»  The New Criterion

September 1999

  Sub specie aeternitatis:  J.F. Powers, 1917-1999

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I was actually reading one of J.F. Powers' books when I heard news of his death in June this year. I imagine there are very few people who can make the same claim: Powers' modest body of work (two novels, three short story collections) has been out of print for years. But for a chance encounter, of which more later, I doubt that I would ever have read Powers' work at all.

For one thing I am English, with the Englishman's ignorance of American writers — an ignorance I feel properly guilty about when among literary folk, but to the relief of which I am hindered by some strong inward resistance. The United States is supposed by foreigners, very unfairly, to be a place where people read not for pleasure but for moral instruction, not to amuse themselves but to improve themselves. The rigors of an English childhood leave us smug in the conviction that we are either above or below the possibility of improvement and are therefore out of sympathy with American literature. And there is that regional thing. Americans, who travel a great deal in their own country, have a strong sense of the difference between its various parts, a sense it is difficult for foreigners to acquire and internalize in the same degree. That whole mystique of the South, for example — downward-sliding gentility and upward-clawing white trash, unspeakable secrets lurking behind the magnolia blossoms — is mostly lost on non-Americans. J.F. Powers, whose stories are set almost entirely in Illinois or Minnesota, is inevitably tagged as a Midwestern writer.

For another thing Powers was a Roman Catholic whose principal topic — in both of his novels and a majority of his stories — was the Catholic priesthood. Educated by Anglicans, I arrived in adult life with a full set of anti-Catholic prejudices: dark-robed Jesuits plotting against the Crown, Bloody Mary and Foxe's Martyrs, the Borgia Popes and pig-headed James the Second, celibate priests denying birth control to the overpopulated Third World. Reading and traveling mellowed all this, of course, yet still I can tolerate Catholic writers at book length only if they leave their dogma at the door. Like many other Englishmen I regard Graham Greene as a brilliant narrative talent yoked to an irritating ideology and Brideshead Revisited as a regrettable lapse on the part of our finest mid-century novelist. (And I relish Orwell's slap at Waugh: "As good a writer as it is possible to be while holding untenable opinions".)

Thus doubly handicapped — an American Catholic writer — I think it would have been a long time before Powers reached the top — or even the bottom — of my reading pile. After fourteen years in the States, I have only just recently picked up Flannery O'Connor. Then I happened to make the acquaintance of Powers' daughter Katherine (Katherine Anne Porter was her godmother), who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and does a fortnightly books column for the Boston Globe. On parting at the end of my first visit she gave me a copy of her father's novel Morte D'Urban, which won the National Book Award in 1963. The book languished on my shelf for some months till I needed something to read on a long journey. Then it conquered me swiftly with its first few pages.

Here is a middle-aged priest, Father Urban, a star of the Midwestern preaching circuit, a terrific fundraiser and a great asset to his order, the Order of St. Clement. One of his sermons catches the attention of Billy Cosgrove, a wealthy layman, who then befriends Urban and makes large donations to the Clementines. However, Father Urban's energy vexes his dim-witted superiors, who post him to a dilapidated retreat-house in the wilds of Minnesota. The Clementines, you see, are third-raters.

It seemed to him [i.e. Urban] that the Order of St. Clement labored under the curse of mediocrity, and had done so almost from the beginning. In Europe, the Clementines hadn't (it was always said) recovered from the French Revolution. It was certain that they hadn't ever really got going in the New World … The Clementines were unique in that they were noted for nothing at all.

Nothing daunted, Father Urban makes a go of his new assignment, prevailing on Billy Cosgrove to help establish a golf course next to the retreat. Urban's worldliness in the service of his faith seems to have triumphed; but in a denouement set out with wonderful skill, all is turned around. We are given a glimpse of the waters that are under the Earth and a memorable illustration of Doctor Johnson's dictum: "Depend upon it, Sir: the insolence of wealth will creep out".

So impressed was I by Morte D'Urban I wrote a letter of appreciation to the author at his home in Saint Cloud, Minnesota. Katherine doubted he would answer. Already 81 years old, he was (she said) reclusive and not always clear-headed. However, a letter of thanks soon arrived — succinct, sincere, manually typed. What a very nice old chap, I thought. Katherine sent on two more of his books: the other novel and one of the story collections. I read the novel first of course, and was in the middle of the stories when Powers died, on June 15th this year.

