Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Wheat That Springeth Green is J. F. Powers’s second novel, and it continues his investigation of the life of the American priest. The earlier collections of short stories, Prince of Darkness and Other Stories (1947) and The Presence of Grace (1956), dealt with the problems of the Catholic priesthood. In stories such as “The Valiant Woman,” Powers suggests that salvation is an outgrowth of daily annoyances and problems. A life of calm and ease is not, to Powers, a Christian life; the worldly priest at the end of “The Prince of Darkness” is given a letter informing him that Christ gives people “not peace but a sword.” For Powers, the enemy is not Satan but the spiritual sloth that a life of ease creates. The fuller portrait of an American priest in Morte d’Urban (1962) is very similar to that in Wheat That Springeth Green. Both characters are captured by the wiles of the world but reverse their course suddenly at the end of the novel. Father Urban becomes the saintly leader of his community of priests, and Joe Hackett joins the Catholic Workers. Powers’s vision is essentially comic both in its representation of the absurdities that come with the priestly life and with his optimistic resolution of the spiritual struggle of those priests. Divine providence is still there to redirect his wayward priests who have lost their way on the path to Christ.