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September 2013 Issue [Reviews]

Bartleby on the Prairie

The unspent life of J. F. Powers

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.

To that question the new book of Powers’s letters gives no clear answer. It’s a portrait of the artist as a hostage to fortune, but it’s more than that: it’s a portrait of the artist who holds the very idea of fortune in contempt, whose indifference — to fashion, to literary society, to the present age — is so deep-dyed that he can hardly act.

Powers’s eldest daughter, Katherine, is a book critic, and with great care she has assembled his letters into something like a draft of a book she says her father intended to write. That book, she explains, was to be

the story of a writer, an artist, with bright prospects, a taste for the good things in life, and an expectation of camaraderie as he made his way in the world. The man falls in love, gets married, has numerous children — but has neither money nor home. He finds no pleasant ease and little of the fellowship of like minds he associated with the literary life he had thought was to be his own.

“[T]he family-life novel never got beyond a few notes, jottings, and false starts,” she ruefully reports. Then she goes on to propose that this book is it — that “Jim was, in fact, not only living [the family story] but creating and embellishing it in his correspondence.”

Her effort bears the ungainly title Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963. The letters have been chosen mainly for what they add to the family story. A “large number” of Powers’s letters to publishers are left out. So are his (presumed) letters to Merton and O’Connor. In 1956 O’Connor sent him a fan letter, enclosing her review of his second collection, The Presence of Grace: “This is a review from the backwoods and it is very backwoodsy of me to send it to you but I would like you to know that I admire your stories better than any others I know of.” If he replied, the letter is not here. Neither is the letter he wrote to her the same year about her story “Greenleaf,” which he paraphrased in his correspondence with their mutual friend Robert Lowell in a way that makes clear it was part of a running exchange. So much for the historical record. So much for restoring Powers to his place in a larger story.

There are a few letters to Lowell and a few to Katherine Anne Porter (Katherine Powers’s namesake). There is a letter to Evelyn Waugh. There are passages from the journal Powers kept and the journal kept by his wife, Betty Wahl, a writer herself. Mainly there are big batches of letters to a few recipients: Betty, during their courtship; Harvey Egan, a priest who was Powers’s best friend and also his occasional literary patron, sending him a check when funds were low; George Garrelts, a schoolmate who became a priest; and Charles Shattuck, a professor of English who read drafts of his work. These are grouped in short chapters interspersed with images of Powers & Co., such as a pen-and-ink caricature representing him as thick-haired, pale, chinless, stout, and buttoned into suit and tie like an undertaker.

As a correspondent Powers is observant, witty, and self-deprecating. From Yaddo, in 1947, he writes:

We’ve been here since the first of July, driv it all the way with no trouble with my runabout . . . And now that we have it here, the runabout, I am quite the most popular person; Yaddo lies more than a mile out of town, and the bars, of course, are in the town.

And yet he often seems willfully off-topic. Again and again he passes over his own most promising material, like a problem drinker who has sworn off the strong stuff. His fiction, other writers, and the Catholic faith get a few scattered paragraphs each. A three-day road trip with Robert Lowell, one of the most exuberant talkers in American literary history, goes by with only a glimpse of Lowell (who liked to pretend the car was talking to them). Of a visit they make to Ezra Pound in Washington, D.C., Powers says nothing beyond that it happened.

With so much left out, what remains is the small beer of the writer’s life: money matters, envy, spite, resolve, petty complaint. The book is a chronicle of a life “unspent,” as Philip Larkin put it; and like Larkin’s collected letters it is a page-turner powered by the writer’s discontent. In Don DeLillo’s Libra, a character likens the Warren Report to “the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.” Well, these are the letters Samuel Beckett would have written if he’d moved to Minnesota and become a father of five.

Suitable Accommodations opens dramatically enough, with Powers’s incarceration as a war resister, the most consequential episode in the letters by far. In the early 1940s, a graduate of a Franciscan high school, Powers began to read the Catholic Worker and then to write for it. He “became a committed pacifist” like the paper’s founders, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, and lost his job as a bookseller at Brentano’s in Chicago for refusing to buy war bonds. He fell into a Catholic movement, known as Detachment, led by a Jesuit priest, Onesimus Lacouture, who urged the renunciation of all worldly attractions that might stand in the way of attraction to God. Powers was called up for military service but didn’t show. Although he saw himself as a conscientious objector, he was refused CO status on the grounds that the Catholic Church gave its adherents permission to fight in just wars. He was sentenced to three years in prison in Minnesota.

