J.F. Powers

The typical article about James Farl Powers (1917–1999) asks why he is so little remembered. This may at first seem counterintuitive. Powers was a recipient of Guggenheim and Rockefeller grants, resident at the celebrated Yaddo writers’ colony, friends with Robert “Cal” Lowell, admired by Evelyn Waugh and Sean O’Faolain. He wrote perfectly crafted short stories, and in 1963 won the National Book Award for his masterpiece (and first novel), Morte D’Urban. And yet Powers always hovers just beyond the first- and second-class ranks of American novelists.

Powers’s universe was the Catholic life in what he called “big Missal country.” This was the German and Irish Catholicism of places like Minnesota—where Powers lived for a time and whose religious life impressed him deeply—and Illinois—where he was born to a devoutly Catholic family. But Powers had an even more parochial—pardon the pun—literary universe. He wrote mostly about Midwestern priests as they managed the secular demands on their time and vocation. Morte D’Urban, for example, is about a priest of the (fictitious) Clementine order, whose “history revealed little to brag about—one saint (the Holy Founder) and a few bishops of missionary sees, no theologians worthy of the name, no original thinkers, not even a scientist. The Clementines were unique in that they were noted for nothing at all. They were in bad shape all over the world.” But Powers’s Midwestern parishes have had less staying power than Flannery O’Connor’s Southern evangelicals and Walker Percy’s affluent New Orleans aristocrats. Moreover, what attracts the attention of literary arbiters has changed. Who could imagine now The New Yorker publishing stories about observant if wayward clergy, as they published Powers story after Powers story?

Add to this a simple, if bland, answer: Powers simply did not write that much. Aside from his award-winning novel, Powers has only four novels and a modest body of short stories over his fifty-year career. This marvelous collection of letters gives us perhaps the beginnings of an answer for the relative paucity of published work. The volume covers the period from 1942 with the acceptance of Power’s first published story, “He Don’t Plant Cotton,” and ends just after the award for Morte D’Urban. Powers wrote a lot of letters, “whose size and extent,” his daughter Katherine writes in an elegant introduction mixed with equal parts gentle criticism and filial piety, “go some way toward explaining the small number of his published books.” Katherine also astutely includes excerpts from the unpublished diaries of Powers and his wife. There are some letters to the famous (such as Lowell), but most are written to Powers’s friends and family in the Midwest and concern mostly family matters, such as his incarceration during World War II for being a conscientious objector. There is little in here about the development of his fiction, for example, and aside from descriptions of visits with Waugh or trips to Yaddo, not much in the way of literary life as we (or indeed, Powers) might have imagined it. Instead, we get much about housing, children, and finances.

But the letters are rewarding regardless, because they show Powers as he was: playful, with a desperately dry sense of humor, religious but not doctrinaire, and embodying an essential charity combined with what can only be described as a hopeless naiveté about supporting oneself and one’s family as a writer. These letters also served, in Katherine’s estimation, as the replacement of a novel Powers long intended to write about “family life” for a writer who found himself caught between literary ideals and the reality of wife, children, and home. His letters readily convey his home life and its chaos, with himself standing as a bemused observer above it all. He was by all accounts, even in these letters, a devoted husband and a loving if distracted father. (In this regard, perhaps it should be noted that all five children have pursued artistic or literary careers of various kinds.) But there was an iron core to him. He wanted to provide for his family, above all a house (1948, to Betty: “[m]y one big plan now, aside from the novel . . . is to get a big house and someone to help you, and I don’t know how I can do it.”). From very early in his life, however, Powers made clear he was a writer, and would seek no paying job that would detract him from his mission. The memory of his own father—who stayed at home to care for his ailing mother rather than pursue a promising musical career—always rankled. During his courtship with his future wife, Betty Wahl, in 1942, he wrote of his grandmother: “[s]he was the woman who ruined my father’s life, I hold. He supported her instead of accepting offers he had to go to Europe and study piano.” And despite marriage, five children, and near-constant financial adversity, he stuck to his conviction.

His in-laws were named Art and Money, surely a providential coincidence, as these were the two competing halves of Powers’s life. Betty’s parents supported them throughout much of their married life, even buying land for their first house and paying medical bills for the children. But Powers never wavered. In August 1959, in a diary entry included in the book, Powers wrote, on the verge of yet another move: “I now see our whole married life as a search for a home, and every child making the need more pressing and the prospects less likely . . . I hope this will be the last harvest I will reap of the failure of Betty to educate her parents and others in the meaning of her calling and mine (as writers, artists) and the few prerogatives attending same.” Unlike some of his letters, where he jokingly laments his penniless writer’s state, in such entries it is hard to tell whether he is serious that he and Betty deserved the support of others because of their calling. Betty too was a writer; she and Powers were introduced when a common friend sent Powers Betty’s first novel to read. But Betty seems to have the more disciplined notion of a writing life: She took care of the children and managed the household, but also published stories and novels on a well-kept schedule.

Katherine estimates the Powers family moved about twenty times in her childhood, always because money was short and the house they had leased or been lent was no longer available. Powers understood what this cost his family, and himself. In a 1963 letter to friends, written from Ireland (a country in which the Powers lived numerous times), he said: “Boz [the Powers’s son, James] asks me when we’re alone, walking down the street, why I don’t buy a house, and I tell him or I don’t, depending on how I feel, but in a day or so or a week it happens again. . . . I see myself as an alcoholic at such times—not a bad person, really, but one from whom little can be expected.” Katherine herself recounts her and her sister Mary’s disbelief that her father could have seriously entertained his unattainable dreams of “suitable accommodations” for his family without actually doing very much to attain them. Even Morte D’Urban was a failure in this regard; the book had sluggish sales despite the award.

Powers found no home in the literary world because of his family obligations, yet his devotion to literature prevented him from putting down roots where his family might find stability.

Sometimes he took a lecturing job, or won a grant, but nothing was allowed to stand in the way of giving him time to write and more often than not he turned down such opportunities. The freedom he gained, however, he seemed as often as not to forego. After one of the family’s Irish sojourns, Katherine includes a sardonic note from Betty’s diary: “Jim’s first work done in Ireland today, six months and one day after our arrival.” This was not, in other words, a man to be rushed. Sometimes his choices seem bizarre: offered thousands of dollars for the film rights to a story, he turned it down. Despite agreeing to a contract with Doubleday, he schemed instead to get out of it. The family fortune somtimes literally turned on the whim of an editor: “[o]f course, everything depends on my story being accepted by The New Yorker.” Everything? Even considering the demands of art, this seems a bit extreme.

Perhaps this might be the real reason for his comparative neglect. Powers was neither a writing machine attracting critics and doctoral students, nor an academic darling who found a safe university home where he could issue pronouncements on his contemporaries. He found no home in the literary world because of his family obligations, yet his devotion to literature prevented him from putting down roots where his family might find stability. In the end, he knew this to be true, both personally and theologically: “We have here below no lasting home, we all know, but in my case there seems no margin for error to build on.” Where Powers is truly at rest, finally, is in his lasting work.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 1, on page 70
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