J. F. Powers

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J. F. Powers Long Fiction Analysis

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J. F. Powers was an idealist; he also was a moralist. The two attitudes need not necessarily be incorporated in a single person, but they naturally combine when, as is the case with Powers, the ideal is perceived to be something that is to not only be admired but also sought. The vision of the pure idealist tends to be illuminated chiefly by aesthetic considerations; a discrepancy between the ideal and the real is seen primarily as an artistic failure. For the idealist-moralist, on the other hand, the discrepancy between the ideal and the real, while it can profitably be seen in aesthetic terms, is essentially a matter of morality. To call Powers an idealist is not to say that he was a perfectionist. Falling short of the ideal is, for fallen human beings, to be expected; but to abandon the ideal, to give up the pursuit of perfection, is to fail morally. As a moralist, Powers had quite distinct notions of what constitutes good and evil, and the difference between them is sharp. His morality was based on Catholic theology.

Powers’s “world,” his equivalent of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, is the American Catholic Church, more particularly that Church as it manifests itself in the Midwest, more particularly still, the clergy of that Church. Unquestionably, Powers’s best fiction is that written about Catholic priests. Choosing to write about priests was in itself an ingenious artistic ploy. The priest is by vocation, if not by disposition, an idealist, and therefore presents for an idealist-moralist an excellent focal point for examining the discrepancy between the ideal and the real. His characters are not drawn from the common people but from a kind of scaled-down aristocracy, people from whom readers would be justified in expecting more because more has been given them.

Morte d’Urban

Some of the critical reaction that followed immediately upon the publication of Morte d’Urban was adverse. Perhaps because of the fact that certain chapters had previously been published individually as short stories, the judgment was made that the work lacked the unity of structure necessary for a novel and was only a gathering of loosely associated tales. Only the most superficial reading of the work could sustain a judgment of this sort, for the novel is possessed of remarkable unity of theme and structure. The chief unifying element in the novel is its main character, Father Urban Roche. Father Urban is presented as a very attractive character, but a peculiar kind of deceptive satire, at which Powers excels, is at work in the novel. So attractive is Father Urban that the unwary reader might be led erroneously to conclude that the novel demonstrates the insensitivity of the powers-that-be within the Catholic Church, treating in shabby fashion a man of Father Urban’s talent and charm.

Morte d’Urban is essentially a comic novel, not only in the sense that it is funny, which it certainly is, but also, and more important, in the sense that it is the obverse of tragic. It is the story of a priest who, though by no means a bad man, is not manifesting in his life the type of goodness of which he is capable and, more pointedly, to which he is dedicated by vows. Father Urban is a Roman Catholic priest, but on the basis of the attitudes that dominate his consciousness and the behavior in which he engages, he is more appropriately identifiable as the all-American boy. He is Sinclair Lewis’s George F. Babbitt with a Roman collar, always on the lookout for the ecclesiastical main chance. He is intelligent, imaginative, witty, well...

(This entire section contains 3119 words.)

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spoken, and possessed of a seemingly inexhaustible fund of energy. He is doubtless sincere in his conviction that the various projects to which he dedicates his talents are eminently worthwhile—that is, for the good of the Church and, ultimately, for the greater glory of God. Father Urban is an activist, and there is something almost intrinsically admirable in the activist, but he is a person for whom activity has become altogether too much. His “can do” attitude toward his vocation, which puts a premium on tangible results, has been nurtured over the years at the expense of his interior life. While ostensibly oriented toward the spiritual, he is in fact a materialist.

Father Urban is a member of the Order of St. Clement, the Clementines, of whom it has been said that their uniqueness consists in their being noted for nothing at all. He concurs in this cruel judgment, but if he belongs to a third-rate order, he takes consolation in the fact that he is its star, the scintillating exception in an organization composed, for the most part, of bland mediocrities. He behaves toward his confreres with pro forma charitableness, a disguise for condescension. He is in fact an accomplished preacher, and in much demand as a conductor of parish missions. When he is assigned to the order’s latest white elephant, a retreat house in rural Minnesota, his paranoid conviction that he is persecuted by his foolish superiors because they are jealous of his talents is only more firmly established.

After a depressing first few months in his new assignment, and thanks to the reinvigorating experiences associated with his filling in as pastor at a nearby parish, Father Urban regains his old gusto. His term as acting pastor of St. Monica’s allows him to display with verve all his talents as a get-up-and-go priest, a cleric with zip who knows the right people to befriend and is always building for the future—a brisk optimist and a “bricks and mortar man” par excellence. When the priest for whom he is substituting dies suddenly (of a heart attack while vacationing in the Bahamas), Father Urban entertains the possibility that the bishop might appoint him as the permanent pastor of St. Monica’s. He cleverly attempts to further his cause with the bishop, but to no avail. The appointment is given to another priest.

