ONE OF THE GREATEST American writers of the 20th century is one that few Americans read at the moment, if they’ve heard of him at all. His name is J. F. Powers.
Born in 1917, James Farl Powers in mid-life won the 1963 National Book Award for his first novel, Morte d’Urban, which Gore Vidal and his fellow judges found worthier than either of that year’s other leading contenders, Pale Fire or Ship of Fools. Nabokov’s masterpiece was “over-elaborate academic funning” compared to Lolita, as Vidal saw it, while Katherine Anne Porter’s best-seller had already been quite grandly, if not excessively, celebrated. Even Porter agreed with the verdict; she had been one of Powers’ earliest champions, and sincerely expressed pleasure in print and in private that the prize had gone his way. That Powers won came as no surprise to anyone who knew his work. Right from the moment he’d begun publishing in the 1940s, he had established himself as a master of the short story. Admirers compared him to Joyce, Flaubert, and Chekhov. Saul Bellow was another ardent Powers booster, as was Flannery O’Connor.
I began reading him at age 18, over four decades ago. My uncle, Gerald Guidera, a poet and playwright who’d known Powers years before in Minnesota, had urged that I give him a try — he was helping me to wean myself from the fantasy, science fiction and cartoonish satire that had been my high school fare, and was certain that Powers would throw open a window on what a writer could do with life itself. He most certainly did that. Uncle Jerry also had a great two-word description of what Powers was like as a person: “unsettlingly alert.” One can see this in every photo published of him: the man’s eyes seem to squint even as they widen to full attention. I read Morte d’Urban the same summer I first read The Great Gatsby, and, as it’s turned out, these are the two novels I’ve re-read most often in my life — start to finish, close to a dozen times each. Both evoke live worlds in pitch-perfect prose. Both books only improve as I’ve aged (They don’t age). In particular, Powers’ dialogue and insights on the wing operate at an uncannily exact level. Take this little scene from Morte de’Urban:
“What’s the name here?” he asked, when they turned into a private road. The big iron gates were open.
“Not our benefactress?”
“What’s she like?”
[…] Father Urban saw the house, which was approached through wooded grounds […] They were admitted by a rosy-cheeked girl whom Phil introduced only as Katie. Her heavy gray sweater reminded Father Urban of the one he wore when he was at the Hill, and suggested that the house wasn’t being heated all over. They kept their coats on, and went upstairs.
In a room much larger than any bedroom at the Hill, Mrs Thwaites sat in an overstuffed wheelchair, watching television on two sets. The only light in the room came from the sets, a dead light, so that Mrs Thwaites’s face showed up like a photographic negative: a little old woman with the face of a baby bird, all eyes and beak, with a full head of bobbed white hair. One hand was wrapped in black rosary beads the size of cranberries, and the other gripped the remote control. A humidifier steamed at her feet […] The shades were drawn in all the windows, and the temperature was equatorial.
Mrs Thwaites cut the jabber that had been coming from one of the sets, but did not invite them to sit down.
The construction is as lean as anything in Elmore Leonard, the tensions as subtle — and as sharply focused on matters of class and social climbing — as any in F. Scott Fitzgerald. The only impediment to this book having a wide readership today is that its protagonist is a Roman Catholic priest. Powers wrote well about athletes, housewives, even jazz musicians — his nuanced ear for African-American speech, not to mention his unsentimental empathy for anybody suffering bigotry, are timeless virtues of his early stories — but his writing becomes unforgettable, unique and deadly funny whenever he brings the Church and its clergymen to center stage. Powers was a faithful Catholic, as Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy were, and just as tough-minded. “Second Only to Standard Oil” is a wry chapter title in Morte d’Urban, lifted from a 1950s item about the Church in Time magazine. Reconsecrated by Powers to full-strength irony, it lays bare the empire-building mindset which marked Catholicism during the Cold War and defines American spiritual life to this day.
Father Urban is handsome and telegenic. As the charismatic spokesman for a two-bit Midwestern religious order called the Clementines, he at one point considers the careers of his contemporaries Bishop Sheen, Billy Graham and Oral Roberts, and daydreams with some justice of a possible TV career of his own. Unfortunately for him, he has been cast into professional exile. As the most talented and effective priest in his immediate circle, he is the envy of his superiors and a threat to the local Archbishop — a man of rival ambition — out in the far-flung Minnesota diocese to which he has been inexplicably banished. Chicago is his rightful home, he believes, and, if he could only be brought back from the deep freeze, it is where would thrive again with a worldly vengeance. Such belief in the world and certainty about his own all-conquering potential are enormous, if subliminal, stumbling blocks for Urban, not as a man but as a soul. Events conspire to frustrate him precisely because, according to the very Gospel he preaches, earthly success is a thing nobody on earth is free to master, except for moments at a time, by grace of a gift that is ours on loan. Individual willpower may be intoxicating in its short-term satisfactions, but is ultimately doomed.
