J. F. Powers Essay - Powers, J(ames) F(arl) (Vol. 4)

Powers, J(ames) F(arl) (Vol. 4)

Powers, J(ames) F(arl) 1917–

Powers is a Catholic American novelist and short story writer. Crisp, satirical, precise, and funny, his masterful prose has won several important awards. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

Mr. Powers's work is all the more interesting because its prime subject is one that has been little exploited by American writers and that would seem, in fact, to hold little promise for them. His subject is the contradictions that beset Catholicism, in practice if not in theory, because of its claim to an earthly as well as a divine mission and authority. Powers is, however, a very down to earth, very American, Catholic. In his work, the contradictions are expressed, not in any of those flagrant dramas of sin and redemption which form the staples of Christian romance but in the simple spectacle of priests going about the ordinary business of their professions. From this spectacle, however, he evokes a mingling of severity and raillery that is not simple…. In his own way he is a thorough realist, even a regionalist. His explorations into novelistic reality are confined to a locale that is small enough and distinct enough to be knowable in terms of what he wants to know about it. Improbably, for a writer of his faith, his locale is traditionally Lutheran Minnesota. The advantage to him of this setting, however, is just that it intensifies the essential contradictions. His fictive Minnesota is a country of interminable flats, vague lakes and woodlands, and slightly hostile natives. It is very far from [the ecclesiastical pomp of] Rome (traditional Rome) and centuries away from [the spiritual sublimities of] St. John of the Cross. The distance lends a certain unreality to [the] Church Latin, black habits, medieval vows, and dogmatic assumptions [of Minnesota Catholicism. From] this unreality arises some of the severity and much of the hilarity of the whole spectacle of priestly endeavor in Powers's domain. Yet neither the [dim] unrealities nor the all too raw realities of his Minnesota keep Powers from depicting it with restrained affection: the heart has, apparently, its regions. Nor are his ecclesiastics and their lay followers submitted to the kind of doctrinaire scrutiny which might see them as all of a piece….

For the purposes of fiction, [Powers] effects a divorce between faith and morals. The question is not whether faith, in the measure [that] his characters have it, makes them greatly better or greatly worse than those outside the fold. The question is whether those inside the fold can sustain the moral life at the level of average good will, self-respect and taste. If this approach is necessary to Powers as a moral realist, it is also congenial to him as a storyteller; and his love of narration in all shapes, sizes and degrees of seriousness is obvious. Stories within stories, ranging from rectory-table anecdotes through biblical parables to scraps of radio serials caught from the airwaves, thicken the fictional atmosphere. Each sentence tends to be an event; yet every event, like every firm but fluent sentence, is an open door into the next half-expected, half-shocking encounter. Thus does J. F. Powers coax stories out of the shabby rectories of his not altogether mythical Minnesota.

F. W. Dupee, "In the Powers Country," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1963 by Partisan Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission of F. W. Dupee), Spring, 1963, pp. 113-16.

Powers has always been a very uneven writer. In the fashion of that prototype of fiction writers, when he is good he is very very good, and when he is bad he is horrid. Powers has published two volumes of short stories, Prince of Darkness and Other Stories in 1947, and The Presence of Grace in 1956. Most of the stories deal with the Roman Catholic clergy, given an intense scrutiny, although Powers has written a few early stories, and those his worst, dealing with Negro life.

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Priest With the Fishnet Hatband," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 93-7.

Although Powers tellingly satirizes both the old priest and the young one [in "The Wrong Forks"], it cannot be said that what he satirizes in either is lack of spiritual depth but rather a failure to get results. If we are to say that the two priests, each in his own way, is an activist in the American tradition, with respect focused on pragmatism, so at this time is Powers himself. There is no sign yet that he attributes ineffectiveness to failure of the spirit. That insight is yet to be expressed….

Powers' stories have a bleakness we have not seen since we looked at Mauriac, and, as we will see, this bleakness persists in his novel. Waugh at least presented us with an innocent victim, Paul Pennyfeather. In Powers, if innocence is present at all, it is never drawn fully enough so that we can be really sure it is there.

Powers' novel, Morte d'Urban, has for its hero an almost perfect specimen of the modern American activist priest. No doubt as a former seminarian Powers had more insight into Americanism in the priesthood than the average American Catholic. Certainly he understands it, and he dissects its modes of progress with a skill almost surgical in its merciless precision….

Whatever Father Urban's failings, lack of pragmatic success is not among them—and this is a reversal of the situation Powers portrayed with Father Eudex and Father Burner. Powers has developed. His target this time is failure of the spirit, not lack of success. Powers has looked at the American Catholic community and seen in it the fulfillment of the worst of the fears that almost half a century earlier had led to Testem Benevolentiae….

It seems obvious that Morte d'Urban does not involve any detailed one-for-one correspondence with [Malory's Morte d'Arthur], but that the evocations of Malory are a loosely infused mocking refrain designed to reinvoke at suitable intervals the wildly dissonant thematic unity of the serious with the insanely funny that give the work resonance. To cast the life of Father Urban, the supersalesman of the Church, as a parody of epic was a brilliant inspiration. The story of Father Urban is as serious as it is comic. If we understand the consequence of the existence of priests like Father Urban in the American Catholic community, our laughter at his blunders is mingled with bitterness and outraged concern….

Father Urban's change of character after the episode with the golf ball again raises the question of free will in Powers' fiction. We cannot say that Father Urban is like Father Eudex in weighing alternatives and choosing his way. Rather his way is chosen for him by the accident. Father Urban is not shown responding to grace, he is shown being overwhelmed by the bishop's blow. To the degree that Urban is helpless before circumstances, he at the end becomes a puppet, and Powers has swung away from his earlier orientation to enter more deeply into the spirit of the American Jansenist and Irish Puritan heritage. It is hard to stir much emotional response to the puppetlike Urban at the end. Whatever our sympathy for him before, we feel a reduction in dramatic power, and the astringent comedy of the "conversion by golf ball" does not leave us as moved as we would have been if Urban had been led to change his character by some process of self-criticism or growth of insight. But this is precisely the point. Father Urban was simply not capable of that much self-criticism or growth of insight. If his conversion had not come about by golf ball, it would not have come about at all.

The bitterness in this book is darker than any that appeared in Powers' earlier work, even in such cruel stories as "The Eye." In "The Eye" human beings were responsible for the events. In Morte d'Urban chance determines Urban's fate…. Powers never turns our attention toward eternity, and his novel thus is cast further into shadow by lack of the dimension that had been important in Catholic aesthetics since Maritain and Claudel, and, if we except Powers' master, Waugh, had played a part in nearly all the European Catholic novels since Huysmans and Belloc. Powers is so astringent, indeed so flatly earthbound, that any mention of an afterlife, or even any intimation that it exists, would be dissonant—impossible to take seriously simply by the mode of his fiction….

When we considered the early growth of the Catholic novel in France, we saw that the major French Catholic authors avoided the moralizing form. Writing a novel to illustrate a thesis was not the mode of creative procedure adopted by either Bernanos or Mauriac. Waugh, however, wrote to illustrate his findings about his world, and Powers does the same. The problem with this kind of writing is its reliance on the central statement. Once Powers has made his statement that America's priests are despiritualized, he seems to have used up a large part of what he has to say. When the statement has been registered, the novel's impact exhausts itself—specially if one is familiar with Powers' short stories, many of which make the same statement.

Gene Kellogg, "J. F. Powers," in his The Vital Tradition: The Catholic Novel in a Period of Convergence, Loyola University Press, 1970, pp. 167-79.