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Peter De Vries thought that Powers was not really a religious writer at all. I don't agree, but I see what he means. Certainly Powers' stories have little in common with the "Christian literature" that currently sells so well in the U.S. (while remaining perfectly invisible to the guardians of our literary culture, who yet do not balk at "magic realism" so long as it has a respectably foreign pedigree). There are no angels in Powers, no miracles, no sudden shafts of light breaking through overcast skies. The supernatural, in fact, is entirely absent. The world of Powers' books is the world we all inhabit: the world of bills and assessments, of irksome duties, comforting habits and tiny pleasures, of tiresome colleagues we have no choice but to get along with, of dead-wood subordinates who must be found something to do and cloth-eared superiors making all the wrong decisions. The work of these priests resembles very closely, in fact, the work most middle-class Americans do, in corporate offices or public bureaucracies. The world of a J.F. Powers book has much in common with the Japanese "business novel" genre, though without the love interest, of course. Here is Father Joe Hackett, principal of Powers' second novel Wheat That Springeth Green, in a conversation (albeit an imaginary one) with his Archbishop.

Joe:  I'm not trying to tell you how to run the Archdiocese, Arch.

Arch:  Might not be a bad idea if you did, Joe. I don't say that to everybody in lower middle management.

Indeed, there are middle managers I know in commercial organizations who regard their customers more tenderly than J.F. Powers' priests do their parishioners. While a B.C.L. (Big Catholic Layman) like Billy Cosgrove might be pursued and wooed for donative purposes, the common laity figure in Powers' stories mostly as a nuisance, to be firmly instructed when they push their fool noses into theological matters, otherwise to be handled in as brisk and businesslike a manner as possible. In a Powers short story called Dawn, a Cathedral priest finds a letter in the collection plate addressed to "The Pope — Personal", with no return address. He passes it up the chain of command to his bishop, who hands down instructions to find the sender if possible but not to open the envelope. The priest flushes out the offending party, a scatter-brained parishioner named Mrs. Anton, who tells him the envelope contains a dollar. Why the personal approach?  "I don't want somebody else takin' all the credit with the Holy Father!"

"How's the Holy Father gonna know who this dollar came from if you didn't write anything?"

"I wrote my name and address on it. In ink."

"All right, Father," said the Bishop. He stood up and almost went out of the room before he stopped and looked back at Mrs. Anton. "Why don't you send it by regular mail?"

"He'd never see it! That's why! Some flunky'd get hold of it! Same as here! Oh, don't I know!"

This view of the laity as an annoyance to be tolerated rings all too true. It agrees quite comfortably with my Protestant prejudices about thin-lipped Papist commissars striving to keep their flock in a state of ignorance; but probably all large organizations engender some such attitude in their staff. I recall a Systems Manager I worked for once who used to groan about what a wonderful job he could do if it were not for the damn users. At any rate, I doubt if there is anything especially Catholic here. In fact I have never been able to look at my own (Episcopalian) minister in quite the same light since reading Powers.

Though religious by instinct Powers does not seem to have been deeply pious. He attended mass regularly, loved his Church and had no serious doubts about the existence of God, but he had not much taste for theology, nor for abstract theorizing of any sort. He disliked most of the changes brought in by Vatican II, which he thought tended to deprive lay folk of those familiar consolations of custom and usage that made their religion palatable and their lives bearable. "There isn't anything the Church can do that it hasn't already done to disillusion me," he sighed in a 1988 interview, "but I still think it's it." He never considered entering the priesthood himself, knowing very well that non sibi sed gregi was a standard he could not meet; that he could not put himself at the disposal of other people — the foolish, the feckless and the plain boring — as a priest is required to do. He was a fastidious and reclusive man who did not suffer fools gladly. Knowing that the Powers family had lived in Ireland during the 1950s, I once quizzed Katherine about her father's acquaintance with various Irish literary figures of the period. Brendan Behan? An emphatic no!  "My father does not like sloppy drunks."

