Sunday 20 December 2009

J.F. Powers Literature, Life and Legacy

J.F. Powers is an enigma. He wrote mostly about priests, yet was never one himself. He was a writer yet his output was slim in comparison with his contemporaries, both religious and secular. He was praised by other authors and academics and yet his words, his works, seem to sit on the edge of a wide audience. To use an analogy, the works of J.F. Powers are like a supporting actor who wins a Grammy for a movie that was mediocre at best. Powers created an exceptional canon of work in its quality, and ability to evoke a response, yet it is a small collection by comparison to most. Maybe that is how we can best sum up Powers' life and legacy; he did not produce much, but what he did produce was of extraordinary quality. He was a modest man who for the most part lived outside the limelight, much like his works, and yet today they can be found in numerous collections, anthologies and in college curriculums.

In this final essay we will endeavor to remark about why such an unassuming man in so few published works could create such a lasting impact and legacy. Evelyn Waugh stated of Powers' first collection Prince of Darkness and Other Stories: "Prince of Darkness is almost as unique as his country as a lay writer who is at ease in the Church; whose whole art, moreover, is everywhere infused and directed by his Faith." Thus we will now examine some reactions to Powers' works and his life.

First, in his book Good People … from an Author's Life, Powers' contemporary Jon Hassler dedicates a chapter to Powers and his wife Betty Wahl and states: "J.F. powers was a man of few words and carefully chosen." He was speaking about his first conversation with Powers and yet this concise sentence sums up Powers' writings also. Hassler also relates that when asked if his priest novels were mostly for Catholic readers that Powers replied: "Is Wind in the Willows mostly for animals?" Though the comparison is a stretch it makes his point. Hassler then goes on to say: "He (Powers) and his wife, the writer Betty Wahl, were the best examples I've ever met of people whose dedication to a principle resulted in a legacy of great value. Their principle was writing fiction, and their legacy to the readers of the world." Hassler then relates a story of a conversation where he discovers that Powers was working on a novel that was thirteen years overdue for the publisher. Hassler emphatically states: "It isn't hard for me to believe that Powers had spent every day of those many overdue years working on the novel, for he was simply the most deliberate writer I've ever known or heard of." Finally Hassler, commenting on Powers' last novel Wheat that Springeth Green, states: "I was struck by what little space he devoted to physical description; his strength was in writing what people thought and said." Hassler had a great deal of respect for Powers both as a person and as a writer. That respect is seen in many who have encountered these writings.

Next we will examine Ross Labrie'. Labrie wrote extensively about Catholic fiction and catholic writers. He wrote about Thomas Merton's artwork, he compiled a collection called The Catholic Imagination in American Literature, but the piece we are concerned about is called The Professional, the Amateur and the Other Thing, his article on J.F. Powers written in 1974, and subsequently republished a number of times. Labrie states of Powers: "He is one of the foremost stylists of the 20th Century. The subject of his later work, and most of his earlier, is the life of Roman Catholic clergy, yet one would be wrong to imagine his work limited in scope. The theme is the big one of money and power." Labrie interprets the stories and novels of Powers in their scope and not their quantity. Commenting on the fact that the novel Morte d'Urban is for the most part a collection of short stories, Labrie states: "Two fine orchestral passages frame the novel and attempt to redeem it from being a set of (marvelous) short stories about Father Urban." Labrie seems to appreciate Powers' skill and talent and yet not to like the ending of Urban, implying that as Powers criticized clergy in his writings, his writings are criticized by readers.

There are two collections dedicated to examining Powers' works both published in 1968. The first is The Christian Critic Series - J.F. Powers edited by Fallon Evans. It is a splendid collection with eleven pieces examining various aspects of Powers' writings and life. At about a hundred pages of text, it is as concise as Powers' writings and just as focused. The piece that had the greatest impact on me was by Thomas Merton, called Morte D'Urban: Two Celebrations. Merton states about the novel: "This book is not a tract for or against anything, yet it can be taken perhaps as a witness and as a warning. The mission of the Church in America is not purely and simply to get itself accepted by wearing affluent expression and adopting the idiosyncrasies of American Business. We are here to celebrate the mystery of salvation and of our unity in Christ. But this celebration is meaningless unless it manifests itself in an uncompromising Christian concern for man and his society." All of the pieces in this book about Powers' works were previously published and compiled in this collection, which is an excellent resource. One of the greatest pieces in this collection is the first one, an interview done between Sister Kristen and Powers, transcribed in question and answer format. It originally appeared in 1964 and is titled The Catholic and Creativity. It is the single largest collection I have found of Powers speaking or writing about himself and his process. As such, it is invaluable to the study of his works.

