J. F. Powers Essay - Critical Essays

J. F. Powers American Literature Analysis

The focus of all Powers’s major stories and two novels is upon the clash between the secular values of American society and the spiritual ideals of the Catholic Church. Breaking away from the tradition of sentimental portraits of the religious life that characterized popular Catholic literature and film (Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald as idealized priests, for example), Powers depicts his priests with a satiric and yet compassionate eye. He poses the question: How is one to model his or her life after Jesus Christ and yet survive in an attractive, materialistic society that demands success? In answering, Powers created some of the most memorable characters in recent literature: Fathers Didymus, Urban, and Hackett.

Powers’s failure to become a popular writer may have rested in his singular focus upon the psychological and spiritual struggles of priests to discover themselves and the meaning of their vocations. This is not the stuff of popular literature, especially as his books are notably devoid of overt sex and violence. While it is true that he lacks the scope of Catholic writers such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and François Mauriac, Powers’s intense and perceptive analysis of the priestly mind has no equal. Despite the simple surfaces of his stories, he draws upon a rich tradition within and without his church to develop his characters.

His works are filled with allusions to medieval Christianity, Arthurian legends, and arcane theological writings, and he skillfully blends the bountiful texture of Catholic tradition with the most mundane affairs of modern life. A Trappist monk watches the Minnesota Twins on television. A priest, loosely drawn after Sir Lancelot, constructs a golf course to increase the number of retreatants for his order.

Although Powers’s fiction can be comic, it also confronts and examines serious issues, ranging from the mistreatment of black people and Jews to his more familiar subject of the inner struggles of clerics to achieve a balance between physical and spiritual values. Powers’s pacifism and critical attitude toward American superficiality underlies many of his stories. One does not need to be a Catholic to appreciate his portrayal of young men, who happen to be priests, doing battle with the symbols of corporate America while sometimes falling prey to its seductive attractions. Powers, in short, was fascinated with a fallen humanity that has not abandoned its dreams and ideals. Despite all the irony and satire, his writings attest the obsessive desire all people share to make their lives worthy of memory.

Powers is noted for his crisp dialogue and transparent narrative. There is not an abundance of action or painterly passages in his works. Rather, he establishes a believable setting—usually in small-town America—in which he develops his characters. Even when he is not writing from the first-person point of view, he stages his dialogue and narrative so as to reveal the minds and characters of his heroes. Careful not to moralize or judge his characters, Powers presents to the reader a series of characters who are neither villains nor saints but complex amalgams of good and evil, innocence, and experience. Through the use of irony, he provides a comic perspective from which to view his characters, careful always of maintaining a detached and frequently compassionate attitude toward them.

Finally, it is important to note Powers’s uniquely American priests. Like the author, they are devoted to such national sports as football and baseball, enjoy such things as drinking (sometimes too much), golf, flashy automobiles, television, and entering into the competitive fray (like any good American businessperson) in order to satisfy their ambitions for power, prestige, and the material symbols of success. This tradition of American materialism, however, frequently clashes with the Roman Catholic tradition of asceticism and the Puritan values of early America. Powers has no peer when it comes to capturing this cultural duality in the Catholic Church poignantly.

Morte d’Urban

First published: 1962

Type of work: Novel

An assertive priest attempts to revitalize the stagnant Order of St. Clement by applying the methods of corporate America.

In the epigraph to Morte d’Urban, a quotation from J. M. Barrie, Powers sets forth the central ironic theme of his novel: “The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another.” Father Urban (Harvey Roche), a clever, manipulative speaker and organizer dedicated to making the Church a prospering and efficient social institution, comes to discover in the eleventh hour that what really counts in the religious life is one’s spiritual well-being.

Acknowledged by many critics as Powers’s best book, Morte d’Urban was originally written from the point of view of its hero, Father Urban. Powers recast his novel, employing a third-person narrative while skillfully retaining Father Urban as the central intelligence of the story. This shift in point of view enabled Powers to develop the important ironic perspective that shapes the entire novel. Funny, ironic, satiric, and compassionate, Powers brings a Chaucerian tone to the modern novel.

