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J.F. Powers’ plain, elegant art


Anyone who appreciates J.F. Powers’ stories and novels must regard the author’s death June 14 at 81 as a loss to the literary and Catholic culture of the United States. Having met him over 40 years ago, and having been with him on various occasions, I felt a deep sense of personal loss. Among other qualities, he was perhaps the wittiest man I have every known.

We became friends more than 20 years ago, when he, his wife Betty Wahl -- a splendid prose writer herself -- and their five children returned to the United States from Ireland. They could live there more economically than at home on advances for his next book, usually short stories that appeared initially in The New Yorker magazine.

By the late 1970s, Powers had settled in as resident writer, later regents professor, at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., having taught briefly at Smith College and Marquette University.

On one occasion a visit I made to Collegeville coincided with the arrival of Powers’ close friend Gordon Zahn, the distinguished sociologist, pioneer in Catholic social thought and cofounder of Pax Christi. Both men were conscientious objectors during World War II, “fellow travelers” of the Catholic Worker movement and contributors to its monthly newspaper. Their deep affection for the Catholic church did not prevent them from making sardonic remarks about its peculiarities. Powers once told an interviewer, for example, “There’s nothing bigger, cruder, more vulgar in the world” than the institutional church.

Powers’ other close friends included George Garrelts, national Newman Club chaplain in the late 1950s and later professor of religion at Mercyhurst College, Erie, Pa., and Fr. Harvey F.X. Egan, pastor of St. Joan of Arc Parish in Minneapolis. Both men were rumored to be models for the central character in Powers’ first novel, Morte d’Urban (1962), winner of the National Book Award. Powers and Garrelts first met as eighth grade students at a Franciscan academy in Illinois, not far from where Powers was born, and remained close friends.

All four men -- Powers, Zahn, Garrelts and Egan -- have made significant contributions to American Catholicism, especially prior to and just after the Second Vatican Council. They were associated with communities such as the Catholic Worker and with Worship magazine at St. John’s University, and indebted to artists and writers of the period such as Eric Gill, Jacques Maritain, Evelyn Waugh, Allen Tate and others of extraordinary talent.

In the 1980s, a quarter century after the appearance of Morte d’Urban, Powers published a second novel Wheat That Springeth Green (1988), which takes place in that turbulent year, 1968. The central figure is, again, a priest, a good man worried about his soul, who must endure the loud music and hippie manner of a young curate and his friends, some with rather casually defined sexual partnerships.

Powers had an uncanny ear for the slightest nuance in speech of a particular era. His was a comedy of manners, rendered with an attention to detail that is almost unknown in contemporary American fiction, with its heavy dependence upon psychological and at times self-indulgent commentary. He had no patience with the journal-writing school of letters, having been shaped by the standards of early Modernism, almost neoclassical by comparison.

A remarkable human being, Powers could, nonetheless, be just plain ornery in his responses and wiseacre remarks. He read poetry and respected T.S. Eliot and Robert Lowell, whom he knew, but admitted that he was somewhat ignorant about that subject. He enjoyed making fun of Walt Whitman -- “Isn’t he the one who wrote, ‘As I went bowling, bowling, bowling?’ ”

As with Allen Tate, Caroline Gordon and Flannery O’Connor, who praised Powers’ stories, he belonged to the tradition in American writing that looks back to Hawthorne and Poe, rather than Emerson and Whitman. He admired Irish storytellers such as James Joyce, Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain. In a Powers story, as with theirs, action carries the story line. All commentary (“dross”) is stripped away. One might describe his style as O’Connor described the central figure in one of her stories: “She was plain, plain.”

There is, at the same time, an elegance about his art, along with precision of detail. Powers’ best-known story, “The Valiant Woman,” for example, recounts the repartee and intricate dance between the housekeeper for a small parish rectory and the pastor. Their nightly “battle,” a game of honeymoon bridge, is conveyed with a skill equal to Alexander Pope’s in “The Rape of the Lock.” Although they respect one another, the housekeeper and the priest grate on one another and vie with one another, in minor power plays. Powers’ religious sense gave perspective to the carefully crafted stories. The characters elicit the reader’s affection as the author pokes gentle fun at his characters’ foibles.

Powers satirized the culture he loved, Midwest Catholicism, and made great art out of its idiosyncrasies and its real, if unexpected aesthetic sense. That culture possesses energy and considerable adaptability, grounded in a kind of modesty and understated moral strength that are foreign to or at least different from the ecclesiastical politics and upper-middle class clubbiness of New York or New England Catholicism.

In the mid-1980s, my family and several in-laws -- 13 strong -- arrived at the Powers’ home in a heavy summer rainstorm, to be welcomed with generous servings of scotch, chicken tetrazzini and fresh raspberry pie. Their rather small two-story quarters were simply but elegantly appointed, with a few antiques and choice pieces of art by Joseph O’Connell, a longtime friend. Betty grew much of their food in a garden just back of the house, which formerly was servants quarters on the grounds of the Benedictine monastery and college campus.

A genuine hospitality and communal feeling permeated their modest home. Books by their favorite authors -- Waugh, O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor and Anthony Trollope, as well as first editions of Jim’s short story collections, Prince of Darkness (1956), The Presence of Grace (1956), and Look How the Fish Live (1975) filled the few bookshelves in their living room.

Their home exemplified the traditional values and aesthetic standard that informed Powers’ fiction.

Michael True, author of An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition in American Literature (1995), lives in Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999