The literary output of James Farl Powers was small, but his wry, humorous, and highly original tales about the toils of Roman Catholic priests in the American Midwest ensured his niche in the history of American fiction. Powers attended Northwestern University and subsequently worked as a bookstore clerk and as an insurance salesman. In 1943 three of his stories appeared in The Catholic Worker. He was married in 1946 and had five children. After his first collection of short fiction, Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories, appeared in 1947, Powers supported his family by writing and occasional teaching; he also received Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships.
Powers’s career cannot be said to have “developed” in any traditional sense. The themes of Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories are the same as the themes that run through his 1988 novel Wheat That Springeth Green: ecclesiastical politics and jealousies in Catholic midwestern communities; anxieties within the parish about finance, furniture, and church buildings; and the apparent incongruity between a rich Old World religion and its reincarnation amid the secular badlands of Illinois and Minnesota. That incongruity is only an apparent one for Powers, who expounds on the universality of Catholicism and the ways in which its traditions and teachings can reemerge in the most unlikely places.
There is a strong streak of theological orthodoxy in Powers’s work. “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” one of the stories in his first collection, movingly describes the death of Father Didymus, a contemplative priest whose pride in his own prowess with geometrical equations must give way before the final equation of death. Similarly, in the novel Morte d’Urban, which won the National Book Award, Father Urban Roche’s worldly interests (fast sports cars and persuading Chicago businessmen to share their profits with his own comfortable parish) receive a brusque comeuppance when his bishop banishes him to a remote monastery in Minnesota. There...
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