Monday 14 December 2009

Why J.F. Powers - Essay

J.F. Powers was called, by Joseph Bottum: 'The greatest Catholic Writer of the 20th Century'. His work is infused with his faith but a realistic faith. His heroes are often priests - yet priests with faults, foibles and very human. He wrote about a 'pre-Vatican Council II' faith and even though I was born after the Vatican II reforms, his stories touch something central to my being and my faith. I have found a small community of devoted fans of his writings and few whom I encounter who have read his works do not love them. In this essay I will examine my own introduction to Powers and his works, present a short biography and conclude with a Bibliography as complete as I can generate on his fictional works.

J. F. Powers is an author whose works haunted me for over a decade. His short story The Warm Sand was in an anthology of Catholic Fiction that I read years ago. Shortly after reading it, I lent it out and never got it back. A few years back while on retreat in Toronto, the story came to mind yet again, and this time I had to track it down. Unfortunately I did not know the name or title of the story, or the name of the anthology or editor. All I could remember was that it had a black cover with gold lettering. Thus began the quest for finding the story. I started searching online book stores, new, used and out of print, for Catholic short story collections. I could not find one with a cover that matched but found a few without covers, so I interlibrary loaned them until I found the book in question. It was called The Substance of Things Hoped For and was edited by John Breslin S.J. After finding and rereading the story I became obsessed with the author and his works. I interlibrary loaned all of his works and sometimes different editions. I devoured his fiction writing. This course will be a culmination of that quest and academic inquiry. So come join me in a journey through the literary fiction of J.F. Powers.

J.F. Powers, born James Farl Powers, on July 8th, 1917 is a bit of an enigma. He is considered by many to be one of the greatest American short stories writers. He published only 3 collections of short stories and two novels, in a writing career that spanned more than 50 years. During that time he published just 2 novels, both of which won the National Book Award by the American Library association. Those two novels published 26 years apart are really a collection of continuous short stores and many of the chapters in the books had been previously published in one form or another. Powers was a conscientious objector during World War II and worked instead as a hospital orderly. Powers was a writer, a husband, a father, and, from some accounts, in that order. He moved his family back and forth across the Atlantic from the United States to Ireland a number of times. He was a teacher, a researcher and to many who knew him a man of good character. Powers died on the 12th of June 1999 just months before his complete works were put back into print by The New Yorker's literary line, New York Review Books.

Powers was a master wordsmith. He did an especially good job of capturing Post World War II American Catholicism, both from the perspective of clergy and from laity. He specialized in satire but not a cruel, cutting satire, rather a more balanced, gentle approach. Powers would not have made a good priest, but he does an amazing job writing about priests and their lives. Over the next 6 pieces we will journey through his works in their original published order, examining his canon of fiction in chronological order. After we have examined each of his books separately, we will examine his works as a whole and the lasting impact of his life and works.

(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

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