J. F. Powers

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Powers, J(ames) F(arl) (Vol. 1)

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Powers, J(ames) F(arl) 1917–

A Catholic American novelist and short story writer, Powers is best known for his novel, Morte d'Urban, which received the National Book Award. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed.)

The comic writer has always been suspect. People are forever asking: what is he up to? who is he writing about now?… Surely J. F. Powers is a case in point. Readers and critics alike puzzle over what he means when he writes a funny story about Father Ernest Burner or Father Urban Roche. Does he simply see priests as funny? Does he mean these figures to represent the priesthood, and is he thus poking fun at the priesthood? Or even worse, are these figures representative of the human condition, and is he then depicting the awful human condition as funny? Is it heresy or lese majesty?… J. F. Powers is a great writer; but it is a funny kind of greatness.

I would like to submit that Powers is working in the true tradition of the novel…. [It] isn't exactly satire that Powers writes…. Surely Powers' book [Morte d'Urban] has the sweep and view of an epic—even an epic structure. And it is by its nature essentially comic….

We are citizens of two worlds; both worlds make claims upon us. To show the sudden conflict of one rationale with the other, to show how from moment to moment one logic and then the other claims superiority is to show man as he is. It is to continue, not only the tradition of grand satire, and of the comic epic in prose, it is to revivify the tradition of paradox and parable of the New Testament.

Fallon Evans, "Introduction: J. F. Powers as a Comic Novelist," in his J. F. Powers ("Christian Critics" Series), B. Herder, undated, pp. v-vii.

After careful reading of all the Powers stories dealing with the priesthood, the discerning reader will perceive a kind of composite picture of what Powers considers the good priest in our day…. The end product is very much in keeping with the rigorous type of Christianity for which Mr. Powers speaks. Its characteristic virtues are probably those of justice and mortification. These men are presented as liberal Christians who "take Christ at His word." They have the piercing, yet simple, vision of saints; and they are not deceived by the insidious charms of secularism and sloth. They see at least the irony (and possibly the tragedy) of a priest who has made his peace with the powers of this world. Yet about each of these admirable men there is an atmosphere of dedicated perfection, devoid of that kindly tolerance and human warmth which are the concomitants of true charity.

Strangely enough, this missing quality is very much in evidence in Powers' portraits of Negroes and children. Possibly because the author really knows more about their world than he does about that of priests.

James P. Shannon, "J. F. Powers on the Priesthood," in Catholic World, September, 1952, pp. 432-37.

Some years ago Mr. J. F. Powers startled us with a book of stories called Prince of Darkness. They came out of the dry and vast plains of Middle Western boredom, and they were mostly about life in Catholic rectories. Remembering what James Joyce had said about his own first book, Dubliners , that he had tried for a style of "scrupulous meanness," I thought that Mr. Powers had managed with almost the same saturated plainness to draw just the opposite conclusions. Joyce showed his people in a...

(This entire section contains 3799 words.)

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limbo of cultured hopelessness, people who were moving from faith into the secular bleakness of the modern city. Mr. Powers showed in the Church the ferocious process of "Americanization," of "normalization," the world of utter mediocrity in which everybody's daily life is lived. And it made no difference. The spirit triumphed every time—but so quietly and unexpectedly that the effect was one of humor rather than zeal. "Grace," to use the formula of Simone Weil, won over the law of "gravity" that keepseverybody with his feet too much on the ground.

What made these stories so remarkable was maturity. American fiction is always striking an attitude or being "psychological" or just reporting the violence of some unusual experience. Mr. Powers's work was about a world; it constantly yielded literary vanity to the truth and depth of this world. He was subtle, funny, precise, and always unexpected. The book seemed to come out of a longer background than most young American writers of fiction ever own….

[Powers] is a miniaturist, a close thinker, close as a chess player at times. When you take on a Powers story, you find yourself working hard from line to line, and constantly being outguessed. Nevertheless, the point is usually the same: the world falls at the feet of the spirit…. Indeed, the usual situation in Powers is not even a struggle on equal terms between the world and the spirit; it is, more usually, the vain struggle of the ambitious young curate to make his place in the church through "realism," salesmanship. And in his constant defeat, we are expected, I suppose, to see that the wisdom of the Church is deeper than even it knows….

I admire Mr. Powers very much—story after story is worked out to the finest possible point; this is work that manages, by fusing intelligence and compassion, to come out as humor. There is real love in his heart, but he knows that the heart does not write short stories, and that the beauty of grace can appear only against the background of the horrid daily element, which is gravity. Gravity and grace are the only possible elements in which a true imagination can work. The one stands for "reality"; the other for ideal beauty. Most American writers don't even know that they are necessary to each other. Their world has no background, nothing by which to judge the pitifulness of our daily actions.

