I was hunting this weekend for a line from James Farl Powers¯J.F. Powers, as he signed himself¯and got caught again in the strength of his prose. Powers is such a curious figure: the greatest of the writers in the 1950s American Catholic renaissance, and the most faded.
After his death in 1999, I noted (in a literary column I wrote in those days) that in a fifty-year career, he published only five books, one a decade, to considerable acclaim. The work often called his masterpiece, the novel Morte D’Urban , won the prestigious National Book Award in 1963. But those were the brief, glorious days of highbrow honors descending on the American Catholic literary renaissance that had been building since the 1940s¯Walker Percy had won the same award the year before for The Moviegoer ¯and Morte D’Urban was long out of print by the time of Powers’ death. So was his second novel, the well-received 1988 Wheat That Springeth Green . So were his 1947 collection The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories , his 1956 collection The Presence of Grace , and his 1975 collection Look How the Fish Live . When J.F. Powers died in 1999, there wasn’t left a single book in print by the man who was declared by the likes of Evelyn Waugh, Frank O’Connor, Allen Tate, and Robert Lowell to be the most delicate Catholic writer they knew.
The question is why these books have faded away. Oh, they ought to be in print somewhere, and the literary critics Peter Parker and Frank Kermode were blind when they left Powers entirely out of their otherwise encyclopedic 1996 Reader’s Guide to Twentieth-Century Writers . But it’s not some residual anti-Catholic bias that has caused the gradual forgetting of the man. The finest Catholic writer of the twentieth century was also, in some very important way, a failure. Who now reads J.F. Powers?
John Updike, in the anthology he edited of The Best American Short Stories of the Century , rightly included Powers’ "The Presence of Grace." Another, less-often-reprinted story by Powers, "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does," can stand beside anything by Flannery O’Connor. And for the rest, a few others still have real and important life: "Zeal," for instance, about a worldly bishop trapped into joining a vulgar priest escorting a Catholic tourist group to Rome, together with "Prince of Darkness" and "Defection of a Favorite," two of Powers’ stories about a middle-aged assistant pastor named Fr. Burner. But if we were able to figure out why a writer with Powers’ enormous talents and sensitivity could produce only such a small body of now mostly faded work, we might have some insight into the problems, and the promises, of Catholic fiction at the end of the twentieth century.
Powers led an astonishingly uneventful life. Born on July 8, 1917, in Jacksonville, Illinois, to a devout Catholic family, he graduated from a Franciscan high school, the Quincy College Academy, in 1935¯right in the middle of the Depression. Over the next few years, he managed to squeeze in a few English and philosophy courses at Wright Junior College and Northwestern University in Chicago, never getting close to a degree: "I couldn’t afford it," he later explained. A parade of small jobs followed. He worked as a salesman for Fidelity Insurance, a sales clerk at Marshall Field’s, a chauffeur for a wealthy investor touring the South, an editor for the Chicago Historical Records Survey, and a clerk at Brentano’s bookstore¯where he used the shelves to complete his education and to force his favorites on the customers.
Oddly for a man whose fiction almost entirely concerns priestly life, he claimed never to have felt any desire for the priesthood¯put off, he told an interviewer, by the practical demands of parish life he would use his work to describe: the necessity to chat up "old ladies on the sidewalk in front of church" and to solicit donations from wealthy parishioners.
But a vocation he had, of sorts, and a religious crisis sent him on a series of searches in the early 1940s. In 1943, he joined a retreat in Minnesota for clergy, the only layman in attendance. It was there he found his deep insight into the daily lives of parish priests, and there as well he confirmed the pacifism that he had begun to learn from Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers movement. He would spend the rest of World War II as a conscientious objector, working as a hospital orderly.
Success was quickly gaining on him, however. The 1940s were the first days of American Catholic literary triumph, with the rising fame of such figures as Thomas Merton, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, Caroline Gordon, and Allen Tate. In 1944, Powers’ "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does" was included in both of the two most important anthologies of the year’s best short stories. His fiction began to appear in the New Yorker and other premier venues, and in 1947, his first story collection emerged from a major publisher.
