J.F. Powers: Catholic literature’s forgotten gem

Over the last Christmas break I had lunch with my old high school English teacher, Mr. Studer.  (Mr. Studer has a first name, but it still feels impious to use it.)  More than anyone else, Mr. Studer is responsible for getting me interested in writing.

At the end of our lunch, Mr. Studer gave me a small stack of books by J.F. Powers, a collection of short stories and two novels.  The pages of the books were brown with time, and one, Morte D’Urban, was held together with a rubber band.

I had read an odd J.F. Powers short story here or there before, and my last pre-Jesuit job was at St. John’s University in Minnesota, where Powers spent most of his career.  Powers wrote only two novels, Morte D’Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green, in addition to several collections of short stories—an understated literary output that in some ways seems appropriate.

Powers is a master craftsman; in terms of tightly constructed prose—taut, subtle, perfectly pitched—he surpasses even Flannery O’Connor, though his subtlety and understatement mean that his work never packs quite the same explosive punch as O’Connor’s.  Powers’ subject matter is the Catholic Church of the Midwest in the middle of the twentieth century, and his mastery of his material is flawless.  He seems especially fascinated by priests—and by all the petty ambitions, joys, politics, and frustrations that occur within the walls of a rectory.

The picture of Catholic life that Powers paints is not in any way idealized, but he is not out to pillory either.  He is fascinated by the subtlest of human flaws, by the sins of saints.  Happily for us, the foibles Powers’ work reveals become, in his hands, hilarious.  It’s hard to convey just how amusing Powers can be in an excerpt, but the following poem from one of his stories gives you some idea.  The drama of the story (“The Poor Thing”) is a conflict between a passive-aggressive old biddy and her retired caretaker; as the two women prepare for the visit of the parish priest, Dolly, the invalid, explains her plan to treat him to an extended reading of her poetry.

Dolly gave Teresa a copy of every [poem] she wrote, and on some days she wrote many.  Teresa kept only one, because it was a little like Trees.

A sight more lovely and sweet

Nowhere on earth have I seen

Than the little bundles of meat

In mothers’ arms I mean.

Perhaps the most deliberately awful poem I’ve ever read.

In addition to the subtle tyrannies of church ladies, Powers possesses an almost preternatural eye for clerical ambition.  Not the grandiose ambitions of the Borgias, but the petty desires of curates desperate to land a plum pastorate.  Joseph Bottum identifies what makes Powers’ stories both so funny and, at times, so touching:  “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.”

Bottum laments Powers’ fall into obscurity (at the time of his death none of his books were still in print) and attributes it to his subject matter; when the sort of Catholic life Powers understood so well disappeared after Vatican II, the power of his fiction faded just as quickly.  In some ways his fiction is like a species so perfectly adapted to its environment that it cannot survive even a slight shift in temperature or conditions.  Wheat That Springeth Green chronicles the life of a priest, Joe Hackett, born, ordained, and conditioned before the Council who works on into the 1970s, but in some ways the changing historical background distracts from Hackett’s character.  Morte D’Urban covers less ground chronologically, but its main character, Fr. Urban, a member of the fictional Order of St. Clement (the Clementines), seems somehow more engrossing because the focus of the novel is on his character rather than the shifting world around him.

In the case of both of his priestly protagonists, however, Powers’ subtlety works in two directions.  We see, first, just how worldly and human his priests are.  The conundrums into and out of which Fr. Hackett works himself to justify the purchase of new bedroom furniture go on for several chapters, and there’s no escaping the fact that Fr. Urban is as much an entrepreneur and operator as he is a religious.  He is a conscientious priest, who prays his Office and cares about others, but he is the Clementines’ top fundraiser, a polished and successful preacher—and he knows it.  Perhaps he reminds himself of his talents a little more than is healthy.  He’s no corrupt clergyman, but he is unmistakably human.

The real genius of Powers in both books, though, is that he shows, in addition to the subtle sins of saints, the equally subtle saintliness latent in flawed humanity.  In the end, Fr. Urban is forced to choose between the friendship of his biggest donor and turning a blind eye to the man’s cruelty; he chooses what is right, even if he continues to agonize over the decision afterwards.  By the novel’s end, he is a man diminished, elected his order’s provincial ironically just as he has lost the donor who has bankrolled his greatest successes and as his health has begun to diminish thanks to a golf injury (yes, a golf injury).  His provincialate is a disappointment, but the Christian reader will understand that Fr. Urban has finally joined Christ on Calvary.

His head was worse… His severest attacks now came in pairs, the first one lasting about a minute, with an interval of perhaps forty seconds between them… When somebody was in the office, and he felt the first section coming down the tracks, he swiveled around in his chair, saying, “I’ll be with you in a minute, Father,” and opened his breviary, and closed his eyes, and waited until both sections had come and gone.  Thus he tried to disguise his condition from others, and thus, without wishing to, he gained a reputation for piety he hadn’t had before, which, however, was not entirely unwarranted now.

A conversion is summed up in the phrase “not entirely unwarranted now”—like grace itself so subtle we might easily miss it.

Just as much is said in the final words of Wheat That Springeth Green.  We realize that the middle-aged Fr. Joe Hackett, comfortable, settled, successful at his suburban parish has requested transfer to the Archdiocese’s poorest posting, and we see him just as he’s departing.  A priest friend reminds him of the hard-gotten bedroom set he is leaving behind.

Sure you don’t want that chair?”  Joe shook his head and kept going, calling back, “Yes,” and when Dave called after him, “Where is it you’re stationed now—Holy… Faith?” Joe shook his head and kept going, calling back, “Cross.”

Another conversion barely perceptible for its subtlety, leading where every conversion must, to the Cross.

AL, SJ

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4 Responses to J.F. Powers: Catholic literature’s forgotten gem

  1. Qualis Rex says:

    Salve, Anton, Thanks for these recommendations – they are definitely worth exploring. And although I’ve been oft-labeled a “rad-trad”, I am not so naive or blind to adopt an “everything was better back then” mentality, especially when it comes to the details, politics and pettiness of a specific age that Powers’ writtings allude to. And were he alive today, I’m quite sure he’d get a real kick out of updating his works to show the ironies and results of 40-odd years of a pendulum in full left-swing. While I don’t think the audience for his book would be nearly as wide (let’s face it, it’s hard enough to get people into church, let alone read about it), he might find considerable allies and following.

    Once again, thanks for this!

  2. Fascinating. This makes two more books that I would really like to read but may never find the time. I’m also curious: are you referring to St. John’s in Collegeville?

  3. gopaleen says:

    I recently found the short stories of J.F. Powers in our local public library. I’d never heard of him before, but I was absolutely bowled over by the quality of his writing. The story ‘Lions, Harts, Leaping Does’ was one of the most moving things I’ve ever read. I urgently tracked down his novels: ‘Morte d’Urban’ did not disappoint….funny and wise, deep and subtle. Now I’ve only got ‘Wheat That Springeth Green’ left, and after that there is no more of his work to read. I’m rationing myself, trying to put off the end. I’m so glad that I stumbled across this author, and was very pleased to find your article online. Well done for carrying on Mr. Studer’s good work spreading the news.

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