Father Urban, though disappointed, is not floored by this turn of events, for by this time, he has begun to see possibilities for the retreat house, St. Clement’s Hill. With the financial backing of Billy Cosgrove, a wealthy Chicago layman and friend, he secures the permission of the Clementine provincial superior and the local bishop to build a nine-hole golf course at St. Clement’s Hill. The idea behind the venture is to make the facility more attractive for the better sort of Catholic laypeople, those who will not only come there to make a retreat but also leave behind them a generous donation. It would seem that Father Urban’s characteristic modus operandi has stood him in good stead even in the backlands of Minnesota, but his streak of successes is put in jeopardy by the rumor that the bishop may take the retreat house away from the Clementine Order and turn it into a seminary for his diocese.

The bishop visits St. Clement’s Hill with a young priest of the diocese who is an expert golfer. They all take to the links together, and as the game progresses, it becomes evident to Father Urban that in his match with the young priest, the bishop’s man, he has symbolically entered the lists and is involved in a trial of strength. Whatever might be the eventual fate of St. Clement’s Hill, it becomes a point of honor for him that he win the golf match. Having made a nice approach shot to the final green, he is apparently on the verge of doing so when events are suddenly reversed: Father Urban is struck on the head and knocked unconscious by a golf ball hit by the bishop. This seemingly absurd incident marks the turning point of the novel.

After the accident on the golf course, as a result of which the bishop drops his plans to take over the retreat house, Father Urban’s attitude toward life and toward his vocation slowly changes. His being felled by a golf ball, while not comparable to St. Paul’s being knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus, precipitates a period of reassessment. During this period, Father Urban undergoes three trials, which is consonant with the Arthurian theme—one of the informing elements of the novel. In one trial, he tries and fails to persuade Mrs. Thwaites, an elderly benefactor, with whom he had previously attempted to ingratiate himself, to restore to an innocent employee money that she had effectively stolen from her. His eyes are thus opened to the unpretty realities of Thwaites’s hypocrisy and stark avariciousness, which in the past he was inclined to overlook as supportable eccentricities.

In the second trial, Urban goes on a fishing trip with his friend Billy Cosgrove, which results in the dissolution of the friendship. The experience proves to be painful but educational. He is made fully aware that Cosgrove is not a noble human being. He is rich, yes, but he is also egotistical, childish, and pathologically cruel. In the third trial, Urban is put upon by Mrs. Thwaites’s daughter, Sally Hopwood, who is rich, sophisticated, bored, and bereft of principles and who attempts to seduce him. She fails, but out of the ordeal, Urban comes to a new, and disturbing, consciousness of himself; he realizes that had he chosen to follow a vocation other than the priesthood, his outlook on life would not have been appreciably different from the one he entertains as a priest. He is brought to see that there is something fundamentally lacking in the quality of his priestly life.

The novel is brought to an abrupt and significant close after Urban is elected as the provincial superior of the Chicago Province of the Clementines. It is a position for which, when he was possessed of the consciousness of the “old man,” he had often longed, as it would provide him with the power base to implement the kind of progressive reforms about which he had always dreamed. Here would be his chance to get the Clementines off dead-center, to shake them up, to move them toward becoming a first-rate order that had a reputation for gumption. Those who elect Urban to the post have in mind the type of person who can make the right kind of friends for the order, people such as Cosgrove, people who have the money to make things happen. The Father Urban who moves back to Chicago from Minnesota to become Father Provincial, however, is a radically changed man. He has undergone a conversion.

Urban does not die physically, but as the title Morte d’Urban suggests, a death does take place. Urban dies to the kind of life, superficial and meretricious, to which he had devoted the better part of his days and turns to a life that, though less flamboyant, is decidedly more promising.

Wheat That Springeth Green

Powers’s long-awaited second novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, was published in 1988. Although it was nominated for a National Book Award shortly after its publication, that honor was to elude Powers this time around. Like its predecessor, Morte d’Urban, this second novel is primarily the story of a priest. In this case, theprotagonist is Father Joe Hackett, who is a member of the presbyterate of an unnamed diocese in Minnesota. The novel might be described as a portrait of a modern priest that is set against the background of a church, as well as a larger society, that finds itself in a state of disorientation and turmoil.

Thenarrative covers the whole of Father Hackett’s life, but equal time is not given to every stage. Most of the action of the novel takes place in the late 1960’s, when the protagonist is in his forties. The reader is introduced to Joe Hackett when he is little more than a toddler, but even at so tender an age he comes across as someone with a penchant for easy egocentrism. One’s next glimpse of him is as a boy of grade-school age, revealing two incongruous personality traits that seem to be permanent by the time he reaches adulthood—a scrappy competitiveness and a tendency to run and hide when the world is not going the way he wants it to go.

