With the death of J.F. Powers in the summer of 1999, at age 81, an especially rich period in the Catholic presence in American literature came to a close. Together with Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, Powers was one of the country’s critically-acclaimed fiction writers in the latter half of the 20th century.
Other Catholic writers had high standing in these years – Edwin O’Connor, who was a 1939 graduate of Notre Dame, and Paul Horgan, for example, both Pulitzer Prize winners. And there was the uncertain presence of Jack Kerouac, who, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and John O’Hara before him, possessed at least passing identification with the church. But Powers, Percy and O’Connor were in a sphere of their own. Throughout their careers, they were avowedly Catholic writers with a place on the far rung of literary merit, at home in the company of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, John Updike and Eudora Welty.
“Philosophically,” Powers said of himself, “I’m a Catholic writer.” Although her fictional characters are rarely Catholic, Flannery O’Connor claimed a total link between her faith and her work. “I write the way I do,” she said, “because and only because I am a Catholic. I feel that if I were not a Catholic I would have no reason to write, no reason to see, no reason to feel horrified or even to enjoy anything.”
Percy’s characters are typically Catholic only in a loose sense (bad, lapsed, embittered), yet he held that his faith was central to his own work and of “particularly felicitous use” to all writers. “Indeed, if one had to design a religion for novelists, I can think of no better. What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly, on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments . . . which confer the highest significance upon the ordinary things of this world, bread, wine, water, touch, breath, words, talking, listening – and what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in a real world of real things, a world that is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding.”
Percy won the National Book Award for fiction in 1962 for the novel The Moviegoer, the year before Powers won for his novel Morte D’Urban. O’Connor made it a sweep of the NBA for fiction with the posthumous publication of her Complete Stories in 1971. Coveted writing grants came to the three: Ford and Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships (though O’Connor was once turned down for a Guggenheim despite having Robert Lowell, Philip Rahv and Robert Penn Warren as sponsors). Powers and O’Connor were residents at the arts colony at Yaddo while Percy delivered one of the prestigious Jefferson Lectures in Washington, D.C.
This said about honors and prestige, it remains that at the time of his death Powers’ literary stock had dipped sharply from its peak period in the 1950s and ‘60s, leaving him the least known and, presumably, least read of the three. His five books were all out of print. His last work, the 1988 novel Wheat That Springeth Green, was nominated for a National Book Award but otherwise failed to cause much of a stir. A final and particularly painful mark of Powers’ decline was that, during the 1970s and ’80s, he was often confused with John R. Powers, the author of such popular concoctions as The Last Catholic in America and Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?
But if Powers lacked the continuing attention given to Percy and O’Connor, he was hardly forgotten. The critic Denis Donoghue remarked about his stories and novels that “news of their quality is passed from one adept to another, like word of an idyllic village in an unfashionable part of France, not to be disclosed to the ordinary camera-flashing tourist.” For writers, Powers remained that coveted thing, a writers’ writer, admired for his polished technical skill.
Now, however, the news about Powers is in position for larger circulation. In a series of reprinted classic books, The New York Review of Bookshas recently returned Powers’ two novels and all his stories (in a single volume called The Stories of J.F. Powers) to print in modestly priced paperback editions. The reprinting underscores Powers’ stature in American writing, as do introductions to the volumes by critics of the caliber of Donoghue and Elizabeth Hardwick. More important, the reissue of the work allows readers to discover, or rediscover, a deft portrayal of Catholic life that is at once comic, ironic, affectionate and deeply serious.
Born in Jacksonville, Illinois, James Farl Powers finished high school in Quincy, worked at various jobs in Chicago, and took night courses at Northwestern. Influenced by the Catholic Worker movement, he was a conscientious objector during World War II. In the 1950s he took his wife and five children to Ireland (the subject of a rare autobiographical story, “Tinkers”), thereafter dividing his time for some years between Ireland and the Midwest. Eventually he settled permanently in Minnesota and taught creative writing at Saint John’s University.
Is output as a writer was meager: the two novels and three collections of stories – Prince of Darkness, The Presence of Grace, Look How the Fish Live – in a writing career that began with his first book in 1947. As a writer Powers was notoriously slow and exacting. The novelist Jon Hassler, a teaching colleague at Saint John’s, recalled Powers telling him that his novel-in-progress was overdue at the publisher. “How late is it?” Hassler asked. “Eighteen years,” Powers said.