He served thirteen months. He was allowed to write two letters per week. The ones published here don’t do much to reveal why Powers, of the 20 million or so Catholics living in America at midcentury, was one of only a tiny minority (Lowell, then a Catholic, was another) who turned against the war. Of pacifism, Powers says only that it is for him “an essential part of Christianity.” Hearing news of the wartime deaths of two boyhood acquaintances, he remarks:

As Father George says, it is very strange how much fuss is made about certain saints who died for the love of God, the hardships and martyrdom they thrust upon themselves, and yet when millions die for — they don’t know what, most of them — it is not wondered at, except secretly by many afraid to speak out.

Powers got a story published while he was in prison, and after he was released a nun sent him a draft novel by Betty Wahl, a student of hers. He read it. They met. Two days passed. They met again. He asked her to marry him.

In the way of devout people, they spent their engagement mostly apart, and Powers sent Wahl letters brimming with ardor. “Do not catch pneumonia and die,” he tells her.

God is against these things [love matches]; for some reason really known to him and the cause for much dull absurdity on the part of the theologians, he does not want them to last.

He is full of plans:

Whenever I start hitting Collier’s at $1,700 per, I will have my friend Jack Howe, who slept next to me in the clink (and Frank Lloyd Wright’s right-hand man), draw a house just for us.

And yet he knows his scruples and the problems they will cause. He warns her that “I don’t intend to sell insurance or work in a bank,” just as “I wouldn’t dress up and play war with the rest of the fellows.” He confesses that

I am worried about making a living . . . because I won’t go about it in the ordinary way — eight hours out of my life daily so that the system may prosper and the crapshooters running it.

Solemnly he tells her to take care of herself, for “You must be healthy if you are going to carry your cross, which is me, successfully.”

With a few short stories in print, Powers was already intent on shunning any pursuit that might rival his writing. On this he would be firm, even stiff-necked, refusing steady work for the next twenty years. The sight of his own father applying himself doggedly to lousy work had left him determined not to make the same mistake. Prison life hardened the conviction. And his confidence in his talent — in Catholic terms, his vocation — made him loath to destroy it through misuse or neglect.

Powers’s resolve was strengthened especially by the principle of detachment. In postwar American literature, dominated by New Criticism, the term “detachment” was associated with the author’s effort to show things in themselves, without the impress of his personality. The idea was traced back to Flaubert, who strove for a “scientific and impersonal” style, and to Joyce, who saw the author godlike behind the work, “paring his fingernails.” Powers also saw the author this way: “You, God-like, make a character who lives, who didn’t exist before you made him out of the slime of your dictionary.” Thus inspired, he pursued literary detachment with religious devotion.

By thirty, he was a Bartleby on the prairie: a man in a room with a pen, relishing his independence, however crabbed, as evidence that he was still on the proper path. As his stories showed up in The New Yorker, the invitations came. He turned them down. Bennington College offered to fly him to Vermont for a job interview. He refused to go. Lowell urged him to return to Yaddo. He said it was “utterly impossible.” (Though he ultimately went.) He took a part-time job at Marquette, in Milwaukee, and stuck it out for two years. In 1952, he told Harvey Egan that the money from his publisher was all gone. And yet he had “turned down a job at Marquette for next fall; one at Univ. of Washington, for a semester; a writers’ conference next July in Bloomington, Indiana.” His in-laws promised him and Betty $10,000 to buy a house in St. Cloud. “I signed up for a writers’ conference at Kansas last winter, and now that it’s almost upon me,” he told a friend,

I wish I hadn’t: mostly I mean I have to write a speech, and it is gradually dawning that I have nothing to say. I don’t know the truth about any writer, about literature, about culture, and so what my thesis will be is still a mystery.

The contrast with Flannery O’Connor is striking. While she, her bones made brittle by lupus, straps on her crutches and goes on “breadwinning expeditions” to college campuses — and produces the priceless essays collected in Mystery and Manners — Powers in rude health nests in St. Cloud with wife and children, smoking his pipe and chronicling his unspent life.

“Yes, this vale of tears is just that,” he tells a friend in 1955:

We’ve had a hard winter of it. I keep seeing where Irwin Shaw, or Truman Capote, or James Michener, is doing this at Cannes, or that at London, and wonder if I haven’t missed the boat. I am in the textbooks and they aren’t, but I’m not sure that’s important. After all, I have just the one life to live. I am not by nature cut out for this life, as it’s defined in these parts by the chamber of commerce and our bishop.

