J. F. Powers

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 he married Betty Wahl, and they set up house in Avon, Minnesota. In 1947, he was briefly a resident at Yaddo, a writer’s conference, where he completed his collection of short stories Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories (1947). “The Valiant Woman” earned Powers an O. Henry Award in that year. While teaching classes at St. John’s College, Minnesota, and Marquette University in Milwaukee, he began publishing his stories in such magazines as Collier’s, The New Yorker, and Partisan Review.

In 1951, Powers moved with his family to Greystones, Ireland, where they lived for two years. In 1952, they returned to the United States and took up residence in St. Cloud, Minnesota, for the following five years. In 1956, he published his second collection of short fiction, titled The Presence of Grace. He and his family again lived in Ireland (in Dublin) for a year and then returned to St. Cloud in 1958, where they remained until 1963. It was during these last years at St. Cloud that Powers worked on his first novel, Morte d’Urban; when published in 1962, it was awarded the National Book Award.

Many of Powers’s short stories appeared over the years in The New Yorker, a magazine well suited to his subtle, ironic style and to his satiric portrait gallery of fallible and quietly heroic priests. Although a few of his stories focus upon such social issues as the plight of black people and Jews, most of Powers’s tales, including his third collection of short fiction, Look How the Fish Live (1975), dwell upon the clergy. Powers’s second novel, Wheat That Springeth Green (1988), reverts to the theme of Morte d’Urban, as his new hero attempts to balance priestly spiritual values against the forces of American secular life. Not the same critical success as Morte d’Urban—some reviewers found the spiritual rebirth of the hero in the last chapter to be unconvincing—Wheat That Springeth Green nevertheless offers a perceptive insight into the character of the American priesthood...

(This entire section contains 655 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

and the need to rethink accepted middle-class American values.

Powers taught writing at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. Wheat That Springeth Green was nominated for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1988. The following year Powers was honored by the Wetherfield Foundation in New York City. He died in 1999, at the age of eighty-one, leaving five children.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

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 moral revulsion at the injustices to which African Americans were subjected was tellingly expressed in such stories as “He Don’t Plant Cotton” and “The Trouble.” Powers became a pacifist in 1943. Arrested two weeks after he failed to report for induction, he was, after pleading not guilty and waiving trial by jury, sentenced to serve three years in Sandstone Federal Prison in Minnesota. He was paroled in late 1944 after serving thirteen months of his sentence. He then went to St. Paul and worked as a hospital orderly. In 1945, he met Elizabeth Alice Wahl at St. Benedict’s College in St. Joseph’s, Minnesota, and the following year they were married. She, like Powers, pursued a writing career.

Powers was a resident at the Yaddo community in 1947, the year in which Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories, his first collection of stories, was published. The book met with favorable critical response. In 1948, Powers received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Institute of Arts and Letters (NIAL), and taught at St. John’s University of Collegeville, Minnesota. He continued teaching for several years, this time at Marquette University, and had another residency at Yaddo. Throughout the 1950’s, Powers and his growing family (he and his wife had five children—Katherine, Mary, James, Hugh, and Jane) lived in either Minnesota or Ireland. In 1956, the year in which his second collection of stories, The Presence of Grace, was published, he taught at the University of Michigan. Powers once said that teaching was something he turned to out of need, when he ran out of money.

Powers’s first novel, Morte d’Urban, was published by Doubleday in 1962. It won the 1963 National Book Award and the Thermod Monsen Award, given by the Chicago critics for the best book written by a midwesterner. Powers was writer-in-residence at Smith College between 1965 and 1966. The short-story collection Look How the Fish Live appeared in 1975. His second novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, was published in 1988. Besides receiving grants from the NIAL and the Guggenheim, Powers received a Rockefeller Fellowship on three occasions.