J. F. Powers

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J. F. Powers American Literature Analysis

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The focus of all Powers’s major stories and two novels is upon the clash between the secular values of American society and the spiritual ideals of the Catholic Church. Breaking away from the tradition of sentimental portraits of the religious life that characterized popular Catholic literature and film (Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald as idealized priests, for example), Powers depicts his priests with a satiric and yet compassionate eye. He poses the question: How is one to model his or her life after Jesus Christ and yet survive in an attractive, materialistic society that demands success? In answering, Powers created some of the most memorable characters in recent literature: Fathers Didymus, Urban, and Hackett.

Powers’s failure to become a popular writer may have rested in his singular focus upon the psychological and spiritual struggles of priests to discover themselves and the meaning of their vocations. This is not the stuff of popular literature, especially as his books are notably devoid of overt sex and violence. While it is true that he lacks the scope of Catholic writers such as Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and François Mauriac, Powers’s intense and perceptive analysis of the priestly mind has no equal. Despite the simple surfaces of his stories, he draws upon a rich tradition within and without his church to develop his characters.

His works are filled with allusions to medieval Christianity, Arthurian legends, and arcane theological writings, and he skillfully blends the bountiful texture of Catholic tradition with the most mundane affairs of modern life. A Trappist monk watches the Minnesota Twins on television. A priest, loosely drawn after Sir Lancelot, constructs a golf course to increase the number of retreatants for his order.

Although Powers’s fiction can be comic, it also confronts and examines serious issues, ranging from the mistreatment of black people and Jews to his more familiar subject of the inner struggles of clerics to achieve a balance between physical and spiritual values. Powers’s pacifism and critical attitude toward American superficiality underlies many of his stories. One does not need to be a Catholic to appreciate his portrayal of young men, who happen to be priests, doing battle with the symbols of corporate America while sometimes falling prey to its seductive attractions. Powers, in short, was fascinated with a fallen humanity that has not abandoned its dreams and ideals. Despite all the irony and satire, his writings attest the obsessive desire all people share to make their lives worthy of memory.

Powers is noted for his crisp dialogue and transparent narrative. There is not an abundance of action or painterly passages in his works. Rather, he establishes a believable setting—usually in small-town America—in which he develops his characters. Even when he is not writing from the first-person point of view, he stages his dialogue and narrative so as to reveal the minds and characters of his heroes. Careful not to moralize or judge his characters, Powers presents to the reader a series of characters who are neither villains nor saints but complex amalgams of good and evil, innocence, and experience. Through the use of irony, he provides a comic perspective from which to view his characters, careful always of maintaining a detached and frequently compassionate attitude toward them.

Finally, it is important to note Powers’s uniquely American priests. Like the author, they are devoted to such national sports as football and baseball, enjoy such things as drinking (sometimes too much), golf, flashy automobiles, television, and entering into the competitive fray (like any good American businessperson) in order to satisfy their ambitions for power, prestige, and the material symbols of...

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success. This tradition of American materialism, however, frequently clashes with the Roman Catholic tradition of asceticism and the Puritan values of early America. Powers has no peer when it comes to capturing this cultural duality in the Catholic Church poignantly.

Morte d’Urban

First published: 1962

Type of work: Novel

An assertive priest attempts to revitalize the stagnant Order of St. Clement by applying the methods of corporate America.

In the epigraph to Morte d’Urban, a quotation from J. M. Barrie, Powers sets forth the central ironic theme of his novel: “The life of every man is a diary in which he means to write one story, and writes another.” Father Urban (Harvey Roche), a clever, manipulative speaker and organizer dedicated to making the Church a prospering and efficient social institution, comes to discover in the eleventh hour that what really counts in the religious life is one’s spiritual well-being.

Acknowledged by many critics as Powers’s best book, Morte d’Urban was originally written from the point of view of its hero, Father Urban. Powers recast his novel, employing a third-person narrative while skillfully retaining Father Urban as the central intelligence of the story. This shift in point of view enabled Powers to develop the important ironic perspective that shapes the entire novel. Funny, ironic, satiric, and compassionate, Powers brings a Chaucerian tone to the modern novel.

