Style and Substance: A Reconsideration of J.F. Powers
It is more or less universally agreed that J.F. Powers was a master. In appreciative essay after essay, critics have saluted the man’s craft as a writer—especially his craft as a writer of short stories. Fellow writers of fiction especially never fail to praise his ability to move from sentence to sentence with utter gracefulness and ease. However, what rarely—if ever—comes in for praise is Powers’ predominant choice of subject matter, the lives of Roman Catholic priests. Considering the irreligious nature of the contemporary world, this should come as no surprise. Nor is it necessarily unfair. Powers’ material, like that of any writer, is not inherently praiseworthy; rather, it is what he has done with it that has made it come alive, and thrillingly so. His priests live, and live on, in our imaginations.
Needless to say, Powers’ career-long commitment to write about priests has made for a complicated critical reception of his work. Readers who are uninterested in, or who in some cases have outright antipathy for, the real-life counterparts of Powers’ characters, cannot conceive of the author as any greater than a skeptic, a satirist, perhaps one of the highest order, but nothing more. Unsympathetic to the lives of real priests, they cannot allow Powers greater than “minor master” status for devoting his life’s work to the rendering of this strange subculture. Thus it is often Powers’ best readers who, while not failing to take note of the obvious irony in his work—the exalted calling of the priests juxtaposed with their petty, this-worldly concerns—overlook those moments in the stories and novels where the author shows genuine sympathy for his fictional creations. This failure to see Powers’ sympathy for his priests, a sympathy, which, I will argue, reveals a great and capacious artistic vision, ultimately leads critics to place Powers in a kind of interpretive box: he is a consummate stylist, yes, but a “specialist,” not of interest to the general reader. He is a “writer’s writer,” a man, who as First Things editor Joseph Bottum has written, “narrowed his vision down to a point where it could not survive the passing of the moment.”
Vision: I would like to consider this word more carefully as it applies to Powers. Mary Gordon’s much-quoted injunction from her introduction to the author’s prize-winning novel, Morte D’Urban, is instructive here: “Read him . . . for the pleasures he bestows of ear and eye, but read him too for the supreme trustworthiness of his vision, a trust earned by impeccable craft, and by a balance perfectly struck between a cutting irony and a beleaguered faith.” I would affirm the twinning Gordon makes between vision and craft; the two are, as she suggests, inextricably linked in Powers’ work (as I think they are in the work of any great writer). The content of Powers’ vision, though, “the cutting irony” and “beleaguered faith,” has not been explored with the kind of attentive commentary and close reading bestowed on many of Powers’ contemporaries. When fine non-Christian critics do devote their energies to Powers, they concern themselves primarily with the writer’s gifts as an ironist and only in passing as an author of faith. On the other hand, perceptive Christian critics like Bottum, if they stop to consider Powers at all, judge him largely irrelevant to the current era. My intent in this essay is to combat both of these viewpoints by exploring a few notable parallels between the writer’s life and that of the protagonist of his great—but largely ignored—last novel, Wheat That Springeth Green.
It would be arrogant in the extreme—not to mention dishonest—to pretend that my reading of Powers, which holds, with his biographer Sister Nancy Hynes, that “what Powers says is as important as how he says it; the marriage of what and how is his genius”—is in some way unprecedented, a breakthrough. In fact, there were and are readers who have taken J.F. Powers on his own terms, who have read him both as a consummate artist and consummate believer. However, aside from a few reviews here and there (and the yet-to-be published biography by Hynes—she died before having it edited), this position does not have the currency of the positions of its opponents, nor the prestige. It is an underdog, and, to use a Powers metaphor I will return to, one that needs betting on. I leave it up to the reader to decide the question of whether the fruits of this position justify my fighting a little to establish it alongside the judgments of his more prominent critics and appreciators.
Wheat That Springeth Green was not published until 1988, a full quarter century after the publication of Powers’ only other novel, the National Book Award-winning Morte D’Urban. Unlike Morte D’Urban, which zeroes in on a decisive five- or six-month period during which the protagonist, Father Urban, experiences a dramatic (and humorous) conversion of heart, Wheat takes a longer view of moral transformation. For the first—and only—time in Powers’ “priest stories,” we have something like a complete account of the man, Father Joe Hackett, beginning with the first stirrings of a priestly call when Joe is only a boy, continuing with stirrings of quite another kind as a lustful adolescent, and culminating (in the first part of the novel) with the birth (and death) of his contemplative life during his time as a seminarian. These episodes of Joe’s youth, each of them actions filled with that strange mixture of humility and humiliation unique to Powers, prepare us for the signature acts of the grown man, the priest, whose response to the injunctions of the Gospel is enthusiastic and yet almost always doomed to failure.