O’Connor and Percy produced small bodies of work as well: two novels and two volumes of stories by O’Connor, who died in 1964 at age 39; six novels by Percy before his death in 1990. In Powers’ case, the work was not only limited in quantity but sharply confined in its range fictional material. “Few story writers of high merit,” John Updike said of him, “have staked so narrow a territory.”
For good reason, writers squirm at adjectives that pigeonhole their work, thereby limiting its appeal, with those indicating regional or religious identification as especially trying. O’Connor and Percy were unusual, relishing in public comment their Southern and Catholic roots, limiting or not. (Percy called one of his articles “How to Be an American Novelist in Spite of Being Southern and Catholic.”) For Powers, regional and religious labels could hardly be avoided since his fictional world was largely devoted to parish priests in the rural and small-town Midwest. As literary labels go, Catholic and Midwestern can cause many a literary career to founder.
Those using Powers’ work in classrooms in recent years recognize another shoal. “I had written an obituary of the Roman Catholic Church in England as it had existed for many centuries,” Evelyn Waugh said of his World War II trilogy Sword of Honor. “All the rites and most of the opinions here described are already obsolete.” He added: “It never occurred to me . . . that the church was susceptible to change. I was wrong and I have seen a superficial revolution in what then seemed permanent.” Something of the same tolling of the funeral bell holds true for Powers’ work, depicting as it does a Catholic milieu that can seem bafflingly archaic to younger readers.
In Wheat That Springeth Green, Powers refashioned his clergy along more or less recent lines, with – judging by reader reactions – modest success. A major arrow had been removed from his quiver. He wrote about priests, he once explained, because “they officially are committed to both worlds in the way most people are not. This makes for stronger beer.” The result of living, as he also put it, “with one foot in each world” is that ordinary acts – priests playing expert golf, driving a new Mercedes, buying life insurance, losing at honeymoon bridge – are tinged with gleeful irony. In the new church, where would the irony be?
Powers surely was aware of all such limits on his work. But he knew as well – or came by trial and error to learn – that writers have fewer choices than it might seem with subject matter. “A writer writes,” Flannery O’Connor remarked, thinking specifically about Powers, "about what he is able to make believable.
“The Catholics that Mr. Powers writes about,” she went on to say, “are seen by him with terrible accuracy. They are vulgar, ignorant, greedy and fearfully drab, and all these qualities have an unmistakable Catholic social flavor. Mr. Powers doesn’t write about such Catholics because he wants to embarrass the church; he writes about them because, by the grace of God, he can’t write about any other kind.”
Certainly O’Connor was right about the Catholic social flavor given off by Powers’ fiction (at least for Catholics of some years) , and clearly he had no wish to embarrass the church But his world of rectories and chancery offices, vulgar and greedy as it may be, is hardly drab in a literary sense. It leaps from the page: vivid, exact, colored with deadpan humor and amused irony.
In the story “Keystone,” priests debate whether “godlessness” should be capitalized or worry over the “clear and present danger in the diocese” of a dance for ninth-graders at the Eagles’ Hall. In “Bill,” a pastor tries in vain to learn the last name of his new curate. In “The Presence of Grace,” a curate peers into his pastor’s cereal bowl and wonders, “Shredded wheat and oatmeal?”
All this Powers’ early readers found comically familiar if they were Catholics, wholly plausible if not (including, presumably, much of the audience of The New Yorker magazine, where many of Powers’ stories and sections of novels first appeared). Captivating as it was on the surface, though, some found the work short on spiritual depth.
Saul Bellow, an admirer of Powers, complained about Morte D’Urban that “there is curiously little talk of souls in this book about a priest. Spiritually, its quality is very thin.” The lack of powerful expressions of faith in the novel, Bellow added, “makes faith itself shadowy, more like obscure tenacity than spiritual conviction.” The novelist Peter De Vries, another admirer, took the position that Powers wasn’t a religious writer at all since he portrays priests “practicing their profession, not their religion.”
Bellow and De Vries were right and at the same time misleading. Inside the rectories and chancery offices there isn’t much talk of souls, let alone profound expressions of religious belief. Nonetheless, Powers’ priests are going about their religious as well as professional lives. It’s just that they do it in schizophrenic fashion, a foot imperfectly planted in each world.