A middle-aged member of the fictitious Order of St. Clement, Father Urban travels out of Chicago, raising money, preaching dynamic sermons to standing-room-only crowds of admiring listeners. His charm, energy, and go-getting spirit would have made him an outstanding success in business, but the Clementines are run by and constituted of priests who are largely conservative, fumbling, and doddering fellows. As far as religious orders go, the Clementines are losers: Their vocations are down, some of their houses have been taken over by more aggressive diocesan priests, and none of their members but Father Urban seems to understand their problem.

By wooing a wealthy benefactor named Billy Cosgrove, an egotistical son of Mammon, Father Urban manages to obtain new quarters for the Clementines. Instead of nurturing Father Urban’s enterprising spirit, however, the provincial sends him, along with Father John (Jack), to the order’s failing retreat center in the remote community of Duesterhaus (meaning “house of gloom”). Father Wilfrid, the rector, obsessed with the petty details of maintaining the retreat house and with asserting his dominance over Father Urban, sets Fathers John and Urban to the task of painting walls and varnishing floors (with the cheapest materials) in order to make the house more attractive to retreatants.

Having spent more than a month wasting his talents at St. Clement’s Hill (so named by Father Urban), Father Urban is sent by Father Wilfrid to replace a vacationing pastor at St. Monica’s Church. During the next month and a half, Father Urban manages to convince the cautious and ailing pastor, Father Phil Smith, to build a new church. When he later discovers that Father Smith has died during his vacation, Father Urban thinks that he may be chosen to be the new pastor. The bishop, however, offers him an Indian mission, which he rejects in favor of returning to St. Clement’s Hill.

Father Urban persuades Billy Cosgrove to buy a tract of land adjoining St. Clement’s Hill, have it developed as a golf course, and donate it to the order. Hearing that the Bishop is interested in taking over the Hill as the site for a new seminary, Father Urban invites the bishop to play a round of golf with him in the hope of convincing him of the Hill’s productive future. During the course of the game, however, the bishop’s ball strikes Father Urban in the head, sending him to the hospital. After he regains consciousness at the hospital, Father Urban learns that the bishop, feeling guilty for striking him in the head with his golf ball, has decided not to take over St. Clement’s Hill.

Nevertheless, after being struck by the ball, Father Urban moves into a series of adventures that totally changes his life. He goes to live at the estate of the wealthy benefactor of St. Clement’s, Mrs. Thwaites, in order to recuperate from his trauma. While there, he attempts to help out Mrs. Thwaites’s servant, a young Irish woman named Katie, who has lost most of her earnings playing dominoes with Mrs. Thwaites. Father Urban learns later that his intervention has proved fruitless.

Later, Father Urban goes on a fishing trip with Billy Cosgrove and again rebels against the wealthy establishment by undermining Billy’s attempt to drown a deer. As Billy struggles to drown the animal, Father Urban revs the engine of the boat, causing Billy to fall into the lake. Angered by his humiliation, Billy gets into the boat and drives away, leaving Father Urban to fend for himself. On his return to St. Clement’s Hill, Father Urban is picked up by Sally Thwaites Hopwood, the married daughter of Mrs. Thwaites. She drives him to an island tower, where she attempts to seduce him by stripping nude for a swim. He resists the temptation. Furious, she drives away from the island in her boat, leaving Father Urban stranded.

Plagued by headaches and aging rapidly, Father Urban attempts to carry out his work at St. Clement’s Hill. Beaten down by his recent trials, he no longer attempts to challenge the plans of Father Wilfrid. During a conference at the Hill, however, he receives the news that he has been appointed the new provincial of the Order of St. Clement. Ironically, he no longer possesses the energy and will to develop the order’s material well-being. He gains a reputation as a pious priest who finds himself comfortable in his home at St. Clement’s Hill.

Has Father Urban become more spiritual and saintly, or has he simply been beaten down by the unexpected turns of the economic forces that he had formerly mastered? Like Lancelot, Father Urban has chosen earthly desires over heavenly bliss and thus failed to discover the Holy Grail. Having withstood the temptations of Mrs. Thwaites, Billy Cosgrove, and Sally Thwaites, however, he, like Lancelot, may have achieved his sanctity by becoming a true priest—one devoted to spiritual rather than material values.