When Joe made a move, he made the move he might have made first but didn’t. And maybe if he’d have made it first, he’d have been happier to be Joe later. [Chuckles quietly] And since he didn’t make it—since he was looking still—he wanted to shoot the works with God, see. He wasn’t just going to scrape in.
This, from an interview with Powers just a year before his death in 1999, captures beautifully the hope of the author, a fiercely earned hope which he never failed to find in his recurrent characters, those contradictory but strangely sympathetic priests of which Father Joe is perhaps the best example. The “move” alluded to in the interview—from pastor of the suburban parish of SS. Francis and Clare to pastor of the “slum parish” of Holy Cross—occurs in the last pages of the novel, and is really the proper lens with which to view the entire fictional life of the character. After a few weeks’ sabbatical from his responsibilities at SS. Francis and Clare during which he worked with the poor at a Catholic Worker house in Canada, Joe finally realizes his greatest gifts and talents are not being properly used. He petitions the archbishop for (and is granted) a change of parish.
One might justifiably object that Wheat That Springeth Green is not the story of Father Joe’s work at the slum parish, Holy Cross. Joe is not Dorothy Day (though she was someone Powers very much admired), and Wheat is not the chronicle of Joe’s life spent with the poor. How then are we to approach the story of Joe’s life that Powers does tell, a life which, at every turn, seems to have stifled all the good instincts and energies of this man’s vocation?
Seen from a purely human point of view, without faith in life everlasting, the greatest luminaries in the Communion of Saints—of which Joe, were he real, would be part—must be seen as failures. For the majority of their audiences, the words of these men and women fell, and continue to fall, on deaf ears. Those who do listen and understand them either have not the courage to follow them, or, worse, are so enraged by the challenge of these words that they have their speakers killed. The life of Jesus especially, when seen from this purely human perspective, can be called fairly a waste of time and energies, a failure. His attention to the poor and disenfranchised, His healing of sick and raising of the dead, His eloquent and prophetic teaching: all of these ministries are cut short because of an ongoing argument with the religious leaders of the time, an argument He was not able to “win” during His lifetime. Jesus’ life should have persuaded others that He was who He said He was, the son of God. And yet, for most, it did not. Powers’ fiction is imbued with this old Christian paradox that “success” in the realm of the spirit often—and inevitably—appears to be failure in the world’s eyes. To be blind to this paradox is to miss the hope which is the heart’s core of Powers’ work. The secular critics always miss this, of course. Even one as perceptive as the New Yorker’s James Wood strikes out. Witness the stunningly perverse conclusion to his essay on the author in his 2005 collection, The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel:
Modern comedy, the comedy of forgiveness, is incurably secular. For despite Powers’s Christian faith, and despite the severity of his disappointment with the Catholic church, his writing, in its humane irony, tends toward an unwitting inversion of Christianity, whereby his characters are not punished but already forgiven for sins they do not repent of, and the dry ground of their souls is moistened by the author’s gentle laughter.
It is a highly memorable line—“his characters are not punished but already forgiven for sins they do not repent of”—but it is clearly wrong when applied to Powers’ heroes, of which Father Joe is one.
Consider one of Joe’s sins in Wheat That Springeth Green, one so circumspectly narrated one is hesitant to even call it by that name. In a move designed to embarrass Joe and his friend, Father Beeman, a bitter ex-seminarian has named the two as potential carriers of venereal disease. (The seminarian himself has already tested positive.) Father Joe submits to taking the physical to prove his innocence. For another man, even another priest, this submission might not be the false witness it is for Joe. But throughout his life, Joe is a man whose first thought has always been for the Church, never for himself. He is a man whose sense of standing in persona Christi is excruciating in the deepest sense of the word, and it is this awareness that makes his betrayal such a blow to the reader when it comes. For, as if to further perjure himself, the pacifist Joe gives as reason for his going in for the VD test the possibility of his becoming a military chaplain. (At this point in the novel, we have already heard his most passionate speech as a pastor, in support of the draft-dodging youth, Greg.) Throughout the testing, Joe’s every thought is for himself, and the irony—gently delivered, as always in Powers—is that it is the non-Catholic Dr. Wylie administering the medical exam who reminds Joe of his truer self, in the midst of this humiliation:
Joe exposed himself, saying, “If this and the other—the blood test—are negative, would you put it in writing?”