Powers suggests this, repeatedly, with comedic force. The book’s title, in the mock-heroic tradition of Joyce’s Ulysses, is a play on Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. but Father Urban is emphatically not a stand-in for King Arthur the way Leopold Bloom was for Odysseus. Instead, he’s Lancelot, the dashing Knight tempted by pleasures of the flesh, who ends by becoming a priest. This layer of classical parody is lightly sketched. The well-read Urban himself becomes conscious of the Malory comparison as his various illusory triumphs, follies, temptations and mortal injuries pile up, and his charmed life becomes if anything much humbler, and — of necessity — more heroic. Before it does, his quest to find a wealthy benefactor for his Order thrusts him into some odious company. The elderly Mrs. Thwaites and her two blasting televisions are rivaled by a sadistic sportsman with deep pockets and an entourage of toadies, as well as the flirtatious wife of a well-to-do businessman — a siren who keeps Urban on the hook by loaning him her sharp new sports car. Its engine “had a plummy sound he loved,” Powers tells us:
[…] and it certainly made a man feel good to drive it. At a stoplight, though, when a girl in a white MG paused alongside him, a girl wearing sunglasses and nothing else — so it appeared from where he was sitting — and with a crisp blue dog beside her, Father Urban experienced a heavy moment, a moment of regret and longing. […] So he put on his sunglasses. When he hit open country, he threw away his cigar and gave the little thoroughbred its head.
Urban is a priestly male in the molds of Thomas Merton and Pope John Paul II, a type now practically extinct and perhaps never plentiful: worldly; firm in their faith, free of neurosis; attracted by and attractive to women, yet vigorously adhering to their vows of celibacy, not as a suppression of inevitable sexual instincts, but in loyalty to a code of manly honor — an intensely practical strategy that keeps every relationship simple, and all people at arm’s length, the better to do one’s apostolic job. In this, Urban is something like the private eyes in classic detective fiction: “a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man,” as Raymond Chandler put it, “with rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.” As for celibacy, Chandler held his men to a similar code: “The only effective love interest is that which creates a personal hazard for the detective — but which, at the same time, you instinctively feel to be a mere episode. A really good detective never gets married.” To say Morte d’Urban — or any of Powers’ stories — would appeal only to Catholics is like saying The Long Goodbye or Farewell My Lovely would appeal only to murderers and cops.
Mrs. Thwaites’ “equatorial” bedroom is coincidentally akin to General Sternwood’s greenhouse in The Big Sleep, but the mystery Urban has been called to solve is the one we all face — that of the events leading to our own deaths, and of what we owe to those we make our lives with. Late in the book he is hauntingly confronted by Mrs. Thwaites’ daughter Sally. She is a sensuous beauty in her mid-thirties who shuns religion, has a neglectful husband, and — on the pretext that this phantom hubby will join them shortly — invites Urban to inspect a tiny, private island castle — “Belleisle” — that she maintains for herself in the middle of a lake on her mother’s estate:
“I often come here. Sometimes I sleep here.”
“Is that so odd?”
“No, I guess not,” said Father Urban, smiling. Really, it was quite comfortable in the castle, with a fire. It was just a one-room castle with an open iron stairway winding up to a trapdoor. There was a bed, or couch, woven of willow and shaped like a swan.
It is Sally who most opposes everything Urban stands for, and with the truest insight. “You’re an operator, a trained operator […] in your heart,” she scolds him, after they’ve had a few drinks, concluding: “I don’t think you have a friend in the world.” Urban, who likes Sally very much — indeed, he recognizes that, in another life, she is a woman he would gladly have married — does not resist, but grows uneasy as he realizes night has fallen and her actual husband is nowhere in evidence:
Sally closed the phonograph and came away from it saying, “Now I’m ready for a swim, if you are.”
“As a matter of fact, I’m not.”
“If you’re serious, no.”
She smiled. “It’s dark out there, if that’s what’s worrying you.”
[…] In a matter of moments, she was standing before him, before the fire, back to him, wearing nothing but her shoes. They were high-heeled shoes. Calf. Golden calf. Lovely woman. No doubt of it.
“All right,” she said, turning around, “Try and stop me.”
“You’ve got me covered,” he said, and took his eyes off her, and kept them off, commending himself. It was like tearing up telephone directories, the hardest part was getting started.
Even as Sally scales the stairs and beans him, hard, from behind, with her shoes — one spike badly aggravating a concussion he suffered a few chapters earlier — Urban keeps his eyes averted, and instead gently stands the high heels side by side on the hearth, telling himself: “Life here below, no matter how you might wish it otherwise, was shoes — not champagne, but shoes, and not dirt, but shoes, and this, roughly speaking, was the mind of the Church.” This compassionate train of thought is derailed in the next instant, when he overhears Sally’s motorboat warm up and realizes he’s been abandoned, and must swim for it.
I’m convinced it was the intimacy Powers creates between us and Urban in passages like this next one that bested Nabokov and Porter in the minds of the jury:
At the end of the stone pier, he sat down and removed his shoes and socks. No stars, only a cloudy half-assed moon, and the lake more or less invisible. It was very definitely there, though, in motion, noisy with waves, waiting for him. After tying his shoes together, and then to his belt, he slipped down into the cold, cold water, and struck out for the mainland. It was perhaps fifty yards away.
He soon discovered that the wind, like everything else that day, was against him. Somewhere between the island and the mainland, when he could see neither very well, and the waves seemed to shove him down, he sensed the beginnings of a cramp, panicked, and feeling that it was him or them, he got rid of his shoes. He did go along better after that, but when he reached the other shore — when this was no longer his only objective in life — he knew what he’d done. Even as a child, he hadn’t liked going barefooted, and what he’d felt then, the innate cruelty of sticks and stones, he felt again. This, though, was nothing now. Wet and woebegone and shivering, he sat on a fallen birch and put his socks on and hid the whiteness of his feet from himself.
