Every now and then, I find myself wondering what J. F. Powers would have made of the Catholic Church today. The aging clergy, the shuttered parishes, the Pope and the ex-Pope, the sex scandals. Powers, who died in 1999, is a writer not much read anymore, though his very funny stories were for a couple of decades a regular presence in the fiction pages of The New Yorker, where, at the very end of his career, I was briefly his editor. With his first (and best) novel, Morte D’Urban, he won the National Book Award in 1963, beating out the likes of Updike, Nabokov, and Katherine Anne Porter. But even at the peak of his fame, such as it was, he was something of an acquired taste, mainly because of his very specialized subject. Though a layman himself, Powers wrote almost exclusively about Catholic priests working in parishes in rural Minnesota. Why he narrowed himself like this is something of a mystery. Possibly just because the church was the world he knew best. For most of his life his best friends were priests, and he liked nothing better than hanging around the rectory, drinking beer, playing cards.
The church Powers wrote about now seems barely recognizable. It was—in America, anyway—probably at its high point. The seminaries were full, and so were the collection plates. New churches and schools were still going up, so quickly that one of Powers’ characters likens the church in its efficiency to Standard Oil. For a while there was even a Catholic in the White House. No one knew yet that priests were abusing children.
In Powers there’s hardly any sex at all. Toward the end of Morte D’Urban, a married woman tries to seduce that book’s protagonist, Father Urban. She takes off her clothes in front of him, so that he has to avert his eyes. “It was like tearing up telephone directories,” Powers says of the effort involved. “The hardest part was getting started.” And there’s a highly implausible scene near the beginning of Wheat That Springeth Green his second (and final) novel, when the protagonist, Joe Hackett, enjoying an episode of wild-oat sowing before entering the seminary, sleeps with two women at once, servicing one while the other watches. They call him “Arm and Hammer,” in tribute to his vigor and endurance.
But that’s about it, and the absence of sexuality in the lives or thoughts of Powers’ priests is so extreme you can’t help wondering about it. They suffer a lot of trials—from cranky pastors, tiresome parishioners, fussbudgets in the bishop’s office—but celibacy, for whatever reason, is not one of them. Another noteworthy absence is anything resembling an inner life. Powers’ priests are not tortured and fallen, like Graham Greene’s, or overwhelmed by doubt and unworthiness, like the curate in Georges Bernanos’s Diary of a Country Priest. Except for a dying monk in Powers’ early and very beautiful story “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” they scarcely have spiritual thoughts at all. The irony in Powers is that his priests are no better—and are in many cases a good deal worse—than the parishioners they presume to preach and minister to. They drink and smoke too much, engage in petty feuds and bickering, and watch astonishing amounts of televised sports. They couldn’t be more ordinary or—except for the worldly Father Urban (his name is no accident), a dazzling preacher with a gift for siphoning donations from the well-heeled—more uninspiring. Mainly they’re worried about money and about keeping up the “plant,” as they call the church and the rectory.
This is the side of Powers that most appealed to me when I began reading him, as a teenager already questioning the moral authority of those sermonizers up in the pulpit. It wasn’t until years later that I realized he didn’t share my gleeful outrage. Mostly, Powers is just resigned and amused. He’s essentially a comic writer, not a satiric one, and his comedy is tinged with sadness and sympathy. His priests are unworldly not in the spiritual sense, but in not quite belonging anywhere. They live alone, except for the occasional battle-ax of a housekeeper, and fret about keeping up appearances in a Midwest where Catholics, though tolerated, are still looked on with suspicion. This is what chiefly distinguishes Powers from the Trollope of the Barchester novels, where the comedy is less rueful. Trollope’s clerics are sure of themselves (too sure sometimes) in a way that Powers’ are not. They aren’t in the least distanced from the world—they practically run it.
