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.
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