A middle-aged member of the fictitious Order of St. Clement, Father Urban travels out of Chicago, raising money, preaching dynamic sermons to standing-room-only crowds of admiring listeners. His charm, energy, and go-getting spirit would have made him an outstanding success in business, but the Clementines are run by and constituted of priests who are largely conservative, fumbling, and doddering fellows. As far as religious orders go, the Clementines are losers: Their vocations are down, some of their houses have been taken over by more aggressive diocesan priests, and none of their members but Father Urban seems to understand their problem.

By wooing a wealthy benefactor named Billy Cosgrove, an egotistical son of Mammon, Father Urban manages to obtain new quarters for the Clementines. Instead of nurturing Father Urban’s enterprising spirit, however, the provincial sends him, along with Father John (Jack), to the order’s failing retreat center in the remote community of Duesterhaus (meaning “house of gloom”). Father Wilfrid, the rector, obsessed with the petty details of maintaining the retreat house and with asserting his dominance over Father Urban, sets Fathers John and Urban to the task of painting walls and varnishing floors (with the cheapest materials) in order to make the house more attractive to retreatants.

Having spent more than a month wasting his talents at St. Clement’s Hill (so named by Father Urban), Father Urban is sent by Father Wilfrid to replace a vacationing pastor at St. Monica’s Church. During the next month and a half, Father Urban manages to convince the cautious and ailing pastor, Father Phil Smith, to build a new church. When he later discovers that Father Smith has died during his vacation, Father Urban thinks that he may be chosen to be the new pastor. The bishop, however, offers him an Indian mission, which he rejects in favor of returning to St. Clement’s Hill.

Father Urban persuades Billy Cosgrove to buy a tract of land adjoining St. Clement’s Hill, have it developed as a golf course, and donate it to the order. Hearing that the Bishop is interested in taking over the Hill as the site for a new seminary, Father Urban invites the bishop to play a round of golf with him in the hope of convincing him of the Hill’s productive future. During the course of the game, however, the bishop’s ball strikes Father Urban in the head, sending him to the hospital. After he regains consciousness at the hospital, Father Urban learns that the bishop, feeling guilty for striking him in the head with his golf ball, has decided not to take over St. Clement’s Hill.

Nevertheless, after being struck by the ball, Father Urban moves into a series of adventures that totally changes his life. He goes to live at the estate of the wealthy benefactor of St. Clement’s, Mrs. Thwaites, in order to recuperate from his trauma. While there, he attempts to help out Mrs. Thwaites’s servant, a young Irish woman named Katie, who has lost most of her earnings playing dominoes with Mrs. Thwaites. Father Urban learns later that his intervention has proved fruitless.

Later, Father Urban goes on a fishing trip with Billy Cosgrove and again rebels against the wealthy establishment by undermining Billy’s attempt to drown a deer. As Billy struggles to drown the animal, Father Urban revs the engine of the boat, causing Billy to fall into the lake. Angered by his humiliation, Billy gets into the boat and drives away, leaving Father Urban to fend for himself. On his return to St. Clement’s Hill, Father Urban is picked up by Sally Thwaites Hopwood, the married daughter of Mrs. Thwaites. She drives him to an island tower, where she attempts to seduce him by stripping nude for a swim. He resists the temptation. Furious, she drives away from the island in her boat, leaving Father Urban stranded.

Plagued by headaches and aging rapidly, Father Urban attempts to carry out his work at St. Clement’s Hill. Beaten down by his recent trials, he no longer attempts to challenge the plans of Father Wilfrid. During a conference at the Hill, however, he receives the news that he has been appointed the new provincial of the Order of St. Clement. Ironically, he no longer possesses the energy and will to develop the order’s material well-being. He gains a reputation as a pious priest who finds himself comfortable in his home at St. Clement’s Hill.

Has Father Urban become more spiritual and saintly, or has he simply been beaten down by the unexpected turns of the economic forces that he had formerly mastered? Like Lancelot, Father Urban has chosen earthly desires over heavenly bliss and thus failed to discover the Holy Grail. Having withstood the temptations of Mrs. Thwaites, Billy Cosgrove, and Sally Thwaites, however, he, like Lancelot, may have achieved his sanctity by becoming a true priest—one devoted to spiritual rather than material values.

As in so many of Powers’s stories, he develops the tension between action and contemplation and suggests...

(The entire section is 4232 words.)