J. F. Powers

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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

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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.

Achievements

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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

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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.

Achievements

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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.

Bibliography

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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.

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(This entire section contains 547 words.)

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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 Catholicism since the 1950’s.

McCarthy, Colman. “The Craft of J. F. Powers.” The Washington Post, June 12, 1993, p. A21. A brief tribute to Powers, commenting on his teaching and fiction, and recounting an interview, in which Powers laments the fact that college students do not read any more.

Meyers, Jeffrey. “J. F. Powers: Uncollected Stories, Essays and Interviews, 1943-1979.” Bulletin of Bibliography 44 (March, 1987): 38-39. Because Powers has published relatively little in his long career, it is particularly useful to have a list of his uncollected stories. The essays and interviews listed here provide valuable background.

Powers, J. F. “The Alphabet God Uses.” Interview by Anthony Schmitz. Minnesota Monthly 22 (December, 1988): 34-39. At the time of this interview, occasioned by the publication of Powers’s novel Wheat That Springeth Green, Schmitz himself had just published his first novel, which also deals with the Catholic clergy. He makes an ideal interviewer, and his conversation with Powers provides an excellent introduction to the man and his works.

Powers, Katherine A. “Reflections of J. F. Powers: Author, Father, Clear-Eyed Observer.” The Boston Globe, July 18, 1999, p. K4. A reminiscence of Powers by his daughter; discusses the writers that most influenced Powers, particularly his admiration for Evelyn Waugh, and comments on his writing and reading habits.

Preston, Thomas R. “Christian Folly in the Fiction of J. F. Powers.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 16, no. 2 (1974): 91-107. The theme of the “fool for Christ,” whose actions confound the wisdom of this world, has a long tradition. Focusing on the stories “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” and “The Forks” and the novel Morte d’ Urban, Preston explores Powers’s handling of this theme, showing how Powers uses priests as protagonists, not to dwell on concerns peculiar to the priesthood but rather to illumine the nature of the Christian life. See also Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 2 (Fall, 1958), a special issue devoted to Powers and Flannery O’Connor.

Votteler, Thomas, ed. Short Story Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Works of Short Fiction Writers. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990. Contains a chapter on Powers with a good selection of criticism on his short fiction.

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