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Catholic Novelist, Commercial Folly

J.F. Powers was the sort of writer destined for serial critical retrospectives. Producing slow-cured stories with lazy irregularity over the course of 30 years—a process punctuated but once by a novel, Morte D’Urban, in 1962, and brought to brilliant exhaustion with the publication of another, Wheat That Springeth Green, in 1988, just over a decade before his death—Powers gave his readers plenty of time to forget and then remember him. Critically acclaimed almost from the start, praised as what he would drolly call “America’s cleanest lay author”—one who wrote almost exclusively about the dingy and disheveled lives of Midwestern Catholic clergy—Powers was an indispensable player in the Catholic literary revival that blossomed during the middle of the last century.

His name has been revived now thanks to a spate of articles scrutinizing the diminished role of religion in contemporary fiction: Powers consistently rounds out a list that includes the likes of Flannery O’Connor and Evelyn Waugh as one of the early comic masters of modern Catholic letters. With them, he is submitted as evidence that fiction could once be good and Catholic and very funny. More so even than James Joyce, he showed that the quotidian details of Catholic life could furnish great stories. When Wheat was published more than two decades ago, and again when all his books were reissued at the turn of this new century, reviewer after reviewer stole away to revel in his stories once more simply for the pleasures they provided.

The authorities all agree, then. Powers merits consideration because he represents a distinguished literary period, one that swells ever grander with distance from our own time’s unsatisfactory excuses for art and religious culture. His prose—athletic, lyrical, constrained—and his fiction—episodic, understated, deliberately draped over weak storylines to showcase the better his ear for Midwestern speech, eye for the arresting image, and ironic instinct for the farcical vanity and spiritual comedy of his characters—make him one of the great minor writers of the last century.

The author’s eldest daughter, Katherine A. Powers, has provided us with a fresh reason to reflect on Powers’s achievement by assembling into the form of an “Autobiographical Story of Family Life” many of his letters, from the year his first story was published until just after Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award. She intends the letters to serve as a kind of sketch for the novel on “family life” that Powers planned, and tentatively titled Flesh, but never got around to writing. In some respects, she is successful in that endeavor.

James Farl Powers was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1917. The scion of an Irish Catholic family, his sensibility was thoroughly American, yet glazed with the qualities of the Irish male of his day: deferential, if irreverent, around priests; possessed by sports and gambling, especially horse races; doggedly traditional regarding the habits, doctrine, and liturgies of Catholic practice, while not obviously prayerful or meditative himself.

Dismayed by the “business sense” and indecorousness of the times—the advent of jeans bothered him enough to provide a satirical scene for Wheat—his writings manifested a comedy so subtle as to leave the reader guessing where the author really stood. Powers liked to drink, wander, and putter about the house, but he was also taciturn, maddeningly inefficient, and inclined to turn down a ready opportunity to make a living in order to chase a dream of artistic independence he had no reason to believe was even possible.

Soon after publishing his first short story, “He Don’t Plant Cotton,” during the Second World War, Powers would refuse induction into the armed forces. He was inspired by the then-blooming Catholic Workers as well as the pacifist tendencies of other Catholic reform groups, such as the “detachers,” all of which were live forces within what he came to call—with as much incredulity as admiration—the “Movement.” His childhood friend, Fr. George Garrelts, supported him in this refusal; then, as always, Powers would find the opinion and company of priests more congenial than that of American “lay” society.

Convicted, imprisoned, and then paroled to work as a hospital orderly until after the war ended, Powers arrived at three moral convictions no less binding than his prison sentence. First, he was in love with Betty Wahl, a young coed studying creative writing at the College of St. Benedict, near Collegeville, Minnesota. They became engaged two days after meeting for the first time. Betty shared both in Powers’s literary aspirations—she would publish short stories in the New Yorker and a novel in 1969—and certitude regarding the genius of her beloved, “divinely inspired gadfly.”

Second, he was going to become a great artist after the fashion of James Joyce; he would live in St. Paul, Minnesota, which would be his Dublin on the prairie, a plenteous down-at-the-heel cosmos of characters waiting to be written about.

Third, he would under no circumstances work “eight hours out of [his] life daily so that the system may prosper and the crapshooters running it.”

