J. F. Powers Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Born on July 8, 1917, in Jacksonville, Illinois, James Farl Powers was one of three children of James Ansbury and Zella Routzong Powers. His father was the dairy and poultry manager for Swift and Company, and his mother an amateur painter. Powers grew up in a comfortable, middle-class environment in which he played the usual sports and read Tom Swift adventures, the Arthurian legends, and Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-1839). What set Powers apart from his neighbors was that he and his family were Catholics in a predominantly Protestant town.

In 1931, his family moved to Quincy, Illinois. During his four years at Quincy Academy, taught by the Franciscans, Powers was more skilled as a basketball player than as a student. Upon graduation in 1935, he returned to live with his parents and took on various jobs during the following several years, including being the chauffeur for a wealthy investor in the South, an editor with Chicago Historical Records Survey, and a clerk at Brentano’s bookstore. While working at Brentano’s in 1942, he wrote his first short story, “He Don’t Plant Cotton.”

He was dismissed from his job in the bookstore for refusing to buy war bonds. During the early years of American involvement in World War II, Powers associated with various radical groups in Chicago such as the Catholic Worker movement, political exiles from Europe, and jazz musicians from the South. During this time he became a pacifist and turned to his writing to develop his sense of the clash between spiritual ideas and American materialist values.

In 1945...

(The entire section is 655 words.)

J. F. Powers Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

J. F. Powers stands as one of the most accomplished Catholic authors of the twentieth century. Unlike James Joyce or Graham Greene, he lacks breadth and variety in his writing, but his perceptive, ironic, and compassionate probing of the clerical mind has no equal. Like Jane Austen, he worked on a small scale, but within that framework he proved himself a master chronicler of American Catholicism by exploring life in the rectory, parish, and diocese.

Some critics believe that his short stories are his true metier. His two novels, however, which grew out of his short fiction, contain complex characters and exhibit an ample, Chaucerian humor that requires a larger canvas to develop. The crisp dialogue that captures the comic human voices of the time can be heard in their eloquence in both the short fiction and the novels.

J. F. Powers Biography

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

John Farl Powers was born into a Catholic family in a town in which the “best” people were Protestant, a fact which he said “to some extent made a philosopher out of me.” He attended Quincy Academy, taught by Franciscan Fathers, and many of his closest friends there later went into the priesthood. Powers himself was not attracted to clerical life, principally because of the social responsibilities, although he has said the praying would have attracted him. After graduation he worked in Marshall Field and Co., sold insurance, became a chauffeur, and clerked in Brentano’s bookshop. During World War II, Powers was a conscientious objector; as a result, he spent more than a year in a federal prison. His first story was published in 1943. In 1946, he married Elizabeth Wahl, also a writer. They were to have five children; at the time of her death, in 1988, they had been married for forty-two years.

After the war, Powers and his family lived in Ireland as well as in the United States. He supplemented income from writing by teaching at various colleges and universities; in addition, he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and two fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation. In 1976, Powers settled in Collegeville, Minnesota, where he became Regents Professor of English at St. John’s University.

J. F. Powers Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

James Farl Powers was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, on July 8, 1917, to James Ansbury and Zella Routzong Powers. He is one of three children. His father was a manager for Swift and Company, and the family lived in comfortable circumstances. Jacksonville was a predominantly Protestant community, and that made the Catholic Powers family part of a minority.

In 1924, the Powers family moved to Rockford, Illinois, where they lived for seven years and where James attended public schools. After another move, in 1931 to Quincy, Illinois, Powers became a student at the Franciscan-run Quincy Academy, from which he graduated in 1935. He then moved to Chicago, where, over the next eight years, he held various jobs: insurance salesman, clerk at Marshall Field department store, chauffeur, editor with the Chicago Historical Records Survey, and clerk at Brentano’s bookstore. From 1938 to 1940, he took night courses at Northwestern University. While working at Brentano’s, in 1942, he wrote his first story, “He Don’t Plant Cotton,” published the following year in Accent magazine. He was fired from Brentano’s for refusing to buy war bonds.

In 1943, Powers experienced what critic John V. Hagopian (in J. F. Powers, 1968) described as a religious crisis. Since moving to Chicago, he had become increasingly sensitive to social issues; the status of African Americans and war were two issues with which he was particularly concerned. His...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

J. F. Powers Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The literary output of James Farl Powers was small, but his wry, humorous, and highly original tales about the toils of Roman Catholic priests in the American Midwest ensured his niche in the history of American fiction. Powers attended Northwestern University and subsequently worked as a bookstore clerk and as an insurance salesman. In 1943 three of his stories appeared in The Catholic Worker. He was married in 1946 and had five children. After his first collection of short fiction, Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories, appeared in 1947, Powers supported his family by writing and occasional teaching; he also received Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships.

Powers’s career cannot be said to have “developed” in any traditional sense. The themes of Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories are the same as the themes that run through his 1988 novel Wheat That Springeth Green: ecclesiastical politics and jealousies in Catholic midwestern communities; anxieties within the parish about finance, furniture, and church buildings; and the apparent incongruity between a rich Old World religion and its reincarnation amid the secular badlands of Illinois and Minnesota. That incongruity is only an apparent one for Powers, who expounds on the universality of Catholicism and the ways in which its traditions and teachings can reemerge in the most unlikely places.

There is a strong streak of theological orthodoxy in Powers’s work. “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” one of the stories in his first collection, movingly describes the death of Father Didymus, a contemplative priest whose pride in his own prowess with geometrical equations must give way before the final equation of death. Similarly, in the novel Morte d’Urban, which won the National Book Award, Father Urban Roche’s worldly interests (fast sports cars and persuading Chicago businessmen to share their profits with his own comfortable parish) receive a brusque comeuppance when his bishop banishes him to a remote monastery in Minnesota. There...

(The entire section is 844 words.)