The Second collection dedicated to Powers' writings is the Twayne's United States Authors Series - J.F. Powers, edited by Sylvia Bowman. This specific volume by J.V. Hagopian is dedicated to examining Powers' works. It has a great chronology of Powers' life and his works as well as an extensive notes and bibliographical section. Hagopian in his preface states: "Although he is a writer's writer, J.F. Powers has no broad popular following but is known among his peers as a brilliant satirist and meticulous craftsman. His fiction is widely anthologized and often taught in universities." It is a great pity that more recent academic scholarship has not been as extensively applied to Powers' work.

Powers' stories do indeed show up in numerous anthologies and collections, including collections of Best American Short Stories, Best American Fiction and Best American Catholic Fiction. If anything, his work is at an all-time high level of popularity. All of his books have been in print for more than a decade; almost every year one or more of his short stories makes it into a new collection, introducing a new generation to his great skill and wit.

So, with all of the accolades and resurgence in his popularity, what does it mean to my study of J.F. Powers, his life and literature and legacy? I can only state that by having worked through his works in published order, and working through the books about him and his works, I now have a greater appreciation for him as both an artist and as a man. Powers' one short story had influence over me for more than a decade. I could not even remember the name of the story or the author but could have told you the story nearly verbatim. Now, having examined his works as a whole, I can only state that that influence has been magnified. He wrote about people trying to live a life of faith and people living in a fallen world. He wrote about struggles, goals, aspirations and hopes. He also wrote about fears, failures and fragility of both body and mind. His works are pieces I will return to again and again. And each time they evoke an emotional response and a desire for action. They seem to help center me, to help me return to a focus on prayer and other spiritual disciplines. Maybe that is the greatest testament to Powers' writings - those who truly discover his works become fans and dedicated disciples.


1. Evelyn Waugh as quoted in J.F. Powers, 81, Dies; Wrote About Priests
2. Hassler, Jon: Good People … from an Author's Life, Loyola Press, Chicago, 2001, p.86
3. IBID p.87
4. IBID p.87
5. IBID p.88
6. IBID p.98,99
7. Labrie, Ross, Honest Ulsterman, The Professional, the Amateur, and the Other Thing, p.32
8. IBID p. 39
9. Fallon, Evan (Editor) The Christian Critic Series J.F. Powers, B. Herder Book Co. St. Louis, Missoury, 1968, p.100
10. Bowman, Sylvia (General Editor) Hagopian, J.V. (author) Twayne's United States Authors Series - J.F. Powers, Twayne Publishers Inc, New York, NY, 1968, p.9

(First written for RS398 - The Religious Fiction of J.F. Powers.)

My Reviews and Articles on Powers:

1962 - Morte d'Urban - novel
1963 - Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, and Other Stories
1988 - Wheat that Springeth Green - novel
1991 - The Old Bird, A Love Story - Illustrated Edition
1999 - The Stories of J. F. Powers
J.F. Powers Selected Bibliography
J.F. Powers Book Covers
That Elusive Story
The Warm Sand
Meme Booked By 3 May 2007
Meme Book Meme
Meme Booked by 3 February 2007

RS398 Directed Reading - The Religious Fiction of J.F. Powers
Essay - Why J.F. Powers
The Prince of Darkness and Other Stories
The Presence of Grace
Morte d'Urban
Look How the Fish Live
Wheat that Springeth Green
Essay - J.F. Powers Literary Life and Legacy


Fionnchú said...

I took a class in Modern Brit lit from Fallon Evans in college. He was retired by then, but the Catholic college he taught at (by the liberalized Immaculate Heart sisters who laicized themselves for the most part; their remnants had staffed my parish school before most of them left) had closed and my Jesuit university took him on for a few classes. (A sign of what JFP both predicted and may have lamented?)

I asked him, this being 1982, about his anthology on JFP and wondered if he had any copies to spare. He told me it had gone oop soon[ he was astounded this undergrad had heard of either him or his subject. I'd stumbled on "PoD" in my high school library and then "Morte" and on their titles alone, with no idea of JFP, I read them and was haunted by both.

As you note, Steven, the stories' lack of physicality and depth of characterization allow us to enter deeply into them, although I'd say his novels open up the settings far more. They to me seem more of their 1950s-60s milieux than the stories, which although often of course rooted in the late 40s & 50s, do seem more airless and less documentary. All in all, the picture he gives of Catholicism second only to Standard Oil, as Merton knew well (he visited him while on a stop at St John's), will prove indelible. Along with the familiar Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy, JFP deserves acclaim. Thanks for sharing these reminders of him with us.

SRMcEvoy said...

Thanks Fioncchú. It was a hard course not because of the subject but because I have left the RS field. It was great to interact with his material in such a concentrated form.