Alfred Kazin, "Gravity and Grace: The Stories of J. F. Powers" (1956), in his Contemporaries (© 1956, 1962 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 223-25.

The best of the priest and lay stories of J. F. Powers derive their considerable force from a dialectical tension involving secularism and divinity; the letter and the spirit; the presence of the prince of darkness and the presence of grace; the lions, harts, leaping does of the flesh and the sanctity of the soul; the actual and the ideal…. Powers does not push his story towards solution, but rather emphasizes the importance of endurance, of suspension, of compromise made palatable through the agency of humor. His ultimate critical question is always one of morality but it is governed by humor which never distorts character to override theme….

The priesthood offers a particularly good stage for Powers' form of comedy, for it serves as a microcosm of sin and virtue magnified in conflict by conscience, with the confessional ever nearby. When we read of really evil crimes in lay stories like ["The Eye"] or ["The Trouble"], we tend not to feel the impact as keenly as in the priest stories where the sins are of a seemingly lesser severity. The sins are smaller, but the awareness of perfection is closer, bringing extremes together in heightened tension. Sins like sloth, gluttony, and pride are thus enlarged like the signs of secularism.

Naomi Lebowitz, "The Stories of J. F. Powers: The Sign of the Contradiction," in Kenyon Review, Summer, 1958, pp. 494-99.

Powers not only has … [that] rare virtue in a modern writer—the ability to imagine virtue—but he also has the ability to portray virtue in its complex relations with evil, an ability that includes, though it may go considerably beyond, the ability to confront ambivalence. Indeed, the complexity of Powers' moral vision is almost paradoxical, since it is revealed in a neat, witty and restrained style that by itself would seem to promise the more abstract and simple moral vision of a writer like Evelyn Waugh….

[It] might often strike one that there is an old-fashioned quality in Powers' work. I refer not only to the explicit detail with which, in stories like "The Presence of Grace" and "A Losing Game," the meaning of the action is made clear to a central intelligence, but to a radical optimism about the human condition. In the world of Powers' fiction people can be genuinely likable and lovable; goodness can be movingly revealed to them; they can recognize evil both in and apart from themselves; they can change for the better….

[In] most of Powers' stories the confrontation of evil is—relative to the majority of his contemporaries—a small and unexciting thing. Powers' situations have, as they must have if they are to be stories, their own kind of extremity. The hunting excursion through the basement of the church in "A Losing Game," with its suggestion of an African safari, or Father Udovic's tracking down of the sender of the mysterious letter to the Pope in "Dawn," are good examples. Nevertheless, Powers asks us to believe a hard thing about evil and virtue: that they do not necessarily make a great noise in the world….

His controlled, delicate, and poetic style expresses a highly original combination of humor, sympathy, and irony and is skillfully adjusted to a variety of voices. It is important for American fiction that he is part of a counter-balancing movement away from the preoccupation with violence, adolescence, and an almost compulsive assumption that society is the Enemy.

John P. Sisk, "The Complex Moral Vision of J. F. Powers," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. II, No. 2, 1958, pp. 28-40.

The Church offers a ready-made, highly developed and organized, historically weathered pattern of order, with a full and detailed ritualism to symbolize its ideals, and a psychology of discipline. Powers, who knows his Church well, makes full use of this knowledge in his fiction. However, it is significant that Church doctrine as such is never a direct or controlling force or issue, though it obviously affects the psychology and actions of individual characters. Opposed to the Church is the "world," or disorder. The world is nature-bound. With respect to the materiality of the world, Powers has, to appropriate Henry James' phrase, the "imagination of disaster." That is, he is not beguiled by the contrived appearance of human nature into forgetting the ferocity and the terror of natural existence. But, like James, with some exceptions like "The Trouble" and "The Poor Thing," he chooses to work with the veneer of manners which masks humanity's disorder.

This setting-up of opposing forces represents a formalization of a basic paradox in reality and experience. In all the stories that use the Church there is an interpenetration of the two worlds. In fact, it may be said that they are constantly threatening to corrupt and subvert each other, one by naturalistic dehumanization and moral chaos, the other by literalistic devitalization. It is significant that this mutual corruption usually occurs within the framework of the Church and is exhibited by the clerical characters…. Powers, however, is not engaged in an exposure of the corruption of Catholicism. If this tends to be the impression in some of his stories, it is only incidental. Since the Church, by its formulation of doctrine, professes to an ideal, it is thus more vulnerable to subversion. It is this consciousness of vulnerability that makes the typical clerical character in Powers so self-conscious, hypersensitive in his mundane, social round, and frequently agonized….

