Saturday, October 6, 2012

Powys finds a home

John Cowper Powys was happy. He was cold, but happy. He stood watching the sunrise from his Hillsdale, N.Y. home that December morning in 1930 taking the moment in.

He and Phyllis Playter, an American he had met in Missouri nearly a decade earlier and who was 22 years his junior, were now living a much different life, far from the crowds of New York City and his hectic schedule. No more crisscrossing the country lecturing on other, much more famous writers. Now the 58-year-old Powys would be focusing on his own work in this Utopian setting thanks to the success of his novel “Wolf Solent.”

Born in Derbyshire, England in 1872, the son of a vicar, Powys seemed to be destined for the staid life of a country schoolmaster. By 1904 he was married and a father, but America — and the freedom from restraint and convention — called.

In the United States, Powys became an itinerant, and much sought after, lecturer.  Over the course of the next two decades he would speak on a myriad of subjects, from philosophy to politics to literature, especially literature. During a lecture on the writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky, where Powys first met Playter, two of the other attendees allegedly fainted from the sheer sensual power of the presentation.

Powys gave about 10,000 lectures in his career by his own account and also picked up a number of influential friends and admirers along the way, including the writers Theodore Dreiser and Henry Miller.

During his time as a lecturer, Powys also wrote prodigiously, but didn’t find success until his 1929 novel “Wolf Solent,” a 900-page epic that became a bestseller, opening the way for him to take up writing full-time and to move to the hamlet of Harlemville, which lies in the town of Hillsdale.
In their little farmhouse at the foot of Phudd Hill, which Powys dubbed “Phudd Bottom,” the couple spent four productive and happy years. Powys would write two novels, “A Glastonbury Romance” and “Weymouth Sands,” as well as an autobiography and a book on philosophy: “A Philosophy of Solitude.”

While Powys was busy with his literary efforts, he still had time to explore the area and found joy in the county’s flora and fauna, old farms and his neighbors.
Some of his neighbors, according to at least one account, thought Powys a bit odd. The writer was idiosyncratic to say the least. The often disheveled-looking Powys was known to tap his head against his mailbox in the belief it would ensure the safe delivery of his mail and he would bow to the rocks and trees on his sojourns.

He was adverse to technology, drawn to the abnormal and multi-phobic, but to many he was, and remains, an overlooked and important writer — a “gigantic mythopoeic literary volcano” in the words of poet Philip Larkin.

For four years Powys made Hillsdale his home. He and Playter would move to England in 1934 and then to Wales the following year where Powys remained until his death in 1963, a few months shy of his 91st birthday. Playter followed him to the grave in 1982.