“I don’t expect to write a more saleable book and certainly not a better one,” Powers wrote to Katherine Anne Porter after this novel suffered a cluster of setbacks Father Urban would have been first to appreciate. Morte d’Urban was published in September 1962, right on time for the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its publisher, Doubleday, was already slow off the mark. A screw up rendered the book nearly out of stock on publication day. Orders kept going astray nationwide, and the prospect of the world ending provided enough topical cloud cover to bury the book through Christmas. Even the National Book Award victory was eclipsed, rendered a non–event by a massive newspaper strike. This condemned any hopes for a best-seller. The coup de grâce was a last minute cancellation of a Today Show appearance when Powers arrived in New York for his trophy: “May large birds defecate on the heads of most of the reading public,” he joked to a fellow writer. Well, half-joked — for he was living in poverty with an amazingly patient wife and five growing children, and discovered he was more emotionally invested than he expected to be in the idea of commercial success. “People told me in New York,” he wrote in real pain to Porter, that “I was lucky to have done as well as I had with the book. Well, if so, I don’t know how to look the future in the face.”
Discovering Morte d’Urban nine years later in 1971, I asked my Uncle Jerry — who was still in loose touch with its author — what new things Powers might be up to, presuming in my excitement that the huge upheavals of the Church in the post Vatican II, Vietnam and hippie era must be giving him richer material than ever. In that final year of my high school and churchgoing, the local Franciscans would smile as they handed out communion and tell you, “Have a nice day.” I could just picture Powers at his desk in Minnesota, having a blast getting it all down on paper. Alas. In the near-decade since his book award, Jerry told me, Powers had published only a few short stories — a tiny fraction of his former output — most of which were chapters from two novels in progress. One of these centered on a younger priest and his pastor, coping with the cultural present, and had the working title Bill and Joe (certainly a sunnier alternative to Morte d’Urban), while the other would be a chronicle of family life. Two excerpts had appeared from the latter work: one in The New Yorker, entitled “Look How the Fish Live,” and another in American Review, called “Tinkers,” referring to the families of nomads that wander Ireland. This was a word of loaded personal significance because Powers had been repeatedly uprooting his wife and five kids since the 1950s and moving them back and forth from Minnesota to Ireland, as a means of living ultra-thriftily so he could devote himself entirely to his writing. (In all, they picked up and moved 20 times together, often halfway around the world.) “To be truthful,” my uncle told me, “I’m not sure which side of the Atlantic he’s on right now.”
As I myself was one of five children, in a family fairly crazily on the move (our personal best was three houses in one year, all in one town), the arrangements at Casa Powers didn’t sound so abnormal. Indeed, to my ears the Irish Exodus sounded like great fun compared to the quicksand corner of New Jersey around which Parents and Fate chose to hopscotch me and my sisters. I was young and foolish enough to think staying meticulous in your art was a self-evident reason to move anybody you love anywhere you need them to be. My own folks were busy chasing an elusive idea of happiness that they’d convinced themselves was house-related — a premise I found infuriating, often at the top of my voice — romantically refusing to consider in turn that my hero J.F. might be inflicting the same costly anxiety on his kids, for what amounted to the same selfish reasons. Powers was living strictly by his pen, as was his wife Betty Wahl, who also published stories in The New Yorker, and in 1969 had brought out a novel of her own, Rafferty & Company, about an American family in Ireland. Even though this pair set an example my uncle and I could well esteem as fellow writers, we were forced to ask with increasing resignation: Why, in what should be his prime, was Powers writing and publishing so little?
This question — this agony — informs the magnificent new book edited by his daughter, Katherine A. Powers: Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life. Shaped from 22 years of letters, it begins before her parents’ courtship and rounds off just after the disappointments following Morte d’Urban had shattered — for good — her Dad’s hopes of any financial breakthrough that might give them all some ease. It stands in for the novel about family life that Powers wanted to write but never could, “the black comedy of children […] great poverty, bad luck and balked creativity,” in Katherine’s words. Her father — “Jim” as he was known to family and friends — made a powerful public mark under such conditions, but everyone suffered for it. Given how blind even great talent can be, and how steep the price, one can easily understand why such sorrows prompt Katherine to conclude: “Growing up in this family is not something I would care to do again. There was so much uncertainty, so much desperation about money, and so little restraint on my parents’ part in letting their children know how precarious our existence was.” Yet what she demonstrates of her parents’ mutual tenderness and her father’s wit in page after page is a feat of the most heartfelt affirmation. “Dear Elizabeth Alice of the Sea Green Eyes,” Jim writes Betty in 1945, having proposed marriage two days after they met. “I am in love with you, as I have been with nobody else, as indeed I thought not possible for me.” On her birthday he dates the letter: “January 16, Feast of St Marcellus, Martyr, St Honoratus, Confessor, St Elizabeth Alice, Virgin Beautiful.” (One tiny nicety is that the text honors Powers’ eccentric, elegant way of leaving off the period with which the rest of us close off “Mr” “Mrs” or “St”.) Even her way of saying grace moved him: “You say it with more beauty than anyone I’ve ever seen. It is perfect when you say it, like a dog digging a hole with his muzzle.” That is no doubt the strangest compliment Betty received in her life, but it made her visible to herself — and us. How could she resist? She did not.
