and still keeps on dreaming of getting back her younger sister.

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Re: Dance Night by Dawn Powell

Post by Rebecca H. on Wed Sep 02, 2009 8:00 pm

As I think about the book more, what stands out to me is the way this book shows the beginnings of the world we see in many places in America now -- the world of cheap buildings and land getting eaten up and commerce being at the heart of everything. It's fascinating and also depressing to think about how America is still very much the same as what Powell describes, even if people are less likely to get stuck in small towns as these characters do (although I think people still do experience the small town life Powell describes).

Litlove, Faulkner was writing during this time. I wonder why it is Powell doesn't get included in the list of important writers from this time. Based on this book, I think she deserves more consideration than she gets. Okay, maybe she's not Faulkner, but this is a very well-written and well-constructed novel, as the quotes Danielle gave show.

As I was reading, I kept thinking the book was set during the late 1920s, even though, as Danielle says, it was supposed to be set after WWI. Powell might have been better off just setting the thing in her present time, although perhaps I'm missing something about the post-WWI time period?

The sexual dynamics and relationship dynamics were fascinating too. I was struck by just how negative each relationship was and by how threatened Morry was by femininity. I think you're right, Iliana, that the women were surprisingly independent, and Morry and others don't react well to that independence at all. Morry's reactions are so strong it's almost shocking.

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