In no story of Powers is there an ultimate resolution. The fundamental philosophical dilemma around which his work has grown prohibits this.

George Scouffas, "J. F. Powers: On the Vitality of Disorder," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. II, No. 2, 1958, pp. 41-58.

Powers has done something quite remarkable: he has revived the satire of the Great Age—from Erasmus to Swift, let's say, reverting to tradition—within a modern context of style and attitude. In fact, the stylishness almost—but not quite—obscures the point that his book [Morte d'Urban] is a classical satire against mankind based on the exploitation of types….

Morte d'Urban is … crisp, bitter, hilarious throughout…. [Powers can] write a high prose style in American English,… concentrate a personality in one minor gesture, and … use the vernacular in written dialogue without affectation. These are the sophisticated skills Powers brings to his classical form….

Do not say allegory, do not say symbol; these terms have been spoiled by too much self-conscious use in literary analysis. Morte d'Urban is the sort of book to which they were originally meant to apply. In it every transference—there are many—occurs emotionally, prior to consciousness. Then how do I know they are there? For many reasons, but one piece of evidence seems to me irrefutable. Parts of this book are so cruel in their mockery that they could only have been written by a Catholic for other Catholics—rather special ones at that—if the emotional reference were to the Church alone. Anything else would be simply too embarrassing for all of us. The point is that I am not a Catholic yet I can read the book. I can do so because from the first word on the first page I know—instinctively understand—that Father Urban's life touches me as closely as it touches my Catholic friends. I am not embarrassed, but afraid….

Humane people seldom become writers; which is unavoidable, since the rewards of writing must be opposed to the rewards of love. Powers is the exception. I can detect no fakery in his book. I wouldn't for anything give away the last chapter; but I will say that the noble gentleness of it cries and sings and speaks so ineluctably—the writing itself—that it would take an immensely illiterate person to resist it.

Hayden Carruth, "Reviving the Age of Satire" (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1962 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), in New Republic, September 24, 1962, pp. 23-4.

Theme, subject, situation, tone—for Powers, they have not changed much as he moves from short fiction to the novel…. Powers' theme remains truly haunting; it is one that might be framed as a question: how can the spirit express itself in nature without compromise, without debasement, since one is so distant from the other, and each is obedient to different laws? Again: can a mind manipulate its body without becoming its body first? Or: is it possible for the church to do its work in the world without becoming completely worldly itself? And there are a hundred other ways to put it.

William H. Gass, "Bingo Game at the Foot of the Cross," in Nation, September 29, 1962, pp. 182-83.

The epic of Father Urban [Morte d'Urban] begins in the usual Powers style: sustained and withering irony. The first half of the book has an intensity about it that will perhaps discourage those who are disposed to mistrust and fear this seemingly cold, perhaps even clinical satire: it has never been so sharp and so incisive. But is it really cruel? Is it negative? Those who stay with the book will find a change of attitude in the last chapters, and they will discover that Fr. Urban has become a sympathetic, in some ways admirable person. The fact is that the "death" of Fr. Urban is the death of a superficial self leading to the resurrection of a deeper, more noble and more spiritual personality. The novel is more than a ribald satire on the clergy. It is a valid and penetrating study of the psychology of a priest in what is essentially a spiritual conflict. The treatment is of course subtle, and the spiritual element in the story is deliberately understated: but we must clearly recognize not only that it is present but that it is essential to the book. Those who conclude that Morte d'Urban is purely negative and hostile to the clergy have not really read the story…. Mr. Powers is remarkable for the sustained mastery with which he keeps up his sardonic parody of a glib, inexhaustible, semi-rational jargon. It is not natural speech that he records, but all the slogans, the fatuities and the half-truths of which our minds are full. In such rhetoric, the right word is always, of course, the word that just happens to be wrong—the expression that glances off the truth, that just misses having real meaning.

To be more precise, the statements of a Powers character always mean at the same time less and more than they are intended to mean. The words are not quite accurate in saying what they want to say, and at the same time they speak infinitely damaging volumes by implication….

There are, with Fr. Urban, two celebrations always in progress: on one level his version of the ritual and the devotions of the Catholic Church, and on another, the profane ritual of marketing and advertisement.

Thomas Merton, "Morte d'Urban: Two Celebrations," in Worship, November, 1962, pp. 645-50.

Morte d'Urban proves to be for the most part a remorseless inventory of the natural, the brittle, the clay, in its priest characters without more than thin echoes of the inner conflict that certainly would be flagellating souls caught in an inevitable clash with their ideals….

