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.