As in so many of Powers’s stories, he develops the tension between action and contemplation and suggests that only a balance between the two forces may bring about inner peace and salvation. “Should be two kinds of men in every busy parish,” Father Smith says, “priest-priests and priest-promoters.” Father Urban replies, “I’d say a man has to be both. At least a man can try. Sometimes that’s the most a man can do.” Up until the time he is hospitalized, however, Father Urban is almost exclusively the priest-promoter. He is a regular guy who is at his best when raising money, shaking hands with congregants who have been dazzled by his sermons, and persuading wealthy parishioners to contribute to the Church.

All these activities, to be sure, seem necessary if the Church is to compete in a United States that prizes new construction, growth, numbers, and other visible signs of achievement. On the other hand, if the Church models itself after successful corporate America, how is it to model itself after Christ? The seemingly simple admonition of Christ to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s proves to be a very difficult and complex task, especially if one is an American who is bent upon being a winner.

Father Urban’s getting struck in the head by a golf ball proves to be the ironic turning point in his life (and in the novel). Hoping to bring into St. Clement’s Hill a better class of retreatants by constructing an attractive golf course on the adjoining grounds, Father Urban—at the top of his game as a promoter—is physically stopped in his tracks by a golf ball, the very emblem of his new enterprise. As Powers himself has said, “the hit on the head is a real factor. It is not psychological. It’s physical. Nothing else could have slowed up a man like Urban, but he is also a wiser and a better man. He has lost this aggressive ’be a winner’ kind of thing, which in an American, I think is not a bad thing.”

Although the last chapter of the novel is titled “Dirge,” Father Urban’s “death” proves to be metaphorical. His former self has died, and he is resurrected from his previous life as a go-getter to accept the spiritual values of the Church. It no longer matters to him that the incompetent Father Wilfrid continues to run St. Clement’s Hill, that the order has lost its building on the North Side of Chicago, and that its weekly radio program had been canceled in favor of news and music. Many of the younger Clementines cannot understand why their new provincial is allowing their order to slide back into its dilatory and unproductive ways. Father Urban thus finds himself in the position of the previous provincial when he (Father Urban) had rebelled against him for the very same reasons.

Morte d’Urban may, then, simply be read as a Catholic novel in which an aggressive, worldly wise priest discovers spiritual values after he is chastened by a physical disability, sexual temptation, and betrayal by his wealthy sponsors. The novel, however, has broader implications. It may also be read as the story of the hollow success of the American Dream. Although a priest, Father Urban has most of the characteristics of the successful American businessman: He is smooth, glib, manipulative, on the move, and desperate to be in the center of new development, new ideas, new growth. He believes in going first class or not at all. The nearly fatal blow to his action and head, however, makes it clear to him that the world will go on without him and that his previous bravado, based in part upon his childlike denial of mortality, has left him with an empty, worrisome world.

Wheat That Springeth Green

First published: 1988

Type of work: Novel

In developing his suburban parish and in working with his new curate, a middle-aged diocesan priest rediscovers his true vocation and turns to working with the poor.

Taking its title from a medieval French carol, Wheat That Springeth Green, like Morte d’Urban, develops the great Christian theme of the resurrection from the dead. The novel tells the story of Joe Hackett, a midwestern Catholic diocesan priest. At age forty-four, he is pastor of a comfortable suburban church in Inglenook, Minnesota. Despite his successful building campaign, he is an unhappy man who begins drinking; he is headed for despair until his curate, Father Bill, arrives. A priest of the 1960’s, immature and idealistic, Father Bill unwittingly elicits Joe’s paternal and pastoral instincts. In his struggle to shape Father Bill into a solid, responsible priest, Joe regains his sense of vocation, abandons his suburban parish, and dedicates his life to working with the poor in a slum parish.

Although writing from a third-person point of view, Powers frequently interjects dialogue and comment within parentheses to reflect Joe’s inner thoughts or to pick up talk that he hears going on around him. For example, when Joe is discussing his building plans with the archbishop, Powers projects within parentheses Joe’s imagined interpretation of his remarks:So Joe, then living in a room in the school and quite prepared to go on living under such conditions if advised to build a new church but dearly wishing, as he’d told the Arch and his reverend consultors, to keep the best wine till last (“Wine, Archbishop? Did he say wine?”—“Means a new church, you dummy”), had got his rectory.

