I did not know much about J. F. Powers, other than he was a fiction writer from the middle part of the past century, and that he wrote from a very Catholic perspective. Until a couple of years ago when I read the one piece by Powers I've read, a short story called “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” I had never even heard of him. But that story caught my attention in the anthology, The Best American Catholic Short Stories (I have anthologies of short stories from many perspectives—I adore short story anthologies with a particular angle.), a rather eclectic collection of stories from writers that make up what was a flowering of post WWII Catholic letters. For a perspective on what I’ll call the American Catholic Renaissance and its decline, read this fine essay by Dana Gioia, “The Catholic Writer Today” in First Things.
The article on Powers has much to offer.
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 reason for this retrospective is a collection of family letters recently published by his daughter. But the article provides a lot of information to Powers that is hard to acquire from a simple Wikipedia entry, information that might illuminate the themes and nuances of his fiction.
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.
It goes on to say how Powers was a conscientious objector to WWII, even going to prison for it, and had what I would consider a very mid western post depression outlook, colored over with his Catholic faith. Having built up a reputation with a National Book Award he also was familiar with many of the writers of his day.
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.
But he was also at odds with many parts of the changing American subculture, which perhaps defined his work more so that where he fit in.
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.
You’ll have to read the rest of the lengthy article to get a glimpse into the personal and intellectual conflicts that shaped his life and ultimately his work.
I would like conclude with an excerpt from his “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” story. This is the story of a Father Didymus, an aging priest who turned down an opportunity to see his brother one last time, and then suffers a debilitating stroke. Here is the ending of the story where Didymus, disabled, asks a fellow Franciscan, Brother Titus, to read to him. Beside them is a canary that Titus got for Didymus to keep him company once his incapacity limited him to sitting in a chair.
“Take down a book, any book, Titus, and read. Begin anywhere.”
Roused by his voice, the canary fluttered, looked sharply about and buried its head once more in the warmth of his wing.
“’By the lions,’” Titus read, “’are understood the acrimonies and impetuosities of the irascible faculty, is as bold and daring in its acts as are the lions. By the harts and leaping does is understood the other faculty of the soul, which is the concupiscible—that is—‘”
“Skip the exegesis,” Didymus broke in weakly. “I can do without that now. Read the verse.”
Titus read: “Birds of swift wing, lions, harts, leaping does, mountains, valleys, banks, waters, breezes, heats and terrors that keep watch by night, by the pleasant lyres and by the siren’s song, I conjure you, cease your wrath and touch not the wall…’”
“Turn off the light, Titus.”
Titus went over to the switch. There was a brief period of darkness during which Didymus’s eyes became accustomed to a different shade, a glow rather, which possessed the room slowly. Then he saw the full moon had let down a ladder of light through the window. He could see the snow, strangely blue, falling outside. So sensitive was his mind and eye (because his body, now faint, no longer blurred his vision?) he could count the snowflakes, all of them separately, before they drifted, winding, below the sill.
With the same wonderful clarity, he saw what he had made of his life. He saw himself tied down, caged, stunted in his apostolate, seeking the crumbs, the little pleasure, neglecting the source, always knowing death changes nothing, only immortalizes…and still ever lukewarm. In trivial attachments, in love of things, was death, no matter the appearance of life. He had always known this truth, but now he was feeling it. Unable to move his hand, only his lips, and hardly breathing, was it too late to act?
“Open the window, Titus,” he whispered.
And suddenly he could pray. Hail Mary…Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death…finally the time to say, pray for me now—the hour of my death, amen. Lest he deceive himself at the very end that this was the answer to a lifetime of praying for a happy death, happy because painless, he tried to turn his thoughts from himself, to join them to God, thinking how at last he did—didn’t he now?—prefer God above all else. But ashamedly not sure he did, perhaps only fearing hell, with an uneasy sense of justice he put himself foremost among the wise in their own generation, the perennials seeking God when doctor, lawyer, and bank fails. If he wronged himself, he did so out of humility—a holy error. He ended, to make certain he had not fallen under the same old presumption disguised as the face of humility, by flooding his mind with maledictions. He suffered the piercing white voice of the Apocalypse to echo his soul: But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth. And St. Bernard, firey-eyed in a white habit, thundered at him from the twelfth century: “Hell is paved with the bald pates of priests!”
There was a soft flutter, the canary flew to the windowsill, paused, and tilted into the snow. Titus stepped too late to the window and stood gazing dumbly after it. He raised a trembling old hand, fingers bent in awe and sorrow, to his forehead, and turned stealthily to Didymus.
Didymus closed his eyes. He let a long moment pass before he opened them. Titus, seeing him awake, fussed with the window latch and held a hand down to feel the draught, nodding anxiously as though it were the only evil abroad in the world, all the time straining his old eyes for a glimpse of the canary somewhere in the trees.
Didymus said nothing, letting Titus keep his secret. With his whole will he tried to lose himself in the sight of God, and failed. He was not in the least transported. Even now he could find no divine sign within himself. He knew he still had to look outside, to Titus. God still chose to manifest Himself most in sanctity.
Titus, nervous under his stare, and to account for staying at the window so long, felt the draught again, frowned, and kept his eye hunting among the trees.
The thought of being the cause of such elaborate dissimulation in so simple a soul made Didymus want to smile—or cry, he did not know which…and could do neither. Titus persisted. How long would it be, Didymus wondered faintly, before Titus ungrievingly gave the canary up for lost in the snowy arms of God? The snowflakes whirled at the window, for a moment for all their bright blue beauty as though struck still by lightening, and Didymus closed his eyes, only to find them there also, but darkly falling.
The combination of pathos and comic humor makes for a very moving ending to a brilliant short story. The freed bird into the cold snow is so suggestive of the coming end. I need to find more J. F. Powers stories.