Two years later, in 1957, he writes: “Today I am 40, and so far no signs of life beginning.” Four years after that he tells friends who have moved away: “Nothing has happened since you left — nothing at all.”

When something does happen, he makes the least of it. Take Thomas Merton’s visit. In the summer of 1956, Merton — famous, and famously reclusive — drove with two other priests to St. Cloud. They got out of the car —

And when we came into the small ancient red wooden house there was a procession of little girls holding up in their two hands large schooners of beer for the guests of their Father.

The men settled in chairs on the porch. Candles were lit, wine poured, dinner served, and the priests and Powers talked into the night.

That lovely sketch of life with Powers comes from Merton’s journal, where the monk, drawing on their few hours together, characterizes him perfectly as a man of many dislikes.

Powers doesn’t like Graham Greene, does not understand Kierkegaard — or my perverse interpretation of him — hates St. Cloud — says “we never see anybody.” Didn’t laugh much at my description of Waiting for Godot — in fact, seemed a little disturbed by it. I am left with the impression that here is a man in whose life — forlorn and desperate — there is no place for facetious metaphysical extravagances.

Powers, for his part, was underwhelmed. In a letter to a friend, he exhaustively details the secret protocols the visit involved — but about Merton he says simply, “I liked Fr Louis quite a lot.”

“Powers is a man with the hand of God on him — but one who is in no position to realize the prophetic character of his vocation,” Merton concludes, and Powers himself seems aware of his inability to rise to the occasion. “I seem to spend my life in other people’s monasteries,” he says in an early letter, “listening to talk of other gods.” But he is no monk. “I was asking what it is my present life seems to be saying to me,” he writes in his journal in 1959.

I think it is that I must work willy-nilly and abandon all hope of living as I’d like to, forget what I like to eat, who I’d like to see, where I’d like to be, etc., and think of myself as just having been given a stiff prison sentence: if I should ever get out, it would be nice to have a book or two to show for the time. I’ll not get out either until I have a book that makes me some money. So what, my life is a plot against living, but perhaps a good thing for my work — if I can ever get around to it. If I can stop trying to think of other ways to escape the trap I’m in.

Fifteen years out of jail, Powers is still a prisoner. His fiction depicts the Catholic Midwest as a penal colony, a place where every man has his station and nothing ever changes. His letters show us his cell. May 1956:

My only friend, a silversmith who makes chalices, who had been doing that for a living for several years, has taken a job. That leaves me St Cloud’s last self-employed artist, and sometimes I think I can make out my name on the wall. Still I turn down jobs now and then, at good money.

The following year, on his new office in St. Cloud:

[B]rown railroad paint on the door and mopboards; a silver radiator; one window arched at the top; and light green walls, cracked and peeling and stained . . . This room is like a dirty bottle, but inside is the vintage solitude which hardly anybody can afford nowadays, and I am sipping it slowly, hoping to straighten out my life as a writer.

Same room, 1959:

[T]he work, I must say, isn’t getting done. It is now 10:00 a.m., and I’ve been here about two hours and am beginning to think about opening up my sandwiches and thermos of tea.

About the pub date of Morte D’Urban, 1962:

The day itself was like other days, with the author napping on the floor in the middle of the afternoon, and then in the evening there was a surprise party preceded by any number of telltale clues, Betty not going to bed at her usual time, having her hair combed, and wearing shoes, plus the porch light being on, and somebody had even flushed the toilet.

When Powers did venture out of the Midwest, it was not for a job. In 1951, he took his family to live in Ireland, with the idea that it would be cheaper to be poor there than in the States. The text he concocted for a classified ad in the Irish Times set the tone: “Wanted to rent[:] house in possible surroundings for long period by unpopular author and family.”

In Ireland, Powers’s detachment from American literary society was complete. In Ireland, the prisoner was a free man — free to stroll around Dublin, to buy old furniture at auction, to spend his days putting commas in and taking them out.

“Some of my devoted readers among the clergy have been after me to try a nonclerical book, and maybe I will,” he told Evelyn Waugh, and in 1963 he made a vow: “If I live long enough, and don’t find another, better way to make a living, my next book will have little or nothing to do with the Church.” Two months later, he gave a progress report: “I have decided on the first word of my new novel. It is ‘I’ and now for the second one.”

That book was never written. This book — the former’s skeleton, as Katherine Powers proposes — ends in 1963. Although there “are enough letters, further removals, and more ocean crossings en famille to supply at least another volume,” she explains, “what lies directly ahead — the near future, that is — is not suitable material for Jim’s gift.”