“Sure, for the Commander in Chief. Milk it down.”
Joe did as directed, wondering again, but more poignantly than ever before, who had caused him this needless grievous embarrassment.
Joe did as directed, wondering again, Who?
Dr. Wylie said, “What you should be worrying about is this corporation of yours. It’ll only get worse, you know . . .”
To return to Wood’s point: yes, this scene is a testament to Powers’ “humane” irony, but it certainly does not preclude the repentance of the sin in question. Wood is right if he means Powers does not “punish” his characters for their sins; however, there is certainly punishment enough to go around. As it is of the thoroughly Christian variety though, the punishment is brought on by the sinners themselves. What greater punishment was there for Peter’s betrayal of Jesus than the act itself, and his knowledge of what he had done? In a like manner, the “false witness,” as I have called it, of Father Joe to his vocation, to his very being, recalled above, is sufficient agony in and of itself.
Another admirer of Powers, the critic and novelist Charles Baxter, observes in his 2007 work, The Art of Subtext, that, unlike another great Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, Powers does not do violence to characters who find themselves, like Joe at the doctor’s office, living in a “state of self-contradiction,” acting in a way utterly false to their being. This is an interesting insight but only tells half the story, for it is rare for Powers’ characters to accept that “state of contradiction” as normative for their lives. The good ones repent. Furthermore, to use the language of the Catholic sacrament of reconciliation, they amend their lives. For Joe, this process of amendment involves first confessing his sin (he later tells Lefty about his bending under pressure), then taking a trip to Canada to visit Greg, and finally, his going in to talk to the Archbishop, the outcome of which is his re-assignment to Holy Cross.
A mere summary of the life of a man as reticent as J.F. Powers is not of great help to readers. The facts themselves mislead. Witness, for example the fairly representative biographical capsule, coming in the midst of Bottum’s 2006 reconsideration of the author in First Things mentioned earlier, in which he judges Powers’ work as irretrievably “faded,” inaccessible to the twenty-first–century Christian. Bottum begins by placing Powers’ work within the context of the so-called “Catholic Renaissance” of the mid-twentieth century:
The 1940s were the first days of American Catholic literary triumph, with the rising fame of figures such as Thomas Merton, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, Caroline Gordon, and Allen Tate. In 1944, Powers’ “Lions, Hearts and Leaping Does” was included in both of the two most important anthologies of the year’s best short stories. His fiction began to appear in the New Yorker and other premier venues, and in 1947, his first story collection emerged from a major publisher.
The facts Bottum gives are indisputable, though not particularly helpful in understanding the artist or the man. Ditto for those which follow:
The rest of Powers’ life was spent in the quiet pursuits of a modern literary man. There were the Guggenheims and Rockefeller grants, the seasons spent at such famous artists’ retreats as Yaddo, the stints as college writer-in-residence at St. John’s, Marquette, Michigan and Smith, interspersed with long stays in rural Ireland. In 1975, he returned to St. John’s University in Minnesota, where he remained until his death.
It is not altogether clear how the reader is meant to understand this phrase, “the quiet pursuits of a modern literary man,” but its being followed by a list of the non-writing sources of income for the author give the impression that these grants and positions smoothly provided for Powers’ economic situation, allowing him to concentrate on his writing and create that masterfully “delicate” prose that Bottum (and others) rightly admire. But this curriculum vitae elides the author’s poverty.
Powers, his wife Betty, a writer in her own right, and their five children moved twenty-one times in thirty-two years. When they were first married, Betty’s parents gave the couple as a wedding present a house in St. Cloud, Minnesota. Only two years later, this house was bulldozed by the state in order to make room for a highway. Never after that did the family own their own place. During their second extended stay in Ireland from 1966 to 1975 (they moved there to protect their children from what they saw as a corrosive American culture), Powers’ mother and Betty’s father died. Neither Powers nor his wife had the money to attend either of the funerals.
These details are not mere pathetic footnotes to the life of a great American author. Rather, they bear heartbreaking witness to its substance. Though Powers was uncompromisingly dedicated to his craft of fiction, he always sought to balance this dedication with his love and care for his wife and family. There was never enough time, never enough money for both, and how many times Powers must have felt himself a failure at all his vocations: as father, as husband, as writer. How many times must he have asked himself the question, was it worth it, after all, the sacrifices I made, my wife, my family made? When we think in this way about Powers and his life—so close to desperation, and yet so truly full of hope—we are closer to understanding the meaning of that phrase, “the pursuits of a modern literary man.”