Actually, crapshooters be damned, a series of anxious letters to Betty in the weeks before their wedding make it plain that he would not work so that their household might eat, their children be clothed, or their writing careers proceed without a good deal of distractions about money or the search for an affordable house in an exasperating series of removals that included several failed expatriations to Ireland.

Powers, Suitable Accommodations indicates, spent more effort worrying over money than making it. He whiled away far more time arranging his office and writing letters, many of them about his hopes as a great “arthur,” than he did writing fiction.

The letters reveal a man comfortable in a curious pair of subcultures, while ill at ease in several others. Powers seems to have preferred the company of priests, particularly of Garrelts and Father Harvey Egan. Like them, he was “officially” unworldly and doubtful toward the materialism and business culture of modern America, which he dismissed under the heading of “Standard Oil”—though this critical attitude was checked at the gate of baseball stadiums and racetracks.

Powers also serves as a case in point that writers are the one social class that may fulfill Marx’s dream of natural solidarity. After two residencies at Yaddo—a “retreat for artists” in Saratoga Springs—he became drinking partners with Robert Lowell and Theodore Roethke, made the obligatory pilgrimage of any late-modernist American author to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to marvel at Ezra Pound, and dropped in on John Crowe Ransom at Kenyon.

In Ireland, he became friends with the Irish short story writers Sean O’Faolain and Frank O’Connor, who seemed to misjudge him somewhat as a kindred anti-clerical spirit. Although the celibate childlessness of priests and the carousing (relative) childlessness of a poet like Lowell indicate that Powers’s main objective in socializing was little more than to escape Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with his wife and five children, it testifies also to the easy humor of the man that he should seem so at home among abstemious clergy and the somewhat libertine writers of his day.

His exchanges with fellow writers stand out as the most substantial and illuminating in this volume, and one wonders whether a more conventional edition of selected letters, consisting chiefly of the author’s writing on literary matters, would not have been a more timely and valuable offering. What Suitable Accommodations does provide leads us again and again to cringe and lament that Powers did not find the prospect of a well-fed and well-ordered house, or the company of his family, more a boon to his art—not to mention his life—than he did.

He opines with bitterness that his father, a talented piano player, had surrendered his art to support his widowed mother. After Betty suffers a miscarriage, Powers not only absents himself at Christmastime but writes to console her, “I do not feel so bad. I would feel shakier than I do, about money, if we had a baby. In that respect I am relieved.” His first letters to Betty betray an unconventional candor, but the resultant portrait is unflattering. As their children are born, the occasional refrain in the letters is “I haven’t had much to do with it.”

Nor did Powers entirely fit in with another subculture to which, like his family, he would nonetheless long remain attached—that of the Movement, the Catholic intellectual, liturgical, and cultural reformers who swelled the rural diocese of what Powers called the “Big Missal Country” in Minnesota. These were his friends, the Catholic statesman Eugene McCarthy most prominent among them, and his letters from Ireland show a Powers anxious to maintain such connections, though always with a comic, distancing smile. He was repelled by the prospect of the “dialogue mass,” such as that through which Catholics have awkwardly slurred for the last half-century. After an initial enthusiasm for the Catholic Rural Life Movement, he and Betty hurried back to her parents’ house in town, conscious that the labor and deprivation of spiritual agrarians, though beguiling, were not for them.

On these Catholic intellectual connections, the letters are fascinating and suggestive, but largely uninformative of detail. For again the editor has brought her focus to bear primarily on Powers’s character as a father. He was a brilliant but idle and dreaming man, whose resistance to the realities of life caused his wife and children to suffer. Passages like this one to Father Egan shape that story: “I personally dislike this stretch of life ahead of me: the father of numerous children; the husband of a woman with no talent for motherhood (once she’s conceived); and the prospect of making no more money than in the past.” Behind the unhappiness that makes this mostly personal story of “family life” ironic, if not cruel, a whole line of historical inquiry begs exploration.

In our day, orthodox Catholics stand out from the rest of Western society most obviously through their “familism.” Committed to a natural understanding of marriage as a conjugal union, they have more children than most; understanding the family at once as a natural, pre-political institution and as a “domestic church,” they tend to give their children freer rein to play and learn, even as their households are significantly more ritualized and ordered to piety, often at the expense of prosperity. Theirs is a way of life so countercultural as to receive little but incomprehension and ridicule from a mainstream America committed to contraception, abortion, divorce, and the treating of children as rare, precious commodities to be prepped for scaling the meritocracy.