In The Power and the Glory , Graham Greene has his whisky priest in revolutionary Mexico think with rueful regret in the final moments before his execution by firing squad that “it would have been quite easy to have been a saint. It would only have needed a little self-restraint and a little courage.” Powers’ priests aren’t given to considerations of sainthood, and they aren’t whisky priests to begin with (though an occasional glass has its comforts). The nearest they come to dying for faith is when a bishop’s wayward (maybe wayward) golf ball finds its way to Father Urban’s head in Morte D’Urban. But a little self-restraint isn’t foreign to them, not is a little courage.
Among the stories in Prince of Darkness, Powers’ first book, two stand out as especially revealing. In the title story Father Ernest Burner, tagged a prince of darkness by his acerbic pastor because of a darkroom he once set up in the rectory, is at age 43 the only member of his seminary class without a parish of his own. He dreams of such ascendancy, his mother serving as housekeeper, yet does everything possible to scuttle his appointment.
He is a voracious eater (so known in some circles as the “circular priest”); a golfer and aviator given to fantasizing about himself (“par-shattering padre”; “the flying Junker”); not above taking pleasure in giving scandal to unbelievers (by ordering beer with two hamburgers at a drive-in restaurant); inclined to take the contrary position in conversation, regardless of the issue. “He operated on the principle,” Powers writes, “of discord at any cost.”
But Father Burner is also a prince of darkness in a more pointedly spiritual sense. He realizes that the “mark of the true priest was on every priest he could think of, including a few on the bum . . . but it was not on him, not properly.” In his case the priestly mark is “something else and less, a mask or badge which he could and did remove at will, a temporal part to be played, almost only a doctor’s or lawyer’s.” He imagines that if “any persecution” came, he would step forward and manifest the mark – a hope that seems as wide of the likely truth as his golfing triumphs.
The story sets out Father Burner’s life through the morning, noon and night of a single day. In each part he is asked to manifest something of the true mark of the priesthood – and each time comes up short. His third failure, in the night sequence, is the most damaging to his priestly calling.
Summoned to the Cathedral to hear evening confessions and meet with the archbishop, his imagination soars with visions of his appointment to a parish of his own, and he plots the image he wishes to strike: “reliable, casual, cool, an iceberg, only the tip of his true worth showing.” As he is about to leave the confessional a woman appears, gin and vermouth on her breath, and he gives her short shrift, eager for his meeting with the archbishop. “I hope this is all clear to you,” he says at length. “All clear,” the woman responds, as eager now as Father Burner to flee the confessional.
The following scene in the archbishop’s office underscores the crucial failure of Father Burner to measure up to the priestly ideal – to be the man for others. He plays the rehearsed part of the humble curate, avoiding all controversy, telling the archbishop only what he assumes he wishes to hear, missing the meaning of the archbishop’s spiritual remarks, fixed only on his own advancement. Finally the archbishop types out Father Burner’s new assignment and encloses it in an envelope to be opened the following day.
Of course Father Burner opens the envelope the moment he is alone, finding he is to remain an assistant pastor. He finds as well an admonition from the archbishop that is as exact and piercing as the image it contains: “I truth (TRUST ???) that in your new appointment you will find not peace but a sword.” The archbishop has read Father Burner’s spiritual state as exactly as the reader: In the humiliation of his new assignment the prince of darkness must yet labor toward the Light of the World.
The story is a powerful example of the interplay in Powers’ fiction between a comic use of clergy as figures dangling between two worlds, the mystery they assent to the everyday lives that consume them, with an underlying concern for the struggle between good and evil that marks the human situation. It’s a story about Catholics and for Catholics, yet at the same time a story about the conflict between light and darkness in all men in all circumstances.
The reader understands Father Burner’s moral failings: He hardly burns with priestly zeal, and insofar as he remains a prince of darkness he may burn in some distant hell. But the reader understands, too, that deep within his heavy flesh Father Burner knows his moral state – knows as surely as the archbishop that he falls short of the priestly ideal. While dressing in his room one morning, Father Burner notices a prayer for priests that he has posted on his wall. He recites the prayer’s noble words – “Keep them close to Thee, lest the enemy prevail against them, so that they may never do anything in the slightest degree unworthy of their sublime” – yet moments later casually tosses a match from his cigarette into a holy water font on his way out of the rectory.