The voice there — the apodictic, inquiry-averse voice of Catholic authority — makes you wonder what she is covering up. She elliptically explains that the material Powers found “not suitable” was the stuff of life in the Sixties, when the signs of the times alarmed her father by making clear that his church was changing and his children were growing up. It was all, as Katherine Powers writes, “too much for this author to control and defuse through comedy.”

Powers’s refusal to follow his material into the present had real consequences for Catholic writing in this country. In the years that followed, the Catholic priesthood would change in ways that challenged the imagination. Priests would marry nuns. Priests would run for Congress. Priests would pour homemade napalm on draft files outside government offices. Priests would consecrate baguettes, bagels, hoagie rolls, and pitas. Priests would grow beards and let their dogs scamper on the altar. Just as American Catholicism was turning broadly comic, this gifted comic artist turned away from it; he seemed a literary fugitive, a writer gone missing when he was needed most.

In fact, he was writing a second novel a few sentences at a time. Wheat That Springeth Green is the story of Joe Hackett, a “hack” priest scrapping for position in the changing Church. It took Powers twenty-odd years to finish, and it was nominated for a National Book Award in 1988. The novel was published as Powers’s comeback, but it’s the old Powers all over again. Its protagonist smokes Tareytons, listens to folk music on a phonograph, watches day baseball on television, and follows the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The story takes place in 1968 — historical fiction in disguise.

Three hundred and thirty-five pages, a quarter century in the making. What had taken so long? Profiles of the aged author touched on his perfectionism, his wife’s illness, and his preference for the short form but skirted other likely reasons. Probably he had lost support at The New Yorker after William Maxwell stepped aside in 1975. Maybe he had contracted a strain of the New Yorker silence that afflicted J. D. Salinger and Joseph Mitchell. He was like an Eastern European writer after glasnost: history had shattered the sealed world of his fiction, a Catholic little America where all the sins were venial and all the clerical crimes were misdemeanors.

With time, the lightness of Powers’s work has made it seem naïve. His books were reissued just as the widespread scandals of clerical sexual abuse were coming to light, and the news of many hundreds of sex crimes committed by priests over the decades made Powers’s stories of priestly bumblers and connivers seem beside the point. He devoted his career to depicting the everyday lives of priests at midcentury; but of priests’ sexual lives, or longings, or sins, he had little to say.

Henry James, in his biography of Hawthorne, set out the prospects for the person “overshadowed” by religious inheritance. This person can throw off the yoke and try to start fresh. He can leave it in place “and contrive to be tolerably comfortable beneath it.” He can “groan and sweat and suffer” under it and live a life of misery, for the “dusky blight” will remain. Or he can make it over into art, the way Hawthorne did. “Hawthorne’s way was the best,” James declared,

for he contrived, by an exquisite process, best known to himself, to transmute this heavy moral burden into the very substance of the imagination, to make it evaporate in the light and charming fumes of artistic production.

Powers was a writer who labored under his burden, groaning all the way. In spite of itself, this book of his letters is a cautionary tale. It suggests that Powers is not best seen as a Catholic writer, or a New Yorker writer, or a writer slain by the enemies of promise, or a writer thwarted in his search for suitable accommodations. He is an American vitalist, second string, alongside Nelson Algren, James Dickey, Ken Kesey, and James Salter. In a key way, though, he is quite unlike them. They — through aviation, outré sex, LSD, moonshine — chose the life over the work, attachment over detachment. Their zeal for extraliterary adventure kept them from the first team of postwar American writing, but it also kept them pointed outward, toward experience and society, and it gave them something to write about.

Powers chose the work. It seemed a prudent choice, even a holy one. But it starved the work and it imprisoned the writer. His story makes clear that writing is a worldly undertaking and that the writer who disdains the world is going to run into trouble. It makes clear that the writer who deals in the old ways has to stay steps ahead imaginatively, and that the writer who would keep clear of sex and violence, current affairs, and fashion — who would keep clear of manners — risks missing the mystery.

And yet it’s also strong evidence of what even a writer hostile to fortune can accomplish. If you have to do things the hard way, making your work in the face of penury, social upheaval, writer’s block, and a nagging sense of futility, you could do worse than J. F. Powers. You could do worse than to wind up (seven decades after you started out) with two novels and thirty stories in print and a stylish book of your letters besides: many thousands of sentences, each beautifully formed. You could do worse than to wind up a mystery, a writer people are still trying to figure out.

, 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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