Many Catholics were conscious that this emphasis on the family was deeply countercultural in Powers’s day. Church teaching had adopted the family as a chief site of resistance against liberal individualism and left-wing collectivism. Further, its expressions were more visible and more potent than in our time because still integrated with the emergent “liberal” and suburban slices of Catholic society.

For Powers, that may have been the problem. Catholic familism looked suspiciously like a conspiracy to absorb the radical otherness of the Gospel into a Cold War American culture that already celebrated itself as an engine of prosperity anchored in the nuclear family. He would lament, “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, who is devoted to Christian family living, as everyone knows.” He jokes about “the family-liturgico-rural-life” movement which engages so many of us in this diocese, thanks, need I say, to an alert clergy (alert to the real dangers of the times), not least of whom is our bishop, himself the product of family life and parents.”

Powers takes on the appearance of a lower class but “cleaner” Holden Caulfield, who sees “the Movement” and “Standard Oil” as interchangeable aspects of the inauthentic conformity of postwar American culture. Everything threatens to be reduced to a slogan, a jingle, or a decency pledge—and to get in the way of his art. A few doubtful comments about the career of Allen Tate as a man of letters in the modern world of commerce drive home how blighted everything appeared to him as soon as it was touched by the American business sense.

What these letters leave to implication is that the greatest obstacle to Powers’s art was himself. The vulgarities of American culture, including those of a fast-assimilating American laity and priesthood, were his natural materials. The combination of affectionately rendered detail given bite by a sense of awkward and impossible compromises between the “officially” unworldly life of the Church and the worldly materialism with which its priests and people strain clumsily to find accommodation make Powers’s stories about parish life a quizzical joy to read. His early stories on American racism show his genius for Joycean impressionism but are also one of several indications that his range, as Flannery O’Connor noted, did not extend far beyond the rectory.

Limited in his material, as Joyce was, his sprinter’s prose could never have undergone the freakish maturation the Irish modernist’s did, in which words became the chief subject of his art. Powers’s style developed, even taking on some of the associative overtones of Joyce’s early books, but mostly it just got sharper, more wry and complex. The plots of his priest stories provide a sound but repetitive basis for his humor, so that Morte D’Urban, simply because of its ambitious scale, would prove to be the zenith of his career. The stories and novel that followed—many years later—offer simply more delightful misfits of the spirit for those who already liked Father Urban and his decrepit Order of St. Clement.

Though the letters contain incidental details that subtly suggest the sources of Powers’s books—e.g., squirrels he chased from the eaves of one of the better houses the family rented ultimately come to nest in those of St. Clement’s Hill—the most agonizing tale they tell is not about the genesis of art or the impositions of family life but the limit of Powers’s eye for reality. He persisted in believing that the external demands of fatherhood and making a living prevented him from spending more time at the writer’s desk. But this does not ring true. His idleness and limited range of subject and style were the more compelling cause. He could live the material for Flesh, but I doubt he could ever have finished writing it. marapr-issuethumb

For two decades, he seems to have believed that if he could just publish a successful novel financial freedom would follow, allowing him to dedicate himself to art without the burdens of occasional teaching and other such distractions. But in the wake of winning the National Book Award over a slate of masterpieces (Nabokov’s Pale Fire, his friend Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, and John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers), Powers finally saw that no literary novel would provide anything like the income he could have earned—had he not turned it down—for a teaching gig at Purdue.

As the letters leave off, we see Powers as a failed novelist. Sure, he wrote a brilliant and funny Midwestern epic that loses none of its charm even as the world it depicts—a shiny Chevrolet uncomfortably packed with prosperity, piety, and patriotism—fades from view. But he had assumed his books would sell like Standard Oil gasoline, and when they did not there was really no other business into which he could go. Disconsolate, he disappeared for a while, enveloped by the dim and dusk of an office at St. John’s Abbey, where he finally surrendered to teaching. Out of its dark, the bowl of his pipe sometimes glowed, until he came round again with one last story, another about priests—this time, at a shopping mall. He was remembered and reviewed once more.

James Matthew Wilson teaches in the department of humanities and Augustinian traditions at Villanova University. His new volume of poems is The Violent and The Fallen.

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