During his most productive years — from 1942 to 1962 — J. F. Powers published two volumes of short stories and one novel, Morte d’Urban. The novel — a subtle and witty tale of an upper-Midwest priest who tries to remove “the curse of mediocrity” from his order — was praised by Evelyn Waugh, Philip Roth, and Gore Vidal, and won the 1963 National Book Award over Vladimir Nabokov and John Updike. Powers, who was perpetually broke, had hoped it would be a great financial success, allowing him to finally live “as I’d like to,” as he put it in his journal — which meant not working, and writing only when he felt like it. It wasn’t.
The first run was plagued by textual errors and a botched wording of Waugh’s endorsement. Review copies arrived late or were never sent. According to Powers, Doubleday regularly bungled orders or failed to supply stores with enough copies. The National Book Award was a boon, but a New York City newspaper strike from December 8, 1962, to March 31, 1963, hampered coverage of the March 12 ceremony.
Powers’s expectations were unrealistically high from the beginning, but it’s hard to find fault with his disappointment that, after a year on the market, a major literary award, and the praise of many respected critics, the book had sold just over 25,000 copies. The “great experiment,” he declared in August 1963, “with the great American (and British) reading public is over, so far as I am concerned.” Over the next 36 years, he published just one more collection of stories and a second novel.
Powers is one of the 20th century’s great prose stylists. His stories and novels dealing with the less sacred aspects of the priestly vocation — raising money for new buildings, maintaining old ones, schmoozing wealthy parishioners, and placating old or inept colleagues — scintillate with humor, pitch-perfect dialogue, and tight narrative. While both Evelyn Waugh and Denis Donoghue have suggested that Powers is more gifted as a short-story writer than as a novelist, both Morte d’Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green (1988) create worlds that have a powerful, sustained pull on the imagination.
It may be that Powers wrote so little because he became bitter about the lack of interest in his work. He had been pigeonholed as a Catholic and regional writer, and by the mid 1960s, as Joseph Bottum argued in 2006, Americans were no longer interested in “scenes of clerical life . . . in the bleak, wind-swept parish houses of the Midwest.” Another contributing factor, as a recent collection of his letters shows us, is that he was, well, lazy.
In this book, edited by Katherine A. Powers, his daughter, we learn that Powers did have a particular affection and skill for all sorts of unprofitable labor. He enjoyed the track, walks, and listening to music and baseball on the radio. (He once confessed that at 3:00 p.m. he could most likely be found at the track “with as much as ten shillings riding on a race.”) He became interested in boxing for a period and occasionally became interested in politics (though he described himself as “nonpolitical”). But most of all he enjoyed visiting or writing friends, including Robert Lowell, local priest and lifelong friend Harvey Egan, Waugh, and others.
In his correspondence, we find a man of considerable wit. On the unimaginative practicality of Germans, Powers writes: “I have often wondered why they didn’t try to prove, somewhere along the line, that Jesus Christ received a gold watch for 33 years of service.” On his aunt’s self-righteous frugality: “It is as though, comes the Last Judgment, there will be but one question: Did you ever throw anything away?” On Catholic films: “If you would shake my faith, let me see a movie made under Catholic auspices.” On car maintenance: “If there is anything that looks bad, it is a car with missing hubcaps, I think. Better you lose your manhood than your hubcaps.”
His comments on his idleness can charm, up to a point. “I wonder if I am physically deficient,” he writes in an early letter to a friend, “or whether indolence has reached the tertiary state with me. . . . I think if I had nothing to do — no work — I’d be all right.” But other references sound more desperate: “Out of gas — creatively,” he writes in 1959, “I feel absolutely powerless these days to prevent financial ruin.” Over a year later, he writes: “I find I’m worse off this year than last at this time, novel within three chapters of being finished, but nothing in the bank, advance on royalties at an end, no stories out or in the works, and one week more in this office.”
#page#Katherine Powers remarks that her father had for many years planned to write a novel about “family life.” “It was to be,” she explains, “in some fashion, the story of a writer, an artist, with bright prospects, a taste for the good things in life, and an expectation of camaraderie as he made his way in the world. The man falls in love, gets married, has numerous children — but has neither money nor home.” The novel was not written.
The letters, Katherine Powers suggests, tell an often unhappy story of “folie à deux.” She’s right. J. F. Powers met Betty Wahl after one of her former teachers at the College of St. Benedict, in St. Joseph, Minn., had sent Powers a short story by Wahl and asked for feedback. Powers did not read the story immediately, but when he did, he was impressed. He eventually traveled to meet Wahl in November 1945. He fell in love and proposed marriage two days later. She accepted. She was 21, he 28. They were married five months later.
There were warnings of what was to come in his early letters to Wahl. Less than a month after their meeting, Powers warns Wahl: “I am worried about making a living, as I confessed to you again and again, because I won’t go about it in the ordinary way — eight hours out of my life daily so that the system may prosper and the crapshooters running it. . . . I have no intention of letting you go, but if you have that idea (and I can’t believe you have), I want you to get rid of it.”
Powers seems to have always genuinely cared for Wahl. His letters to her over the years are often playful and touching. But he would stick to his words until he took a more or less regular teaching position at Northwestern University in 1975. He regularly refused teaching offers, though the family (which eventually included five children) always badly needed money.
Wahl, who was a gifted writer if less talented than Powers, put her writing on hold to manage the Powers household. She had published stories in The New Yorker and would publish a novel in 1969, but believed that it was her husband who was “destined by providence to fulfill the role of artist.” If not for the heroic self-sacrifice of Betty Powers and the help of the Wahl family, who regularly gave the Powers family money or provided them with free housing, Powers would have written even less or nothing at all.
The other part of the Powers story, which must be mostly deduced, is the fact that he was an absent or uninterested father. There is almost no mention of his children in these letters, except a few references to their health and a single letter in 1954 addressed to the two oldest girls and his son. Powers would regularly spend Thanksgiving or Christmas away from his immediate family and once joked that “there should be an organization that would make it possible for family men to spend holidays away from home.” “Betty and I weren’t meant to have children,” Powers once admitted. “Our mistake was getting mixed up in that Catholic business called Family Life years ago. That was for farmers, not for us, but we didn’t know any better.”
Powers claims never to have considered the priesthood, but his letters often give the impression that the male camaraderie it might have offered would have very much suited him. His novels are full of such camaraderie, and we see Powers in his element in his letters to his friends, and especially in stories of visits to Waugh, Ezra Pound, Theodore Roethke, and others.
In short, these are the letters of a failed family man, but also of a humble, sometimes defeated man of disarming wit, with the mot juste always at his call as he suffers through the losing battles of life.
– Mr. Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.