Those Irish sojourns — the Powers family lived in Ireland intermittently from 1951 to 1975 — were of a piece with the author's strongly idealistic cast of mind. Of old Norman-Irish stock on his father's side, Powers felt a great attraction for the homeland of his ancestors. There was the Catholicism, of course, but also the respect for literature (writers in Ireland pay no income tax), the neutrality and the general ethos of rustic self-sufficiency — peasant crafts practiced around a peat fire — that prevailed in De Valera's Ireland. Powers was a firm pacifist who did jail time as a conscientious objector in WW2. He detested boosterism, consumerism, materialism and all approaches to life advertised as "scientific" or "progressive". The Ireland of the 1950s, aloof from the world's squabbles, righteous in her isolation, proud in her poverty, favorite daughter of the Church, was naturally irresistible to him. A bonus attraction was that Ireland was the home nation of James Joyce, Powers' great literary hero. (He also loved Swift, who is a sort of honorary Irishman. Powers owned a 20-volume set of Swift's works, leather-bound, dated 1772.) The dark side of Irish life, when he encountered it, seems to have disconcerted but not disillusioned him. Saints and scholars Ireland has certainly produced in abundance; but the Irish often forget to tell you that one of the factors driving the holy men out to those rocky fastnesses off the west coast, or further to Europe and beyond, was the squalor and savagery of Irish civil society. Powers' idealism naturally dried and hardened with age; but he maintained a monkish distaste for the compromises and dishonesty of politics. One is not very surprised to learn that one of the attendees at his funeral service was fellow Minnesotan Eugene McCarthy.

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Father Joe Hackett, the priest in Wheat That Springeth Green, is already middle-aged by 1968 when most of the action takes place. None of Powers' sympathetic characters is younger than this. (Begun in 1964, Wheat was published in 1988, 25 years after Morte D'Urban. This may be a record gap between first and second novels. If he is ever canonized Powers could serve as the patron saint of slow writers. Katherine: "He had powers of procrastination that went far beyond the merely amateur.") Though I have no contacts in the Catholic priesthood I suspect that Powers' portrait of the clerical life bears about as much resemblance to current reality as does Trollope's. Probably John L'Heureux's young priests, running a bomb factory in the rectory basement, are nearer the mark.

Powers is not — I think he would have smiled approvingly to hear it said — a relevant writer. The only reason one can advance for reading him is the quality of his art, which is of a very high order. Powers took infinite pains with his work. He deplored writing that was careless or inflated, or even just verbose. He did not like the great English novelists of the last century because he thought they used too many words to say what they wanted to say. God, said Powers, has demanding standards. "We couldn't have art unless there were some higher authority that says, 'Yes, that's right'. God gave us that mentality, that kind of judgment. I don't think God likes crap in art."

Here is the old priest Father Didymus dying, at the end of the 1944 story Lions, Harts, Leaping Does. No tunnels with beckoning lights, no heavenly choirs; only this, when his somewhat senile companion Titus has let their pet canary escape through an open window:

Titus, nervous under his stare, and to account for staying at the window so long, felt for the draft again, frowned, and kept his eye hunting among the trees.

The thought of being the cause of such elaborate dissimulation in so simple a soul made Didymus want to smile — or cry, he did not know which … and could do neither. Titus persisted. How long would it be, Didymus wondered faintly, before Titus ungrievingly gave the canary up for lost in the snowy arms of God? The snowflakes whirled at the window, for a moment for all their bright blue beauty as though struck still by lightning, and Didymus closed his eyes, only to find them there also, but darkly falling.

Said the author: "I have the ability to create and be in touch with God. I can't change bread and wine into body and blood, but I can take the scum or the slime of the earth and make it into a man or woman." This, as a matter of fact, slightly overstates Powers' powers: so far I have encountered no interesting women in his books. But every writer has his scope. Within the small territory he claimed for himself, J.F. Powers approached perfection as closely as human beings are permitted to do. Whether these spare, measured narratives, sweetening despair with sly wit and merest hints of Design, can appeal to a fiction audience schooled in layered irony and casual salacity, will be tested next March when New York Review of Books, under its own imprint, brings out a uniform edition of the novels and stories. Until then the works of James Farl Powers, who is now beyond disappointment or injured pride, must be sought in garage sales and second-hand book stores.