To demand anything like saintliness in the clergy, or in anyone else, Powers seems to suggest, is asking too much. People with excessively high expectations—zealots—turn up all the time in his fiction, and their presence is always problematic. A backslider you could handle, thinks Father Burner, a crusty pastor who appears in several of the stories. “But a red-hot believer, especially a talkative one, could be a devilish nuisance.” After hearing about a priest who gave his overshoes to a man freezing on a picket line, the Monsignor in “The Forks,” one of Powers’ most famous stories, says with exasperation that he hates to think of all the evil done by people doing good.
The do-gooders and red-hot believers can be annoying, like Father Early in the aptly named story “Zeal,” who drives his bishop crazy by frowning on things like free railroad passes for the clergy and by refusing to tip waiters, on the ground that a tip impugns their dignity. Sometimes they’re sad and misguided, like Myles in “The Devil Was the Joker,” a naif who gets kicked out of the seminary for being too fanatic, and, in the company of a satanic con man, travels around the state looking for a bishop who will reinstate him. And sometimes they’re just embarrassing, like the woman in “Farewell” who sees apparitions of the Blessed Virgin in a tree trunk. The bishop wants to hush her up, but she feels compelled to deliver the Virgin’s urgent message: “Keep Minnesota Green.”
Powers’ most extended study of zealotry is Wheat That Springeth Green, where in the seminary Joe Hackett brings as much ardor to his vocation as he did to his Arm and Hammer threesomes. Known as Holy Joe, he spends hours on his knees and is always asking earnest questions like, “How do we make sanctity as popular as sex to the common man?” For a while he even wears a hair shirt. But the plot of the novel is essentially one of disillusionment. After he becomes a pastor, Joe makes more and more compromises—necessary ones, he thinks—with the worldly demands of running a parish and winds up a sort of priestly hack, alcoholic and depressed. His decline is sad but not tragic, because along the way, Powers suggests, he has learned something essential about human frailty. He is far better company than when he was a pious know-it-all.
Presumably Powers felt some kinship with these poor, lonely priests of his—who have devoted themselves, however imperfectly, to God, just as he devoted himself to art. The difference was that he himself was a zealot, and of a stubbornly uncompromising sort. We know this from Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life, a 2013 anthology of letters edited by his daughter Katherine A. Powers, recently reissued in paperback. In an introduction and an afterword, she talks about her father with a mixture of fondness and extreme exasperation. “Growing up in this family is not something I would care to do again,” she says, and the reader comes to feel much the same way.
Powers was what he would have called a hard case. As a young man in Minnesota, he took a few college courses but mostly knocked about in a series of odd jobs, selling books and insurance, chauffeuring a rich businessman. In the early 1940s he fell in with the Detachers, radical Catholics who, as the name suggests, wanted to separate themselves from the world and practice a kind of homespun, back-to-the-farm religion. Eugene and Abigail McCarthy belonged to the movement for a while, and so, very briefly, did Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford. The Detachers disliked war as much as they disliked materialism, and in 1943 Powers, like Lowell, became a conscientious objector. He served 13 months in a federal penitentiary and then, paroled, two years as an orderly at a St. Paul hospital. While there, he met an aspiring writer named Betty Wahl and proposed to her two days later. They were married five months after that, despite having seen each other only a handful of times in between. One of Powers’ priest friends wanted to accompany them on the honeymoon, but Betty put her foot down.
The marriage is one of Katherine Powers’ exasperations. She insists it was happy, but one wonders. From the beginning, Powers, who had seen his father abandon a promising piano career to take a paper-pushing job, made it clear that he was going to be a writer and not a provider. Before they were married he wrote to Betty, “I am worried about making a living, as I confessed to you again and again, because I won’t go about it in the ordinary way—eight hours out of my life daily so that the system may prosper and the crapshooters running it. . . . I have no intention of letting you go, but if you have that idea (and I can’t believe you have), I want you to get rid of it.” He wasn’t much of a family man, either. (“Let me be a lesson to you,” he wrote to Lowell. “Stay single. That way you can afford to be yourself.”) He and Betty had five unplanned children (no birth control, naturally), each less welcome than the last, and if he could help it, Powers never spent a holiday with them. He preferred the company of his priest pals and also liked to hide out at Yaddo. “I am not saying I’d poison the children,” he wrote to Betty, “but you’d better take another reading if you think I can be domesticated and made to like it.”
