An exhibit featuring the works of John Cowper Powys, who lived and wrote in Hillsdale in the 1930′s, will open at the Roeliff Jansen Community Library on Saturday, Sept. 22 with a talk by New School Professor Nicholas Birns, followed by a reception.
The exhibit was organized by Hillsdale residents Jay Rohrlich and Maureen Rodgers, co-chairs the Library’s Local Authors Committee, and will include books, articles, photos, posters and an audiotape by Albert Krick, a local resident who knew Powys well.
An expert on Powys (pronounced Poe-iss), Nicholas Birns is Associate Teaching Professor at Eugene Lang College, the New School, where he teaches American and British fiction. He was editor of Powys Notes, the journal of the Powys Society of North America, from 1995 to 2002, and organized the most recent American Powys conference in New York in 2001.
Powys who lived from 1872 to 1963, put Hillsdale on the world literary map when he moved to the town in 1930. For the prior 25 years in the United States, he had written prodigiously, mostly novels and essays, and crisscrossed the entire nation as a charismatic lecturer. So emotional were his presentations on literature, culture, philosophy, politics, psychology, and a multitude of other topics that he sometimes caused people in the audience to faint. Powys claimed to have given 10,000 lectures across the country! In 1930, he finally decided that he needed to rest and write, and found peace in his new-found paradise in a small farmhouse in the Harlemville section of Hillsdale.
Powys had many literary admirers, and the famed critic George Steiner said that “Powys is the only 20th century English writer on a par with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.” His books were lengthy –900 pages was not unusual, which – in an increasingly minimalist age – largely accounts for his lack of enduring popularity.
His fans and intimates included Theodore Dreiser, Isadora Duncan, Edna Millay, Edgar Lee Masters, Clarence Darrow, Will Durant, and Henry Miller. He debated Bertrand Russell, and testified in the obscenity trial of James Joyce’s Ulysses. He was a larger than life figure and his years in Hillsdale resulted in an enormous outpouring of work.
To the poet Philip Larkin Powys was a “gigantic mythopoeic literary volcano.” About reading A Glastonbury Romance (written in Hillsdale), Henry Miller said, “My head began bursting as I read. ‘No,’ I said to myself, it is impossible that any man can put all this—so much—down on paper. It is super-human.”
Margaret Drabble called him “a genius–a fearless writer who writes with reckless passion of flowers and graveyards, incest and teacups…”
Hillsdale was Powys’ “Utopia,” as several contemporary newspapers celebrated. He wrote extensively about the peace and happiness he experienced in his home at the base of Phudd Hill, which he named “Phudd Bottom.” He kept detailed diaries filled with his fascination for the flowers, animals, stone walls, streams, trees, and people near his home. Powys believed that happiness derives from an ability to experience sensation, particularly that which involves an immersion in nature.
“The coolness of sheets, the warmth of blankets, the look of the little blue flames dancing on the top of a fire of hard coal, the taste of bread, of milk of honey, of wine or of oil, of
well-baked potatoes, of earth-tasting turnips! –the taste of the airs, dry or moist, that blow in through our opened window, look of the night-sky, the sounds of twilight
or of dawn, the hoarse monotone of a distant pinewood or of pebble-fretted waves–all these things as one feels them, in the mortal pride of being able to feel them at all, are the materials, eternal and yet fleeting, of the art of being a man alive upon the earth…the man whose interior consciousness is forever obstinately writing down, in the immaterial diary of his psyche’s sense of life, every chance-aspect of every new day that he is lucky enough to
live to behold!”
In Hillsdale from 1930-34, John Cowper Powys found happiness. Here is his diary entry from December 13, 1930:
Got up at 7.30. ‘Twas very cold. Saw the sun rise or rather half-rise. Very cold. Very cold. Very cold. I am by nature too restless and impatient even to stand staring at the beautiful Ridge that I like so well and the pale gold sky till it comes up. But I watched every detail of its rising except the second of its first emergement over the Ridge. Gold light on the Waggoner house is the first sign — or rather on the East side of the great Waggoner Barn — and then on the hill up there and on the hedge and trees up there. Next on the top of Phudd as you see it over our house. The sun comes up that curious, steel-blue, blinding light that you can scarcely look at … but when it first appears in full circle you can see round the blue-blinding circle inside, or rondure inside, a yellow band of candle-flame light not blue or blinding at all. Tis as if you were looking into a gold ring or a round port-hole into a blazing eternity that by reason of its blindingness takes on a milky, metallic, blueish colour. Finally, the full sun hits our little house and makes it gleam white as a shell, white as England’s cliffs, white as the Dog’s teeth, white as Bone! Then does our house appear like a Light-House or a coastguard’s house or even like a ship. I walked up and down thrilled with happiness …
Soon after Powys and his companion Phyllis Playter arrived in Hillsdale, her journal entry stated: “J. was so happy — all the time. . . . It is such a simple and profound well-being — like a child’s or a dog’s or a horse’s or a cow’s. . . .I was very happy too.”
The Powys exhibit is one in a series organized by the Roe Jan Library to celebrate the many great – and not so great – writers and poets who lived or spent time in Hillsdale.