Jim was a strange, uniquely complicated catch: handsome and athletic, but antipathetic to normal bourgeois life: “I was beginning rather to want to be the dark horse in any enterprise, someone with no office or commitments who would do something daring or impossible to save the day.” The exceptionally lengthy, revealing early letter from which these words are drawn — the longest in the volume — is as lively and shapely as a good short story. Betty asked Jim to reveal himself to her in writing, and he complies with unguarded directness. Illinois-born, of mostly Irish forbears, with a loving mother of German descent, he speaks of how his grandmother ruined his gifted father’s chances in life — forcing the young man to turn down scholarships that might have led to a world-class career in music:
It is another curse of the Irish to throw themselves away on an aging mother or not to marry because there isn’t enough money coming in […] If [my father] sits down at the piano now (which is all out of tune), he fumbles around, and it hurts him worse than anyone. […] The American Tragedy. I think I see what happened. I am determined it shall not happen to me. Help me.
Thus he tells Betty exactly who he is, warning her of what she is in for if she chooses him. He becomes even more adamant as their wedding approaches:
I don’t intend to sell insurance or work in a bank […] I am worried about making a living, as I confessed to you again and again, 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. But I don’t think you want me to do that. If you do, it would be well to say so now. It is not something you can bring me around to in the name of “reform.”
Such candor provides, as their daughter interjects, “a glimpse of his view of family obligations that should perhaps have given her pause.” But here, given the tremendous magnetism of the temperaments involved, was a splendid case of folie à deux. Betty, a recent graduate of convent school and college with a complete novel in hand, had what Katherine describes as a “starry-eyed” nature, “romantic and worshipful” and “considered the ideal marriage to be union with the mind, body and soul of a great artist.” They were brought together by an interesting nun, Sister Mariella Gable, who’d been Betty’s teacher and was a nationally established wheel in literary circles. As the editor of an anthology that published two stories by Powers, she was well aware of his gifts and personal intensity. Betty learned through Gable that Jim was a “Detacher,” part of a devout, deeply left-wing movement in the Catholic Church of the time, and that he was personally well-acquainted with activist Dorothy Day, having contributed satirical sketches to her newspaper The Catholic Worker. Most tellingly of all, as a resolute conscientious objector, he had refused military service during World War II and served thirteen months in a Federal Penitentiary.
One of the offbeat pleasures of Suitable Accommodations is the sense it affords us of mid-20th Century American political life, particularly among Roman Catholics who shared Powers’ progressive-minded idealism. (Eugene McCarthy, a former novice monk, and a teacher and farmer when Jim first knew him, is one of Powers’ many friends and correspondents, as are Robert Lowell and Flannery O’Connor.) Given what most Americans learned at war’s end of the Nazi genocides, the position of even the most principled Pacifists is now difficult to fathom, but hindsight is 20/20, and from the perspective of an anti-Fascist, anti-bourgeois, anti-materialist Catholic in 1941, the outbreak of war was comprehended as a failure of civilization. Powers’ views matured in prison. “I’ve changed here,” he writes from jail. “More than before I realize that pacifism alone is no use,” meaning politically — yet spiritually, in the development of a healthy, skeptical conscience, he maintained: “It is the essence of Christianity.” Years later, in a journal entry, he wrestles with Gordon Zahn’s book German Catholics and Hitler’s Wars and notes the Reich culture’s delusional tendency to view its coldest killers as “a holy order of men,” mournful that his fellow Americans were succumbing to the same psychosis as part of the Cold War: “In a world of bullies, may God bless ours — is all it comes down to, I think. Fear, fear, fear.”
Sister Mariella became alarmed on Betty’s behalf shortly before the wedding, once she realized Powers meant to live entirely by his writing. Prison had hardened him in this resolve. He won Betty to the cause. “I was, of course, shocked when I heard that he had quit his job,” she wrote Mariella. Yet she understood her man’s disgust: Powers had been paroled from prison to hospital work, mainly wheeling corpses to and from the morgue; now that his debt to society was paid, he was fierce about making his time his own. By mid-1940s calculations, he needed to earn $80 a month. He’d received a small advance from Doubleday against a projected novel and two collections of short stories, and was on his way to becoming a fixture at The New Yorker. “I’ve cleared more on one story for The New Yorker (over $1,500 dollars) than on my book,” he wrote in 1950. (Multiply that by ten for buying power in 2013.) Prince of Darkness had been the second-best-selling short story collection of 1947, after Creatures of Circumstance by Somerset Maugham. At the end of the 40s, Jim was being written up in Life magazine as one of the writers of his generation to watch. In the decade that followed, during which he produced his next collection, The Presence of Grace (1956), as well as Morte d’Urban, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and Arts Residencies at the Yaddo colony — enough kudos and high-profile patronage to more than justify Betty’s hopes for him and, through her, those of her family. Her father owned a construction company and saw to it the couple never lacked a roof over their heads, impermanent as those roofs kept proving to be.
Betty was writing as well. Her short story “Martinmas” — not quoted in Suitable Accommodations, but published in The New Yorker and available online at their site, dated November 15, 1947 — evokes the absurdities of convent school life in a voice of her own, yet with humor and skill that harmonize with her husband’s. In its first scene, a priest grandly attempts to teach theology to an all-female class by making what for them are useless analogies to an automobile engine:
“The battery we will imagine as Sanctifying Grace.” Father Grabowski drew a square for the battery and scrawled “S.G.” inside it. “Now, can anyone tell me why?”
In the class of fifteen and sixteen year old girls, no one could.
“Because it’s the source of all energy,” he said. “That’s important, girls.”
Abbie wrote in her notebook, “sanc. gr. = src of enrg.”
