J. F. Powers

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(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 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 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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

J. F. Powers...

(The entire section is 1,576 words.)