Reviews — From the September 2013 issue

Bartleby on the Prairie

The unspent life of J. F. Powers

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Discussed in this essay:

Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963, edited by Katherine A. Powers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 480 pages. $35.

J. F. Powers, 81, Dies; Wrote About Priests,” the New York Times headlined its obituary in 1999. It was a bluntly chiseled epitaph for a writer who (to judge from the obit alone) had had a brilliant career. Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1917, Powers began writing stories in Chicago in his early twenties; a book of them, Prince of Darkness, was published in 1947, just as he turned thirty. Powers was rooted in the Midwest, but he went twice to Yaddo and made friends with Robert Lowell and Katherine Anne Porter. He was a master of the short story, but his first novel, Morte D’Urban, the tale of a wily priest on the make, won the National Book Award in 1963, besting Porter’s Ship of Fools, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and Updike’s Pigeon Feathers. A realist and a miniaturist, he was praised by the maximalist William H. Gass in a Nation review entitled “The Bingo Game at the Foot of the Cross.” Alfred Kazin likened Powers’s style to the “scrupulous meanness” of James Joyce:

When you take on a Powers story, you find yourself working hard from line to line, and constantly being outguessed. Nevertheless, the point is usually the same: the world falls at the feet of the spirit.

Powers was often compared with Joyce because his stories were as Catholic as they come. When I first read his work, in a tacky Time–Life anthology of his pieces in the mid-1980s, he seemed to be the Catholic missing link, like Richard Yates for the suburbs or Harry Crews for the South, a figure hiding in plain sight in the American Catholic literary revival. There he was with the Catholic Worker Movement, jailed for refusing to serve in World War II. There he was in a 1949 review by Evelyn Waugh, who praised his stories of “the Middle West Irish priest — chaste, philistine, prosaic, energetic in youth, run rather to fat in age — who provides the strength and the limitations of the American Church.” There he was in the writings of Thomas Merton, who took a detour on a rare trip away from his Cistercian abbey in 1956 to look up Powers in St. Cloud, Minnesota. There he was in The Habit of Being, the big book of Flannery O’Connor’s letters: “Powers and I are, I suppose, the only two young writers in this country who are well thought of and connected with the Church,” O’Connor declared. “We both have the same kind of horns.”

And there he was in the back issues of The New Yorker. In the postwar golden age for short fiction, Powers was one of the writers — John Cheever, Eudora Welty, Frank O’Connor, and Mavis Gallant were others — championed by the magazine’s fiction editor, William Maxwell, himself an Illinois boy who spent thirty years working on West 43rd Street but living in a Midwest of the mind. For Catholics, having Powers in The New Yorker was like having Kennedy in the White House. He had gained entry into the sophisticated world the magazine represented and cleared a little space there. That his characters were grasping, blinkered, striving, prone to musty Latinisms — that they fit the sophisticate’s stereotype of Catholics — was not a problem. In fact, it was a point of pride. Powers hadn’t left the fold and turned fancy like F. Scott Fitzgerald. After Powers won the National Book Award, Flannery O’Connor told friends:

I got the O. Henry this year. Walker Percy got the N’tl Book Award last year. Katherine Anne will probably get the Pulitzer Prize. I think you ought to judge the prize by the book but even so these hold up and all these people are Catlicks so this should be some kind of answer to the people who are saying we don’t contribute to the arts.

That was in 1963. It was clear that Powers was at his peak. What was not clear was that he was nearly finished. Always a slow writer, he produced little in the last three decades of his life. The lifetime-achievement honors given elder writers eluded him, and by the time he died his books were out of print.

In 2000, NYRB Classics brought out handsome new volumes of Powers’s stories and his two novels, Morte D’Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green (first published in 1988). The introductions spoke to the mysteries of why Powers had gone all but silent after 1963 and why his work had gone out of favor; the books themselves answered the questions emphatically. Even as they burnished Powers’s reputation as a writer’s writer, they showed his fiction to be narrow and dated. Both novels have Catholic priests as protagonists, and the short stories are variations on a minor theme: priest and housekeeper, priest and insurance executive, priest and major donor, priest and bishop, priest and underling, priest and cat, priest and cat again. Powers sought to portray the priest as a perennial figure, an everyman skirting the lures and snares of prosperous postwar America; but the very vividness and specificity of his portraiture made it clear that his priests — local potentates chafing under ecclesiastic authority but never challenging it openly — were figures from the era before the Second Vatican Council and its reforms. Flannery O’Connor, taking over terms from Henry James, had defined the task of the modern Catholic writer as the revelation of mystery through the depiction of “manners under stress.” Vatican II had stressed Catholic manners in the United States practically past recognition.

A thousand pages of fiction about the peccadilloes of Catholic priests of the tail-fin era: what could have stirred Powers — no priest, or ex-priest, or wannabe priest — to write about these men over and over? The mystery of J. F. Powers, to me, isn’t why the work stopped coming or why it ceased to be read, but why it was written in the first place.

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, a senior fellow at Georgetown University, is the author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a group portrait of four American Catholic writers. His most recent book is Reinventing Bach (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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