J. F. Powers Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

What aspects of priests’ lives make them appropriate characters in J. F. Powers’s stories of the clash of materialistic and spiritual values?

How closely does the range of priests in Powers’s stories resemble that found in modern society?

Why is humor such an important ingredient in Powers’s typical short stories about priests?

What accommodations to a materialistic world does Father Urban make in Morte d’Urban?

How does Powers avoid preachiness?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

J. F. Powers is the author of two novels: Morte d’Urban, which received the National Book Award for fiction in 1962, and Wheat That Springeth Green (1988), a National Book Award nominee. In addition, he has published essays and reviews.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Like Flannery O’Connor, a Catholic writer with whom he is often compared, J. F. Powers is widely recognized as a distinctive figure in the modern American short story despite having produced only a small body of work. A master of comedy whose range encompasses cutting satire, broad farce, and gentle humor, Powers explores fundamental moral and theological issues as they are worked out in the most mundane situations. While he is best known for stories centering on priests and parish life, Powers, in several early stories of the 1940’s, was among the first to portray the circumstances of black people who had migrated from the South to Chicago and other urban centers.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

J. F. Powers was highly regarded for his prowess as a short-story writer. “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” (1943), only his second story to be published, appeared in the O. Henry and Martha Foley anthologies in 1944. His first short-story collection, Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories, was published by Doubleday in 1947. (Random House reissued the collection in 1979.) Doubleday published his second collection of stories, The Presence of Grace, in 1956. In 1963, Time published Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, and Other Stories, a collection culled from Powers’s first two books. His next collection, Look How the Fish Live, was published by Knopf in 1975. Powers’s stories appeared first in magazines such as Accent, Colliers, Commonweal, The Nation, Kenyon Review, Partisan Review, and The New Yorker. Powers also wrote reviews of poetry and fiction, autobiographical pieces, and articles dealing with social issues. His nonfiction, like most of his fiction, is often satiric in tone.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

J. F. Powers is to be numbered among those American writers—others include Katherine Anne Porter and J. D. Salinger—who produced a relatively small body of work distinguished by meticulous craftsmanship. Powers was praised by critics and fellow writers such as Alfred Kazin, William H. Gass, Thomas Merton, and Stanley Edgar Hyman. The Irish master of the short story, Frank O’Connor, judged Powers to be “among the greatest of living story tellers.” When Powers drew negative critical response, it was often for what is deemed to be his overly parochial concerns and his narrow focus on the world of the Catholic Church in the United States, especially of the clergy. In fact, Powers’s narrow focus can be seen as a source of strength; he wrote about what he knew best and, like excellent writers everywhere, discovered the universal in the particular. He has a permanent place in American literature as one of the most accomplished short-story writers of the twentieth century.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Evans, Fallon, ed. J. F. Powers. St. Louis: Herder, 1968. A collection of essays and appreciations emphasizing the Catholic context of Powers’s fiction. Among the contributors are Hayden Carruth, W. H. Gass (whose essay “Bingo Game at the Foot of the Cross” is a classic), Thomas Merton, and John Sisk. Also includes an interview with Powers and a bibliography.

Gussow, Mel. “J. F. Powers, 81, Dies.” The New York Times, June 17, 1999, p. C23. In this tribute to Powers, Gussow traces his literary career, commenting on his first important story, “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” and his best-known collection, Prince of Darkness and Other Stories, noting his frequent focus on priests.

Hagopian, John V. J. F. Powers. New York: Twayne, 1968. The first book-length study of Powers, this overview comprises a biographical sketch and a survey of Powers’s work through Morte d’Urban. Gives extensive attention to Powers’s stories. Includes a useful bibliography.

Long, J. V. “Clerical Character(s).” Commonweal, May 8, 1998, 11-14. Long offers a retrospective analysis of the leading characters in Morte d’Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green and the sacred-versus-secular issues confronting them. It is an interesting look back in the light of changes in American...

(The entire section is 547 words.)