“And now we’ll fill the gas tank with Faith.” Father Grabowski drew an oval outline to represent a gas tank and wrote “Fth” inside it. “Then we fill the crankshaft with the oil of — “ He looked around the room for an answer while he wrote “Hp.” “Hope,” he said. “And in the radiator we put the water of — “
Abbie caught Eileen’s attention and then raised her hand: “Water of Baptism, Father?”
Father Grabowski snorted. “Since when is it Faith, Hope and Baptism?” he asked, and then wrote: “Charity.”
Abbie turned her notebook sidewise and wrote, “How’m I doing?”
Eileen read it, pulled the paper over to her chair, and wrote “Fine. I wish I’d brought my overalls.”
Betty’s adroit ear and command of this material are such a pleasure that it’s easy to see how Powers became, in his daughter’s phrase, “prepared to be struck by lightning” when he read her novel en route to meeting her for the first time. Her worldview complements his, yet is filled with a glowing warmth and gentleness which he eschewed in his own work. See, by contrast, this moment from Prince of Darkness, in which the bitter, overweight Father Burner, pained “to brood upon his failure as a priest,” takes it out in the confessional on a woman in need whom he judges (before she even speaks) to be drunk, nubile, and an adulterer:
“How long since your last confession?”
“I don’t know…”
“Have you been away from the Church?”
“Are you married?”
“To a Catholic?”
“No — nothing.”
“Were you married by a priest?”
“How long ago was that?”
“Practice birth control?”
“Don’t you know it’s a crime against nature and the church forbids it?”
“Don’t you know that France fell because of birth control?”
“Well it did. …Is that what you came to confess?”
Matters swan dive to hell from there. An angry, acerbic omniscience is the ingredient propelling Powers’ gift to the level of genius. Betty saw that; honored it, served it. He in turn grasped from the start how heroic her support would be, teasing as he worried: “You did look pale when you left me, or I left you last night. You must be healthy if you are going to carry your cross, which is me, successfully.”
Perhaps this was Betty’s willful manifestation of her faith in Intelligent Design, perhaps it was God’s Grace coming in the door disguised as a debonair coincidence, but “Martinmas” — set on St. Martin’s Feast, November 11th — happened to be on newsstands that week, in time to greet the birth — on the 11th no less — of their first daughter (and future editor) Katherine Anne, so named for Porter. (Her own literary voice is a victorious meld of her mother’s large-heartedness and her father’s hard-eyed vigilance.) Four siblings followed at two year intervals: Mary Farl in 1949, who, prior to her early death, became a prominent artist in Dublin; James Ansbury in 1953, nicknamed “Boz,” now a painter; Hugh Wahl in 1955, a future photographer; and lastly, Jane Elizabeth in 1958, born in Ireland and now based there as a columnist, photographer, and author of the book The Living Garden. (“I spent my teens and twenties looking for the meaning of life,” it begins. “And then, in my thirties, I found the answer. It was in the compost heap.”)
Jim was dizzy with these arrivals, nervously joking by the fifth: “No, Betty hasn’t had the baby yet. No, not yet. Wait a minute, I’ll look again. No, not yet.” Betty, more searchingly, wrote in her journal, two days after Jane’s birth: “Five, five, five. How did it all come about? I keep repeating Fr Egan — they are, in the end, the only thing that will have mattered. I believe it; I feel it. And yet they defy peace and order and what of art — of Jim’s, if not mine? Are we to make him into just another man who will die, his body rot, his possessions be dispersed, and his immortality all in heaven? God does intend there to be man-made beauty on earth. We are to make order of it all. Order and art.”
Katherine nimbly combines these voices, using not just Jim’s letters and journals but her mother’s, adding her own to the chorus and — in one moment — her baby sister’s. “There are hints of JFP’s truculence in the early letters,” Jane laments of her Dad’s idealism, which turns “contrary and constricted” as the burdens of fatherhood corrode his patience: “they pierce through the beautiful fabric of his prose like little daggers. Also, he was so hopelessly impractical: How could it have ever turned out well?” Yet the sweetness never flags, even a decade into their marriage: “I’ve been thinking a lot about you; often, in detail,” Jim writes Betty while traveling a week or two away from her. “It’s a sad state of affairs when a man’s most carnal thoughts are all about his wife. See that you are worthy of them.” That mock-severity only turns serious (and these are the little daggers Jane mentions) when he discusses the rearing of their children:
I was naturally sorry to hear of KA’s falling in with the larger boys [he writes Betty while on a lecture tour, when Katherine is six] and trust you’ll not let it happen again; not that it was your fault. I don’t see why she has to play with boys anyway. I suspect it’s those kids who live in the Atwood house, on the alley, where the yard looks like a country fair all the time. You are right about letting the girls get some experience of other children. But I wouldn’t feel that we’re monsters, in the way we’ve brought them up so far. [His Detacher-like philosophy of fatherhood forbade TV and favored a heavily restricted social life outside of school.] In this matter, most parents are wrong, and the situation they create is wrong. There will come a day when the girls will see the point in our prohibitions — which don’t strike me as severe at all, not unless I consider them from a point of view which, in fact, I abhor, popular now and here though it is.
To Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, expecting their first child, he writes:
When Betty read of your coming blessed event, she said, “Poor Lowell.” Which is no reflection on Elizabeth, who must bear it, and, doubtless, take care of it single-handed. I guess we think of our contemporaries — those who are writers — who are childless as gods, sporting about the world and going out for dinner with no thoughts of babysitters. We go nowhere. Of course, here in St Cloud there isn’t much temptation to go out.