The story swings between similar moments of light and darkness – swings, that is, between the contradictions inherent in living in two worlds. Powers’ typical fictional territory isn’t that of soaring spiritual conviction, but neither is it the secular void. It’s the familiar world in which faith exists yet manifests itself – as Bellow rightly noted – mostly as shadowy, obscure tenacity. Ernest Burner, we imagine, will keep bumbling along, the mark of the true priest not properly on him, not entirely absent.
What is familiar, though, isn’t to be confused with what is ideal. The reader needs to place beside “Prince of Darkness” another of story from Powers’ first book. “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does”is atypical in that it takes place mostly inside the mind of the main character, a Franciscan priest, once an eminent preacher, now aged and dying. It’s a story about internal religious experience as against Powers’ usual focus on the externals of clerical life.
As life ebbs from him, Father Didymus seeks spiritual peace, his will united with the Divine, yet he remains – as Powers writes – “beset by the grossest distractions. They were to be expected, he knew, as indelible in the order of things: the bingo game going on under the Cross for the seamless garment of the Son of Man; everywhere the sign of the contradiction, and always. When would he cease to be surprised by it?” At Good Friday services, Didymus recalls, he would carry a crucifix along the communion rail for people to kiss, giving them an indulgence, “and afterwards in the sacristy wiping the lipstick of the faithful from the image of Christ crucified.”
Here is Powers’ territory: the world of spiritual distraction and contradiction, indelible in the worldly order of things while providing strong beer for the fiction writer. But in this story the veil of comedy and irony is lifted and the reader is reminded of the sword the Archbishop proffers to Father Burner. In his dying struggle with divided world of distraction and contradiction, Didymus recalls the fierce words of Scripture: “He suffered the piercing white voice of the Apocalypse to echo in his soul: _But because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will begin to vomit thee out of my mouth.”_
Revealing as it appears to be about the stern religious vision underlying his fiction, “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” isn’t, once again, typical Powers. In his fiction we aren’t taken into depths where the voices of Scripture, let alone the uncompromising voice of the Apocalypse, echo in the soul. We don’t witness moments of grand resolve in which – as Father Burner fantasizes about his own unlikely behavior in the event of a persecution – clerical figures stoutly declare: “I . . . am a priest, of the order of Melchizedech. Take me. I am ready. Deo gratias.”
Instead we see funny, foolish and occasionally moving efforts to negotiate between two worlds. In “Zeal” a bishop aboard a train suffers the company of an intrusive, inexhaustible priest shepherding a group of the faithful on a tour of Europe. Escaping the priest after an especially difficult evening, the bishop enters his Pullman car and “slept well that night, after all, but not before he thought of Father Early still out there, on his feet and trying, which was what counted in the sight of God, not success. Thinkest thou that I cannot ask my Father, and he will give me presently more than twelve legions, of angels?” In a final scene the bishop abandons his own plans for a leisurely trip, takes up the burden of guiding the touring faithful.
In “Farewell” another bishop emerges from the torpor of retirement when he finds himself, and his new Mercedes, in demand as a substitute for pastors who are ill, out with bad backs, and – in one case – AWOL. While tooling about the diocese and performing humdrum parish tasks, he comes to feel better about himself than he has in 30 years. The explanation for the turnabout is provided by the example of Father Early in “Zeal”: The bishop is functioning as a priest, “out there, on his feet and trying.”
Joe, the garrulous pastor in “Priestly Fellowship,” recalls during an unsatisfactory rectory evening with young curates a shining moment from his seminary days when he’d asked a theological stumper: “How can we make sanctity as attractive as sex?” And recalls the answer he’d gotten: “‘Just have to keep trying.’ Not much of an answer. Nobody remembers it – just the question.”
As spiritual commentary, that’s a long way from the Apocalypse and the bitter indictment of the lukewarm – or as Powers says in another context, “a long way from Tipperary, to say nothing of Jerusalem.” But it’s exactly the middling and mundane spiritual road of Powers’ clerical figures – figures who, at their best, remain out there, on their feet, trying.
That it is a spiritual road they are on is suggested by the final word of Powers’ final book: Cross. The main character of Wheat That Springeth Green_, a priest named Joe Hackett, casually responds to a question from another priest, Lefty Beerman, about his present assignment. “Where is it you’re stationed now – Holy . . . Faith?” Left asks as Joe is walking away from him. “Joe shook his head,” Powers writes, "and kept going, calling back, ’_Cross.’"
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Ronald Weber is a professor of American studies at Notre Dame.