After briefly tracing some of Joe’s tribulations and humiliations as a boy, Powers develops his character’s growing spiritual idealism as a seminarian. Convinced that the only ambition worthy of the priest was holiness—getting to know God and growing more like him—Joe begins to wear a hair shirt, like the saints of old, in order to subdue the flesh. He is determined to become a contemplative—otherwise, as he says, “our life . . . becomes one of sheer activity—the occupational disease of the diocesan clergy.”

Joe’s initiation into the practical world comes with his assignment as curate in Holy Faith Church, the pastor of which, Father Van Slaag, is the only known contemplative in the diocese. As he gradually learns, Van Slaag’s detachment from worldly matters means that he, Joe, must take on most of the duties to keep the parish going. After five years at Holy Faith he openly admits, in what seems like an act of betrayal not only of Father Van Slaag but also of his own high spiritual standards, that Father Van Slaag is not doing his job.

Joe finally obtains his own parish in the upper-middle-class suburbs of Inglenook, Minnesota. Having put his priestly idealism (the hair shirt, the life of contemplation, Father Van Slaag) behind him, Joe quickly establishes one of the finest rectories, schools, and convents in the diocese. Joe has become a go-getter, much like Father Urban, and is proud of his accomplishments.

In the process of developing his parish and educating his new curate, however, Joe becomes increasingly disillusioned about the values embodied in this upper-middle-class world. Although taking to drink as a means of escape, he continues to battle materialist corruption, as embodied in one of his wealthy parishioners, who uses his wealth and influence with the archbishop to get his children into the parish school, over Joe’s objections. His growing radicalism can also be seen in his moral support of a young parishioner who flees to Canada to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War.

Tempered with the wisdom that comes from experience, Joe’s youthful idealism returns with renewed vigor. Believing that “the separation of Church and Dreck was a matter of life and death for the world, that the Church was the one force in the world with a chance to save it,” Joe abandons his suburban parish for one in the slums, appropriately named Holy Cross.

“The Forks”

First published: 1947 (collected in The Stories of J. F. Powers, 2000)

Type of work: Short story

The opposition between a worldly pastor and his idealistic young curate leads to a series of comic confrontations.

In “The Forks,” Powers depicts two very different kinds of priests. On one hand is Monsignor, a snobbish man very much at home with the things of this world. He wears a Panama hat, uses Steeple cologne, and drives a long black car. Doomed to remain a monsignor now that all his intercessors are dead, he determines to live as comfortably as he can. He orders for himself the luxury of a medieval garden with a spouting whale jostling with Neptune in the waters of the fountain. He has no intellectual pretensions and maintains his mental calm by either ignoring or condemning innovations and controversy: “His mind was made up on everything, excessively so.” In his eyes, communism and organized labor are the chief dangers to society.

The status quo has been kind to Monsignor, and he wants no interference with tradition now. His curate, Father Eudex, on the other hand, reads the radical Catholic Worker, neglects to shave under his armpits, contemplates buying a Model A in opposition to Monsignor’s contention that a shabby car is unbefitting a priest, works in his undershirt with Monsignor’s gardener, and sympathizes with labor unions.

In short, Powers has placed in one rectory an old, worldly traditionalist and a young, idealistic radical, and the drama that unfolds from their interaction is what the story is about. On the surface, Powers seems to be satirizing the worldly monsignor and lauding the saintly and socially conscious curate, but upon closer reading one discovers that Father Eudex, with his blinkered vision and unyielding idealism, is also the object of Powers’s satire.

Assuming Christlike motives in his concern for social justice, Father Eudex (his name in Latin means “judge”) actually appears to be driven by perversity. If Monsignor enjoys his prestigious automobile, Father Eudex rejoices in its humble counterpart, the Model A. When the monsignor accepts a check from the Rival Tractor Company, Father Eudex, to show his support for labor, destroys his. The monsignor condemns communism; Father Eudex reads The Catholic Worker.