Next, Powers provides a brief look at Joe’s adolescent years, the centerpiece of which is a set of rather fantastical sexual escapades with the girls next door. One suspects that this chapter is to be read as a parody of the adolescent imagination. In the following chapter, Joe is in his early twenties; he has put his sinful ways behind him and is now a seminary student, preparing for the Catholic priesthood. He is an earnest seminarian, possessed of a considerable capacity to take himself with the utmost seriousness. This displays itself in odd behavior at times. For one who is an advanced student in theology, and apparently doing quite well in his studies, he nurtures comically crude and naïve notions concerning the nature and requirements of the spiritual life.

The reader next encounters Joe as a young priest. One watches, and is not terribly surprised, as his tenuously founded idealism begins to give way to a spiritless pragmatism. Discovering that the daily life of a priest is often composed of prosaic and undramatic demands, he loses his initial fervor. He makes accommodations. Slowly and subtly, he becomes worldly, although his worldliness is not something of which he himself is fully aware. In fact, he tends to interpret this worldliness as something positive: his own peculiar, and canny, brand of antiestablishment fervor. An ominous accompaniment of this downward slide is a steady increase in his drinking. Joe is, indeed, in the incipient stages of alcoholism, which, typically, he does not admit to himself.

The latter two-thirds of the novel takes place in the present, relative to the narrative. The year is 1968; Father Joe, now forty-four years old, is the comfortably established pastor of a well-to-do suburban parish. He fulfills his rather tightly circumscribed duties in a conscientious fashion and shows a lively alertness to the particulars of his situation. Significantly, he is guided by what has now become a conviction that his is the right way of doing things. He has developed a strong, although low-key, propensity to regard himself as somewhat the ecclesiastical “genuine article.” On occasion, he seems to view himself as a lonely warrior for the right, engaged in constant battle on several fronts with several varieties of benighted bumblers and pretenders, both inside and outside the Church, by whom he is surrounded. By this time, he has become a habitual drinker, dependent upon alcohol to see him through the day.

The novel ends abruptly, as if in medias res, after Father Joe seemingly undergoes a sort of conversion experience, which is as sudden as it is difficult to understand. In his final state, which is simply announced to the reader, Father Joe has given up drinking, as well as his suburban pastorate; he now ministers among the poor in the inner city. Somehow, the authenticity of this latest transformation is less than fully convincing. Has Father Joe finally found himself and his proper place in the Church and in the world, or is it but the stage to a further impetuous move?

It is possible to read Wheat That Springeth Green as an extended exercise in irony, the kind of thing one would expect from Powers. Clues to such a reading can be found, for example, in the parallels one can make between the objects of Father Joe’s constant criticism and the patterns of his own behavior. He is an acute and relentless critic, in general, of the ways of the world and, in particular, of certain ways and personality types to be found within the Church. Specifically, he has what comes close to being an obsessive concern for what he regards as the Church’s preoccupation with money.

Father Joe strives to present himself as the refreshing antithesis of the type of pastor who is absorbed with money, but whether his own way of handling the finances of his parish does not in the end succeed in giving more, or at least as much, attention to money matters is debatable. He appears to have convinced himself that he is virtuously antimaterialistic because he is not concerned with “big bucks,” but what the reader witnesses is a man whose daily concerns are taken up primarily with things material. Materialism is no less materialism for being low-budget. The point is that the demands of a genuine poverty of spirit do not seem to be key factors in Father Joe’s life. In addition, Father Joe has a low tolerance for those among his fellow clerics whom he sees as mindless and unimaginative—not to say cowardly—functionaries, people with little or no understanding of the Church’s mission and how a priest should be leading his life.

This attitude of Father Joe is in many respects commendable. Yet it loses much of its moral force when one considers that he himself scarcely comes across as a paragon of priestly virtue. He is not what would be identified as “pastoral” in his inclinations; he is anything but outgoing, and any thought to the continuing spiritual needs of his parishioners that he may have fails to manifest itself in his day-to-day activities. Moreover, he has a habit of confining himself to the immediate precincts of the rectory.

Father Joe’s idea of a good pastor is all too easily reducible to the role of the faithful middle manager, someone who keeps regular office hours, makes sure the parish books are kept in the black, and maintains an eccentrically rigid control over the population of the parish school. In sum, it is difficult to see how Father Joe’s interpretation of the proper duties of the conscientious priest stands as a marked improvement over the behavior he vigorously criticizes. Hence the irony.

Father Joe Hackett, then, is an intensely ordinary priest, a priest who is running outside the track, and perhaps a bit behind the pack, but who has long since persuaded himself that all the while he has been sticking to the inside rail. He is certainly not a bad man. For that matter, neither is he mediocre. Nevertheless, he is possessed of a kind of ordinariness that can prove dangerous because of its penchant for mistaking moral limitations for real moral advantages. Be that as it may, Father Joe falls far short of qualifying as the great midwestern hope of a confused and blundering Church.

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