Betty’s suffering readiness to give birth, whatever the sacrifice, illuminates a tenet of Roman Catholic belief few non-believers or even most other Christians readily understand. “I wouldn’t give a nickel for another,” as my grandfather told my mother, while he cradled his eighth child — my Uncle Jerry — in the depths of the Great Depression, “But I wouldn’t take a million dollars for the ones I’ve got.” Decades later, amid Space Age plenty, my mother was herself pregnant eight times — five of us made it — and she suffered enough that by 1966 my father was hoarding condoms in a drawer under his World War II medals, and to hell with whatever the Pope might say. For a Catholic of Betty’s pure belief, every child’s conception is embraced in the act of living as a matter of conscience. The Latin words fetus (“offspring”) and fides (“faith”) are near twins, after all, suggesting that an unborn child embodies, at its root, faith itself — literally, faith in the life that is to come. Faith can’t be legislated. It can’t even be explained to those who don’t share it, which is why public battles about abortion laws — which focus on whether the fetus is a legal person, are so costly, fruitless and beside the point. It’s also why the public image of Catholics as prolific breeders has for so long been a worldly punch line.
A tragic history shadows such fidelity; self-sacrifice can take a lethal toll on the body. Cancer killed Betty in the 1980s, after her children were grown — a fate she shares with my mother; no offspring can help but perceive a martyr’s ordeals under all that unselfish life-giving — and for the Powers clan in the 1950s, such an end was foreshadowed by the death of Jim’s friend, sculptor Don Humphrey, also of cancer. “I am struck by the wastefulness of nature,” Betty writes in her journal: “can understand creatures laying millions of eggs so that most can be lost, but an artist like Don at the beginning of his career doesn’t seem expendable.” Humphrey (the bold, supple line of whose work is evident even in snapshots) had been a Catholic Worker and lived in poverty, fathering a number of children before illness overtook him. Betty writes: “I felt of him much as I feel of Jim, destined by providence to fulfill [the] role of artist, Don as accessory to priesthood, Jim as divinely inspired gadfly… [His death] shakes my confidence.”
In this regard, another close friend of Jim’s, Father George Garrelts, presented a problematic figure in Betty’s life. Katherine tellingly reprints only one letter to him, the one announcing her own birth. Garrelts and Powers had been pals since high school. It was he who’d involved Jim in the Detacher movement, and directly insulted Betty by refusing at first to perform their wedding ceremony. (He eventually relented.) There was a moment when she feared he would even come along on the honeymoon — a notion Jim ridicules in his only harsh letter to her. (“I am damned sure he would not care to spend even a little time with us ever if he knew about this.”) From this distance, one is inclined to take her side. One also feels for her at a later, cringeworthy moment in the 1950s when this “gargantuan personality” (in Katherine’s words) accompanies the couple on a jaunt to Scotland and elbows Betty aside to lead Jim on an all-boys pub crawl using her money. Father Garrelts also liked to involve himself in the doings of the tragic Humphreys. In an awful irony, Don’s cancer was triggered by the metal compounds he’d inhaled while sculpting scores of chalices for priests — a cautionary circumstance not lost on Betty.
Jim defended Garrelts throughout their lives together, but his deeper reverence for Betty is reflected in a story he wrote early in their marriage, “The Valiant Woman,” in which a priest finds himself henpecked by a nosy housekeeper who drives away all his old friends from school. He itches to fire her, and certainly has that power, yet realizes:
She was a saver — saved money, saved electricity, saved string, bags, sugar, saved — him. That’s what she said she did, and she was right in a way. In a way, she was usually right.
Father Harvey F.X. Egan, whose counsel Betty valued and whose encouragements about children she embraced, was by contrast Jim’s most trusted friend and confidante, and letters written to him form the backbone of Suitable Accommodations, much as those to Betty form its beating heart. Smart and sardonic, Egan — who was part of the Detacher movement but, like Jim, too much of a contrarian and a non-conformist to be as pious or pie-eyed as their comrades — was a source of strength through Jim’s prison term. He was also a man of sufficient personal fortune to be a steady benefactor, later, when the Guggenheims didn’t renew, “bailing him out,” writes Katherine, “with loans and gifts over the decades.” She notes that although the sheer volume of these letters (especially to Egan) constitute “a body of writing whose size and extent go some way toward explaining the small number of Jim’s published books,” they are also his “assertions of comic might against the absurdity, as he saw it, of his existence.”
That Jim and Betty’s love proved lifelong comes as no surprise, however hard that life became. Powers was simply, acutely ill-fitted to nearly every environment. He was afflicted with a need not just for solitude but the right solitude, what Herman Melville called “the grass growing mood” necessary for his best fiction. That singular, richly layered irony at work in his prose was a distant star signal toward which he struggled through a world of distractions to stay attuned. He did, once, find rare bliss in a suite of offices he rented in downtown St. Cloud — he wrote most of Morte d’Urban there. He was so productive that he later counted it a stroke of great fortune when he and the family straggled back to Minnesota from Dublin, after just less than a year, and he was able to secure the place again, to finish the book. He’d been blocked during his time away, frittering his days at the race track or shopping for antiques, procrastinations of which he is painfully conscious in his letters, and struggles against. “I’m not trying to exonerate myself,” he wrote Egan. “The truth is I’m lazy, and after that, a family man […] and finally I don’t care to get a book out just to get a book out; I’d rather make each one count — and in order to do that, the way I nuts around, it takes time.” He well understood his own weaknesses. He owns them again and again — call this his saving grace — but, as his future editor learned firsthand, and found anew when amassing and assessing these letters, self-knowledge alone was no cure for the ongoing problem. Betty had a healthier work ethic, aligned with necessity. “She wrote almost every day on a strict schedule,” Katherine tells us, “hoping to bring in some money — which she did, though nothing like the situation required. […] Aside from that, she cooked every meal from scratch and sewed most of our clothes; she went to her parents for aid; she scrimped, rationed and cobbled together the wherewithal for our survival.” Saved scraps, saved steps, saved — Jim.