Powers was always broke. He taught occasionally but hated it, and from what he says about his students, one suspects he wasn’t very good at it either. Mostly the family lived from hand to mouth, or, rather, from one New Yorker sale to the next, and as Powers grew older, those became less and less frequent. They were virtually homeless, moving more than 20 times from one rented or borrowed house or apartment to the next. When they were first married, he and Betty lived—“Little House on the Prairie” style—in a sod house with no heat or running water. Later, in search of the “suitable accommodations” that give his daughter’s book its title, Powers transplanted the family four times to Ireland—where living was cheaper, he imagined, and writers, short-story writers especially, more respected—and four times he moved them back again. Almost as soon as he landed in one country, he pined for the other. In one of Powers’ last and best stories, the autobiographical “Tinkers,” a writer who imagines himself “America’s thriftiest living author,” has schlepped his large family for the third time to uncomfortable lodgings in Ireland, and as he passes a band of tinkers—Irish gypsies, poor and despised—realizes with chagrin that he is no better.
Like a lot of zealots, especially of the writerly sort, Powers was a perfectionist. His style, so clear and natural, came only with effort. His friend Sean O’Faolain liked to joke that Powers could spend a whole morning putting in a comma, and then the whole afternoon taking it out. “I don’t care to get a book out just to get a book out,” he wrote to a friend. “I’d rather make each one count—and in order to do that the way I nuts around, it takes time.” But it’s also true that Powers spent a great deal of time not writing. He insisted on going to a rented office every day—while Betty took care of cooking, cleaning, and raising the children—but, once there, he often just futzed around, reading the paper, rearranging the furniture, watching a ladybug crawl across an envelope. While in Ireland, he went to the races a lot and, like the writer in “Tinkers,” spent hours in auction houses bidding on useless stuff he couldn’t afford.
Was he blocked, depressed, or just putting in the down time necessary for his particular well to fill again? It’s hard to tell from the letters in Suitable Accommodations, where he is mostly self-deprecatory about his plight and seldom indulges in introspection or self-pity. One of the frustrations of the book, in fact, is that although it contains many letters to other writers—Lowell, Katherine Ann Porter, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Merton—almost none are about writing itself. He talks about his New Yorker submissions as if they were crapshoots, and there was no accounting for what the magazine might or might not like. And yet, until I replaced him in 1975, Powers’ first reader there was William Maxwell, an exceptional writer himself and the kindest and most nurturing of editors, who would never have left an author in the dark about what worked, or didn’t, and why.
His correspondence with me was businesslike to the point of coolness, and there wasn’t much of it. The stories now were even fewer and farther between, and there are some clues as to why both in his daughter’s book, where she talks about how he hated the popular culture of the late ’60s, and in a 1975 interview he did with Garrison Keillor for Minnesota Public Radio: two grumpy, deep-voiced, slow-talking Minnesotans shaking their heads at the world. Powers is especially bothered that all the young people he sees seem to be wearing blue jeans. “I don’t understand it,” he says to Keillor. “I just don’t understand it.”
In the same interview he also complains about nuns and priests no longer dressing like nuns and priests. He could have added that they were also marrying each other, protesting against the Vietnam War, chaining themselves to nuclear arsenals, and taking up with revolutionaries in South America. The church was already changing, in other words, and he no longer found any of it funny. I now suspect he’d be dismayed at what has happened to the institution he devoted his life’s work to, but not especially surprised. His view of his own vocation was probably not unlike that of Father Hackett near the end of Wheat That Springeth Green: “Religion was a weak force today, owing to a decline in human intelligence. It was now easy to see how the Church, though she’d endure to the end, as promised by Our Lord, would become a mere remnant of herself. In the meantime, though, a priest had to get on with his job, such as it was. As for feeling thwarted and useless, he knew that feeling, but he also knew what it meant. It meant that he was in touch with reality, and that was something these days.”