The rest of Powers’ life was spent in the quiet pursuits of a modern literary man. There were the Guggenheim and Rockefeller grants, the seasons spent at such famous artists’ retreats as Yaddo, the stints as a college writer-in-residence at St. John’s, Marquette, Michigan, and Smith, interspersed with long stays in rural Ireland. In 1975, he returned to St. John’s University in Minnesota, where he remained until his death.
Complaining about the reception of Morte D’Urban as a book "for Catholics," Powers asked, "Would you say that The Wind in the Willows is a book for animals?" But when he won the National Book Award, he did accept the mantel of "Catholic Writer," adding, "I’m a writer who got into this thing and did it a little better than anyone else had done it. This country is decidedly a specialist’s country and I think it’s happening to me. I know that sounds like I’m a gall-bladder man, but it does happen."
His specialty was scenes of clerical life, especially at mid-century, especially in the bleak, wind-swept parish houses of the Midwest. And the major reason for the fading of J.F. Powers is the decline of his topic once the reforms of Vatican II took hold¯or rather, once what was perceived in America to be the "spirit" of Vatican II had destroyed the setting of his fiction. Powers had a uniquely talented eye for the little negotiations, compromises, and squabbles of bachelors living together¯but such things cannot in themselves carry a story. What gave his fiction its force was the contrast between those little foibles of priestly life and the constantly looming reality of what a priest actually does in the sacraments.
It wasn’t simply an ironic contrast, though in his weaker stories it sometimes devolved to that. It was rather a somewhat narrow, somewhat overspecialized, but extremely efficient device for the fiction writer’s task of showing human life as the intersection of the mundane and the divine. And the catastrophic collapse of religious vocations through the 1970s¯together with the defections from the religious life and the failure of nerve with which the American clergy abandoned the clerical authority that had held together the parish system¯stripped Powers of a major part of his specialist’s vocation.
Of course, the days of Victorian confidence in the Anglican hierarchy are even further gone than Powers’ subject, yet Anthony Trollope’s accounts of infighting among the wardens and archdeacons of Barchester cathedral and George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life survive as great fiction nonetheless.
But Powers had narrowed his vision down to a point where it could not survive the passing of its moment. He had a prose that was unmatched by anyone in his time; the concluding lines of his stories are all so delicate and perfect that it sometimes seemed as though his stories were written just to provide an excuse for their closing sentences. In "Defection of a Favorite," he pulls off with perfect humor and grace the almost technically impossible feat of a story narrated by the parish cat. In "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does," he gives the most moving interior description of dying since Tolstoy. He really was the finest American Catholic writer of the twentieth century. And that century is over.
In addition to which :
It should be a lively evening at the famous Strand Bookstore. As you undoubtedly know, the Strand, located at Broadway and 12th Street, claims to be the world’s largest used book store with its eight miles of books, or is it eighty? In any case, they have these events and on Tuesday, September 12, it is Ronald Dworkin and Father Richard John Neuhaus discussing "artificial happiness." That’s the title of Dr. Dworkin’s new book, published by Carroll & Graf. Dworkin is a medical doctor and political philosopher, and in his book he provocatively takes on the politics of the medical profession, the brain/mind/body debates, the future of religion, and, most importantly, a culture in which people have been induced to believe that unhappiness is a disease. Dworkin and Neuhaus will address, inter alia, the widespread and growing use and abuse of psychotropic drugs to create a nation captive to "artificial happiness." Tuesday, September 12, from 7 to 8:30pm. Admission free.
From the beginning, First Things has been a collaborative enterprise. It is not just a magazine but—as we rather pretentiously put it—a universe of discourse. Which is another way of saying that it is a moveable feast of personal and intellectual friendships. From time to time, we’ll be posting here pictures of some of the people who sustain the First Things conversation.
Midge Dector delivers the Erasmus Lecture on “Being Jewish in Anti-Christian America.”
To access the running gallery, click here .