Katherine draws down the curtain at the end of 1963. “There are enough letters, further removals, and more ocean crossings en famille to supply at least another volume, but the novel Jim might have written concludes here.” Yet the voices at the margins — her own, her sister Jane’s, and above all Betty’s — are so lively they leave you feeling that a second book emphasizing their viewpoints, with J.F. hectoring from the sidelines like Hamlet’s old man, would be not only possible but delightful. As for their father’s silence beyond this point: “The presence all around him of burgeoning consciousnesses, of egos to rival his own, and, most harrowing, of his two older daughters’ growing fascination with the opposite sex was too much for this author to control and defuse through comedy.” Add to that the pop culture of the 1960s, which “he viewed with appalled incredulity.” One would think a conscientious objector who loved jazz and daydreamt of establishing himself on a farm with like-minded communards sharing “about six or seven cottages,” a great roaring fireplace and “a projection room for movies” would fit right into the idealist’s paradise of the 1960s. That Powers could find no home in such a welcoming decade is multiply ironic, as befits a master of irony.
All the same, in the lottery of literary Dads there are worse tickets. At least Powers wasn’t checking into Bellevue beside Richard Yates, having blackout sex with strangers like John Cheever, or holing up in the woods with J.D. Salinger, drinking his own urine and seducing the likes of Joyce Maynard via fan-mail. The beauty of Suitable Accommodations is that its appeal is never gossipy, but human. Powers & Company made long lives together in fidelity to a great, original love. This love generated sorrow and hardship as well as joy, but that’s the story of every family. That Mom and Dad wrote means their day-to-day lives got on paper. That Dad also happened to be a genius means they got jotted with a passion and precision that blazes to life in all its sad and funny particulars, fresh as wet grass half a century later, and more.
“See me,” Joe said, in his pajamas and slippers now, coming into the living room to say good night to the party people again. “Oh, look who’s here!” they said, glad to see him again. But Ivy came in from the kitchen and got him. “Good night,” he said. “Good night, Good night,” they said, sad to see him go. In the kitchen Ivy said, “Roscoe,” but Roscoe was just a cat, “whut I tell this boy?”
Wheat That Springeth Green, the novel which Powers published in 1988 after 25 years of silence, opens inside the head of a small boy in the 1920s and blooms beautifully, at a rapid pace. We follow Joe as he becomes a wealthy adolescent who dreams idly of the priesthood but detours, a little less idly, through daydreams of sexy women (“Randy cupped one of Diane’s creamy, cherry-tipped orbs,” he reads in a cheap 30s magazine) only to dip into his inheritance to bring those fantasies to life with Frances and Dora, a pair of highly sexed, money-minded neighbors a year or two older than himself. Like any detective hero or movie tough guy of the day, Joe’s mental watchword as he flirts is “Blasé.” (He’s 15 years old.) His first sexual experience thus becomes a well-predicted thrill, comically polluted by the pulp language with which he has worn such prejudicial grooves in his mind’s eye: “He — it was strange — enjoyed his embarrassment and reached around to cup one of her creamy, cherry-tipped orbs.” He is even unfazed — blasé — when the girls present an invoice:
“My pleasure, and I expect to pay for it. I enjoy doing business with you both,” said the tipsy, vicious youth with the wisdom of Solomon, improving on it by copping a feel.
After an educational dose of the clap and its cure, Joe knuckles down and studies for the priesthood. For a brief — more deeply instructive — interlude of counter-exploration, he even tries wearing a hair shirt. Such excess proves less debauched than his earlier exploit, but is another dead end. He matures; embraces his vow of celibacy with the rock-steadiness Jim did his vows to Betty; and the light epic of his life leaps forcefully from the 40s into the turbulent, touchy-feely era of Hippies, folk-singing priests, urban violence and Vietnam.
This is the novel Powers originally conceived as Bill and Joe, and later retitled The Sack Race — an abiding image in his mind that encompassed not just religious life, but married life and the making of art. Yet its final, more resounding title came to him from a carol that consoled him during the long, terrible stretch that he cared for Betty in her last illness:
Now the green blade riseth
From the buried grain
Wheat that in dark earth
Many days has lain;
Love lives again, that
With the dead has been;
Love is come again like
Wheat that springeth green.
The book’s very existence is an expression of such renewal. Betty lived to read it, but died weeks before it was published; its culminating dedication is to her, “for being.” Of his long silence, Powers made no excuses: “Ridiculous,” he told Time, reiterating his mantra: “I’m just lazy.” Acedia — that anxious idleness St. Thomas Aquinas defines as an occupational hazard of monks, nuns, or anybody who too thoroughly renounces this world to pursue an abstract idea of perfection in his or her head — might be a more accurate term, but Powers admirably, tough-mindedly refused to romanticize his demon.