It must also be acknowledged that many times in the course of the Powers family’s severely straitened life, there were opportunities granted the author to increase his financial security, to give his family greater stability. Powers almost always turned these down. As he saw it, there was always a tradeoff: the more stability and security he accepted in a non-writing position (say, teaching), the less time there was to devote to writing. Powers, a gambler by nature—he was a great lover of horse-racing especially—bet primarily on his best talents as a writer, and only when necessary (and in smaller, less consequential ways) on his lesser abilities as an instructor of college youths.
How Powers “wagered” on God at the end of his life we cannot know (as we cannot know that of anyone). In his work, though, we can see very clearly where he puts his money, despite what critics like Wood have written. In an interview with a local Minneapolis columnist at the end of his career, after the publication of Wheat That Springeth Green, Powers was asked if he was a cynic. His surprised response, channeling the voices of his finest characters, illustrates the complexity of that great hope he carried within himself all his life, but let show only at rare, luminous moments: “Me, a cynic? Not at all. I’m betting on God to win. A lot of people are betting on him to show. And most people aren’t betting at all.”
Interestingly, while critics like Bottum and Wood presumably would disagree violently over the content of Powers’ moral vision—from Bottum’s point of view, it is profoundly Catholic, from Wood’s, deeply secular—both seem to agree that his work will not stand the test of time, that it is destined to be forgotten. It should not be surprising that secular critics like Wood do not see Powers as having a lasting literary legacy. The characters Powers dedicated a lifetime to rendering are seen by Wood to be inherently unsympathetic creatures. It is no wonder he predicts their eventual literary obscurity; man cannot survive on bile alone. Why a similar prediction should be made by Bottum, a fellow Catholic, is more difficult to see. Certainly, it is true, as Bottum points out, that the lives of the real-life Catholic priests Powers spent the body of his work depicting were radically transformed after the Second Vatican Council; true, also, to say that many of the “rectory scenes” Powers paints in his 1940s and ’50s fictions would not be realistic depictions of priests in the 1970s and ’80s. To state these things is only to recognize the obvious. But is it necessary to conclude—as Bottum seems to—that because of the changes in the American Catholic Church, the fictions from a bygone era are not “relevant” to the people (Catholic or otherwise) living in the contemporary one? These seem insufficient grounds for such a conclusion, and more to the point, grounds which are persuasively addressed by the author’s final work which, in its portrayal of priests of the two historical “eras,” captures beautifully the ferment of change Bottum sees as so definitive for the American Catholic Church. Old Father Joe and young Father Bill: must not both men navigate the old familiar minefields of human relationships? Must not both, in their lives as priests, take care to love their neighbor and to pray to their God? Are not these struggles the same ones that have faced Christians for the past 2000 years?
In truth, I do not think such debates about literary legacy would have concerned J.F. Powers very much: he experienced enough obscurity in the middle of his career to destroy what little literary vanity his early work might have afforded him. His reputation, like countless writers before him, grew for a bit in youth, then faded in middle age, then came back to grow again at his death. Doubtless it will undergo similar ebbs and flows in this new century. But reputation in literature is one thing, vitality quite another. In reference to the first, Powers may fluctuate; with regard to the second, he is durable, built to last. To steal a metaphor from that great last book of his: so long as there are readers interested in the subject of man’s love for God and his brother and the many complications arising therefrom, though the wheat of Powers’ work falls to the ground and dies in this age, it will surely spring to life again in another.
Zach Czaia teaches high school reading and mathematics at a private high school in Minneapolis, MN. Though still a relatively young pup at 28 years of age, he has long been an admirer of the writing of J.F. Powers. It is his hope that this essay might inspire others (young pups like himself an old dogs too) to read this wonderful author for the first time.
Baxter, Charles. The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2007, p. 61.
Bottum, Joseph. “The Greatest Catholic Writer of the 20th Century,” First Things, September 7, 2006. Online Edition.
Hynes, Nancy. J.F. Powers: A Critical Biography, unpublished manuscript edition, 2007.
Powers, J.F. Wheat That Springeth Green. New York: New York Review of Books, 2000.
Wood, James. The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel. New York: Picador, 2005.
“J.F.Powers.” Video Interview by Jon Hassler. Northern Lights. St. Paul: MN Center for the Book and Metronet. Parts One & Two, 1998.