Since Powers is gifted and Catholic, no one can see better than he what a lopsided, fey look he has given to the face of the priesthood…. J. F. Powers has announced the limitations of his achievement in Morte d'Urban. He needs to try greater themes in a grander manner than his mean-spirited satire. He has been peering too long at a few soiled pores on the face of the Catholic priesthood while appearing to forget the vision of the Transfiguration face of the ideal.

Thomas Rowan, "Morte d'Urban: A Novel About Priests," in The Homiletic and Pastoral Review, January, 1963, pp. 291-94.

Much of the fiction of J. F. Powers may be viewed as an exploration of the prudence of religious practice in our time over against the extravagant, perhaps extreme, Christian tradition of the past. The question posed again and again is the value of a good public image for a religious order or parish or bishop over against the sanctity and wisdom perchance available through a proper indifference to popular conventions….

The question presented in Powers' stories is not what to believe; rather, it is the problem of how to put the Christian's traditional smiling contempt of the world into action in the grim, restricted society of organized modern America. Perhaps the best place to see this theme in detail is in Morte d'Urban….

It is particularly interesting that Powers is able to treat such a theme without the heavy-handed, grim note of self importance one usually associates with such works. His humor is integral to the narratives…. It is difficult to think of any other modern author able to treat a religious theme with such faith and irony.

Leo J. Hertzel, "Brother Juniper, Father Urban and the Unworldly Tradition," in Renascence, Summer, 1965, pp. 207-10, 215.

Although he is a writer's writer, J. F. Powers has no broad popular following but is known among his peers as a brilliant satirist and meticulous craftsman. His fiction is widely anthologized and often taught in the universities; it may receive even wider attention now that Morte d'Urban is published by Modern Library. (Preface)

Readers familiar with one or two of J. F. Powers' widely anthologized stories, such as "The Valiant Woman" and "The Forks," generally regard him as an interesting but parochial figure—a specialist in priests. Much of his Catholic audience, uneasy with Powers' scorn for sentimental piety, enjoy his writing as a kind of family joke that would best not be shared with outsiders. His taut, understated ironies are out of step with current literary fashions, and he avoids lecture circuits and cocktail parties. As a consequence, Powers remains on the periphery of the literary stage, even though he is, as Frank O'Connor says, "among the greatest of living story-tellers." Out of parochial materials he shapes subtle but highly charged human situations that capture the moral and emotional texture of modern life. And he does so with such immense skill and tough-minded compassion that his writing will surely endure. (p. 15)

The popularity of Powers' narratives of rectory life—a subject only he has successfully embodied in American fiction—has unfortunately burdened him with an invidious reputation as a narrow specialist on the priesthood. But, from the very beginning to the publication of Morte d'Urban, he has produced magnificent stories on a wide variety of secular themes: a compassionate portrayal of the mind of a European refugee from Fascism ("Renner"); the pathos of old age ("The Old Bird, A Love Story"); the simpleminded saintliness of an exploited domestic ("The Poor Thing"); the innocent victim of ruthless salesmanship in the new suburbs ("Blue Island"); the painful discovery of the inexorable cruelty of nature ("Look How the Fish Live"); a little boy's betrayed adulation of a baseball player ("Jamesie"); and the troubled human values involved in racial hatred and violence ("He Don't Plant Cotton," "The Eye," and "The Trouble"). Had Powers never written a story about a priest, some of these pieces would alone ensure his status as a distinguished writer. (p. 37)

Such is Powers' skill that any reader whose perceptions are strictly limited to a realistic frame of reference will not feel the absence of any element necessary to a meaningful and coherent whole. But even when a Powers story does not explicitly present man-to-God relations, the man-to-man relations always call for some judgment; and the standards of judgment—almost always implicitly invoked—are invariably spiritual. Not to see this quality is very much like observing a high mass as an entertainment, an interesting ritual with fascinating psychological and anthropological connotations, but with no real spiritual significance. But if neither ceremony—the mass or a Powers story—has meaning in spiritual terms to a given reader, he will be gravely deficient in his total comprehension. Readers who do not personally believe in Catholicism must at least see it at work in even the most casual details of a Powers story…. (p. 121)

[The] comedy [in Morte d'Urban] is of the very highest and noblest kind in an even greater tradition than that of Swift and Sinclair Lewis—namely, the comedy of Aeschylus' Oresteia which began a line that stretches through Dante's Divine Comedy to Joyce's Finnegans Wake. Urban's morte, in fact, leads to his wake in one of the finest novels of modern American literature. In Morte d'Urban Powers has achieved the rare combination of the religious spirit with the comic spirit…. (p. 151)

J. V. Hagopian, in his J. F. Powers, Twayne, 1968.


J. F. Powers Long Fiction Analysis


Powers, J(ames) F(arl) (Vol. 4)