He’d found a sure, if slow, footing with the novel after he and the family (minus the two elder girls) moved back to Minnesota for keeps in 1975. He taught writing at St. John’s University, and — as fondly recalled by one former pupil, John Rosengren — won a reputation among students for being merciless in his criticisms, etched in the margins of their stories: “I’m sick of this word.” “This is a good example of a bad sentence. Study it.” His son Boz later told Rosengren that, after Betty’s death, Jim came to resemble the sour hero played by Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino. Although he went to Mass every day and stopped by Betty’s grave nearly as often to prune away weeds, his attitude toward the Church became one of astounded alienation. He kept to himself in the choir loft, except at Communion. Two reasons: “From there I can’t hear what’s being said,” but also, more fiercely, he loathed the hugs and hand clasps of Peace that had become a friendly — for him, too friendly — liturgical feature of the modern era. Asked once by Boz what prison had been like, he “snapped angrily,” writes Rosengren, “and would not talk about it.” After he died on June 12, 1999 — swooning as he folded shirts, having just returned from his wife’s grave — another friend, Jon Hassler, summed him up as “a saint with a bad temper.”
If Powers hated the Sign of Peace, one can only imagine what he would have made of the worldwide sex abuse scandals involving priests that flared into the headlines just two years after his death. These have become — tragically; deservedly, given the long histories of pompous denial — so much the image of Catholicism outside the Church in the present century that, for the time being, it has thoroughly tarnished the image of the priesthood. The damage all around will need generations to undo. Yet Powers was always tuned in to the destructive force that is the potential of any priest: take Father Burner, viciously blasting that woman in the confessional, earlier; this is why the Catholic press so often attacked Powers while he was being honored elsewhere. He understood the abuse of authority at its core. He further understood that every possible evil rises out of that first abuse. However repressed or repressive he might have been as a father, he was free of sexual neurosis to a degree uncommon for a Catholic male of his day, and the priests he created in his fiction are similarly comfortable inside the armor of their own skins. I’ve emphasized the sexual passages in his work here precisely to underscore this healthy aspect of his vision. If the Church is morally underwater with the mass public at the moment, Powers’ truthful, unsparing, unsentimental creations are a lifeline of purest oxygen. They are also images of humanity made to last, Church or no Church, ripe for our discovery.
For me, for as long as he was alive, there was no writer to equal him. His ability to create protagonists who exist in their own right — free of being fantasy projections (like Bellow’s Henderson or Salinger’s Holden) or alter egos (like Updike’s Rabbit, or Roth’s Zuckerman), set Powers well above my every other favorite. In his ability to create life on the page, Powers surpasses them all, and stands high within the firmament of any giants we can name. In 1990 I wrote to tell him as much. “You’re America’s greatest living novelist,” I opened, and pursued the point for several closely argued pages. “You may be right,” he replied: “It is fatal for me to say so — I lose by it, I know — but what if it’s true, as I sometimes think it may be? Be mealy-mouthed, in any case, to be on the safe side? …So thanks. Now I’ll go back to my cage and be myself again.”
Shortly after Powers’ death, a wide array of admiring voices chimed in tribute, but even the most fervent of these bowed their heads in defeat before the specter of enormous neglect which still clings to him. “His style is superb and his characterization sublime,” said novelist Mary Gordon, “but it’s sad because I don’t think he’ll be remembered.” Joseph Bottum of The Weekly Standard wrote in 2006: “The finest Catholic writer of the twentieth century was also, in some very important way, a failure. Who now reads J.F. Powers?”
A fair question, but not something we can hold against Powers himself. Who now is being read, widely, with any steady justice? In a brave new cultural world dominated by YouTube, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad, even the most renowned and anointed writers you or I could name and make the greatest claims for are being comparatively neglected, or obscured by gossip. Once, while stalled in a checkout line, I overheard a teenager tell her classmate: “Hemingway, who wrote that thing about the fish? He was this total alcoholic who shot himself.” If that’s being “remembered,” then perhaps oblivion is to be enjoyed in the afterlife, like a fine cigar.
The greatness of J. F. Powers was that he was in on the joke of this. Late in Wheat That Springeth Green, Joe offers a theological rumination that could apply to his creator’s view of literature, as much as life itself:
Religion was a weak force today, owing to a decline in human intelligence. It was now easy to see how the Church, though she’d endure to the end, as promised by Our Lord, would become a mere remnant of herself. In the meantime, though, a priest had to get on with his job, such as it was. As for feeling thwarted and useless, he knew that feeling, but he also knew what it meant. It meant that he was in touch with reality, and that was something these days.
Concluding that such a writer is a “failure” is a bit like calling Vermeer a failed painter. The analogy may be prophetic — it took centuries for Vermeer to be appreciated. In his own time he was taken for granted, considered a composer of simple domestic scenes. He endured the same condescension — “Fine” and “Delicate” — accorded Powers, who was infinitely so much more than a mere “Catholic” writer. Writing that is as much alive as his stays alive, even if it’s under a culture-wide sheet of amnesiac ice.
J. F. Powers is one of the greatest writers America has produced — period. Few writers this side of Tolstoy have his unfailing sense of proportion about the material world in relation to the eternal: “You, God-like, make a character who lives, who didn’t exist before you made him out of the slime of your dictionary.” He said this in a rare moment of pride. As with so many things, he was accurate about that, too.