The very title of the story suggests the opposition between the two priests. After dinner, Monsignor notices that his curate has failed to use all the silverware provided at his plate and declares that “Father Eudex did not know the forks.” The implication is that the young man’s idealism is naïve and a little foolhardy, that it has blinded him to the religious, social, and political exigencies of parish life. The ideal priest, one might assume, would be one who could balance the experience and wisdom of the monsignor with the idealism and energy of his curate.

Powers implies a judgment of Father Eudex not only through Eudex’s series of negative judgments of his superior but through an allusion to the parable of the talents. In order to solve its excess-profits problem, the Rival Tractor Company annually sent checks to local clergymen. Father Eudex is the only character in the story reluctant to accept the money, which he views as Rival’s dishonest attempt to win away sympathy from its union workers who have frequently struck the company. On the surface, Father Eudex seems to have acted nobly by destroying his check. In the parable of the talents, however, Eudex’s biblical counterpart is described as foolishly burying his one talent and is declared wanting in his stewardship.

Paradox and irony keep the reader from being too harsh a judge of either character. Perverse, idealistic, naïve, Father Eudex is not a bad priest nor is he a saintly one. Rather, like his superior, he is a flawed human being. Although the parable of the talents clearly implies a judgment upon Father Eudex, the Rival Tractor Company is not truly analogous to the just Master in the Bible; consequently, one’s final judgment of Father Eudex is tempered with mercy and compassion.

“Lions, Harts, Leaping Does”

First published: 1943 (collected in Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, and Other Stories, 1963)

Type of work: Short story

An aged, saintly Franciscan friar seeking spiritual perfection believes, shortly before his death, that he has failed God.

The setting for “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” is a Franciscan monastery during a bleak, snowy winter. Father Didymus, an aged priest, is being read to by his friend, Brother Titus, a simple, holy, and rather forgetful old man. As this elegaic story opens, Titus reads from Bishop Bale’s critical Lives of the Popes, which reminds Didymus of the foibles of even great church leaders.

As the two friars go for a walk in the cold snow, Didymus meditates upon his own spiritual lapses. He is especially distressed with his decision not to visit his ninety-two-year-old brother, Seraphin, also a priest, recently returned from Rome after twenty-five years. Didymus feels that by adhering to the letter of his vows as a cloistered priest in not visiting his brother he has exhibited spiritual pride and has hurt his brother. Upon returning from his walk, he receives a telegram informing him that his brother has died.

Later, during the Vespers ceremony, Didymus collapses and wakes to find himself confined to a wheelchair. Titus brings a caged canary to his room for companionship and continues to read to him. This time, however, he reads from the writings of the mystic saint and poet Saint John of the Cross. One of Saint John’s paradoxical tenets is that one may be closest to God during the moments one believes oneself to be abandoned by him. Powers clearly implies that Didymus, despite his religious scruples and his sense of failure, achieves a heightened sanctity through his present suffering.

Projecting his own sense of imprisonment unto the canary, Didymus releases the bird from its cage, and it flies out the window and disappears into the snowy trees, “the snowy arms of God.” Didymus will die without discovering a sign of God’s presence within himself. Knowing he still has to look outside himself for such a sign, he turns to Titus. “God still chose to manifest Himself most in sanctity,” he thinks. Didymus’s denial of a sign, however, is paradoxically the very sign he is seeking. Like the canary that vanishes among the dark, cold trees, the soul of Didymus blends into the bleak landscape that occupied so much of his attention during his last days. His soul has become “lost in the snowy arms of God”; his soul was saved without his ever being conscious of the spiritual climax.

“Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” was Powers’s first clerical story. Unlike his subsequent fiction, this story eschews satire and comedy for a compassionate, sensitive, and theologically rich portrait of a priest’s quest for sanctity. Temptation here is not of the usual, dramatic kind—that of sex, money, or ambition—but of a subtle, almost unrecognizable variety that stems from doing the right thing for the wrong reason—in this case, obeying the rules of the cloister out of pride. Didymus’s suffering is quiet and internal, and Powers attempts to portray it by describing Didymus’s dreams and by using such symbols as the caged canary.


J. F. Powers Short Fiction Analysis