John Sherman; Revived Work Of Cousin, Dawn Powell

John Sherman championed the works of satirist Dawn Powell after her death in 1965.
John Sherman championed the works of satirist Dawn Powell after her death in 1965. (Family Photo)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2007

John F. "Jack" Sherman, 96, who played a profound role in the discovery and publication of previously unknown manuscripts by his first cousin, author Dawn Powell, and in a subsequent revival of interest in her work, died May 9 at Crystal Care hospice in Mansfield, Ohio. He had a heart attack last month.

Powell was known for insightful, deeply satirical novels often set in Ohio, where she was raised, and the bohemian neighborhood where she settled, New York's Greenwich Village. "Never give a guest Dexedrine after sundown," a line from her diaries, became one of her most-cited quips. Critic Diana Trilling memorably described Dawn Powell as the woman "who really says the funny things for which Dorothy Parker gets credit."

During her lifetime, Powell attained literary and critical support from Ernest Hemingway and Edmund Wilson, among others. However, she was never a popular favorite and fell into obscurity by the time she died at 68, in 1965.

Mr. Franklin, 15 years her junior, remained close to Powell while working in Ohio as a businessman and educator. They were raised by a mutual aunt, Orpha May Steinbrueck, and remained constant correspondents over 35 years. After Powell's death, he spent decades administering a complicated trust for her autistic son and visited him in mental hospitals and nursing homes.

Starting in 1992, Mr. Sherman worked closely with this writer, then chief music critic at Newsday, to rekindle interest in Powell's work, most of which was then out of print. As the guardian of Powell's only child, Mr. Sherman had the familial authority to effect a change, and he began by helping urge legal action against Powell's longtime literary executor, who had done little to advance her work.

In 1994, Powell's private papers were transferred to the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where they remain today. Included with the thousands of manuscripts, letters and photographs were 35 diaries written from 1931 through 1965.

When "The Diaries of Dawn Powell" was published by Steerforth Press in 1995, the New York Times Book Review put it on the front page. In the Times review, critic Terry Teachout called it "one of the outstanding literary finds of the last quarter-century."

By the end of the 20th century, 12 of Powell's novels had been reprinted; a volume of letters and a new edition of her short stories were issued; and several of her plays were published and produced. In 2001, the Library of America issued nine of Powell's novels in two volumes. This writer dedicated "Dawn Powell: A Biography" (1998) to Mr. Sherman.

John Franklin Sherman was born April 24, 1911, in Taylorville, Ill. He lived with the aunt who raised him until she died in 1959.

He served in the Army during World War II, where his unit participated in the liberation of Paris. Powell dedicated her fictionalized memoir of her childhood, "My Home Is Far Away" (1944) to "my cousin, Sergeant Jack F. Sherman." She had to send him three signed copies before one finally reached him in Paris.

After high school, Mr. Sherman joined Carton Service Inc. in Shelby, Ohio. He originally worked in the factory but rose to the position of secretary-treasurer.

At 50, Mr. Sherman quit Carton Service and entered what is now Ohio's Ashland University, from which he graduated in 1965.

Powell was thrilled with the news. "You'd be a marvelous teacher," she wrote in 1961. "I get really amazed at the number of men and women knocking themselves out in jobs they hate -- so every day is a dull pain -- in order to get plastered every night or noon at great expense to make up to themselves for not being happy in their work."

He received a master's degree in English from the University of Chicago and then taught high school English in Ontario, Ohio, until retirement. He lived in Shelby.

Survivors include two sisters.

Tim Page is now classical music critic for The Washington Post.

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