Since 1984, Powell has written eight novels and collections of short stories. His early fiction is set in the newly urbanized South and peopled with recognizable southern characters.
Novelist, educator. Padgett Powell was born on April 25, 1952, in Gainesville, Florida, the son of Betty Palmer Powell and John Padgett Powell. When he was a child, he moved with his family to South Carolina. Powell earned a degree in chemistry from the College of Charleston and a master of fine arts degree from the University of Houston, where he studied with the noted American writer Donald Barthelme. He also attended the University of Tennessee as a graduate student in chemistry.
His debut novel, Edisto (1984), was nominated for a National Book Award and was excerpted in the New Yorker. In the same year he joined the English department of the University of Florida as a professor of creative writing, a position he continues to hold. Edisto is a coming-of-age novel set on the coast of South Carolina. Walker Percy praised Edisto as “a truly remarkable first novel, both as a narrative and in its extraordinary use of language. It reminds one of Catcher in the Rye, but it’s better–sharper, funnier, more poignant.” Later in his career, Powell returned to the coast of South Carolina for the setting of Edisto Revisited (1996), which continues the protagonist’s story into adulthood.
Since 1984, Powell has written eight novels and collections of short stories. His early fiction is set in the newly urbanized South and peopled with recognizable southern characters. In these works, the New South is seen to be largely dehumanizing, sterile, and banal, burdened with meaningless traditions and lacking clear directions for the future. Powell’s second novel, A Woman Named Drown (1986), follows the career of a man, a failed graduate student, who discovers the emptiness of what could be called the middle class life. His crisis is mirrored in the lives of unanchored people who share his condition.
Beginning with Typical (1991), a story collection, and continuing into his most recent publications, Powell’s writing has veered away from traditional literary models and grows increasingly experimental. As is true of many contemporary southern writers, Powell wants to avoid the label of “regional” writer by experimenting with new modes of setting, character exposition, and thematic arrangement. His book entitled Interrogative Mood: A Novel? (2009) is composed of sets of questions, questions that add up to what is definitely not a traditional novel. Novelist Josh Emmons characterized this volume as “a remarkable collection of philosophical inquiries, stimulating either/ors and good faith attempts to measure who we are as a species and where we belong.”
Powell’s 2011 book, You and Me, a dramatic dialogue, owes its form to Waiting for Godot. He introduces the book with this description: “Two worldly agreeable dudes are on a porch in a not upscale neighborhood, apparently within walking distance of a liquor store, talking a lot.” The two men discuss aging, marriage, children, holidays, drinking, the general human condition in the world, and a host of philosophical questions. Their language is distinctly American, often distinctly southern, but no place or time is identified. You and Me received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 2011.
Powell’s short fiction has been widely published. His short stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Harper’s, Grand Street, Oxford American, and in other literary journals and magazines. The beginnings of his experimental fiction first appeared in his short stories. For his work, Powell has received the Whiting Writers’ Award and the Rome Fellowship in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Abernathy, Jeff. To Hell and Back: Race and Betrayal in the Southern Novel. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003.
O’Gorman, Farrell. “Language of Mystery: Walker Percy’s Legacy in Contemporary Southern Fiction.” Southern Literary Journal. Spring, 2002.
Vice, Brad. “Padgett Powell.” Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 234. American Short Story Writers Since World War II, Third Series. Detroit: Ga1e, 2001.
Ward, Alex. “A Better Class of Fools: Interview with Padgett Powell.” New York Times Magazine. 7 June 1987.