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Powers, religion, and ‘literary modernism’s religion of art’

Suitable Accommodations is the title of the recently published collection of letters of J.F. Powers. We’ll be featuring a review in our upcoming Fall Books issue, but in the meantime its appearance seems just as much an occasion for advancing hypotheses on why he’s not more widely read today, or even so widely remembered, as it is for discussing the letters. After all, many of these theorists posit explicitly or implicitly, Powers’s Morte D’Urban beat out, among others, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, and John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers for the 1963 National Book Award -- shouldn’t that still count for something? (Moldering copies of the latter two books could still be found on my parents’ bookcase decades later, but anything by Powers? No.)

Following are excerpts from some recent commentary. Do you put stock in any of these more than others? Was it Powers’s style, or his topic? Was he over-rated, or did something about the world he was documenting change fundamentally? 

Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker:

[W]hy has Powers been so much eclipsed? [Joseph] Bottum suggests that it has something to do with the decline of the priestly vocation in America, but an outsider may wonder if it doesn’t have more to do with a less, shall we say, catholic self-definition of the faith. If the Lubavitchers had become the dominant force in American Judaism, there wouldn’t be much room for an Isaac Bashevis Singer, let alone a Philip Roth.

Joseph Epstein in the Wall Street Journal: “Powers's fiction was too subtle to acquire a large readership.”

Gary Wills in the current New York Review of Books:

Though he was meticulous in his craft—seeing little details, inching out believable dialogue—he had a very narrow range. Both his completed novels, and twenty-five of his short stories, are about priests, and all priests of a stalled middling condition. I did not see, as a Catholic high-schooler, what his non-Catholic admirers made of them. We were supposed to find there the message that God works even in ordinary circumstances. He was the Catholics’ American author, to be read with the French Bernanos and Bloy, the English Waugh and Greene—Walker Percy came too late for my classes, and Flannery O’Connor was too knottily Gothic and Southern for the nuns to press her on us. But Powers was not in the same league as the European authors. Bernanos made a deep holiness in his country priest convincing, Greene brought faith to showdown battles with sin, and Waugh traced an airy providence hovering somewhere over the story….

The Powers priests, by contrast, are not saints, and not sinners, and not historical forces—indeed, they seem to have no spiritual experience at all. The sacraments mean things like resenting a priest for dawdling in the way he hears confession, leaving his fellow priests to service his long lines. The priests, when not talking “shop”—things like printers for their devotional brochures—mainly talk about sports. In all this, they are like Powers himself, who shared banter with his priest friends on baseball, horse races, and boxing. The fictional priests are as little interested in great art or poetry, music or philosophy, as their creator.

D.G. Myers in his review of the letters for the Daily Beast

Although he had fun describing himself as lazy (“Sleep when I want to. Listen to music”), Powers was an extremely hard worker of a special kind made famous by literary modernism’s religion of art. He was a restless fingerer of prose. He turned sentences around, looked at them, turned them around again, ate lunch, lay down, threw them out, started over. His friends warned that his “perfectionism” (his own word) would make him wacky. Lowell worried that he had whittled away his talent in the pursuit of “some ironic integrity.”

But he was neither the first American writer nor the last to choose perfection of the work as a way of life. Powers may have existed at the opposite end of the economic scale from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote constantly for money. Yet both men were chronically in debt, Fitzgerald because he pissed away his money, Powers because he never had any money to piss away. It is depressing to see the same literary ambition—the refinement of a style—lead to the same economic result in two different generations. Since about 1970, creative-writing programs have solved the economic problem of American writers by covering the production costs of perfectionism, which can no longer be recouped by sales, grants, visiting appointments, artist-colony stays, and the hope that something will turn up.

And Myers again, writing about Powers in connection with the August passing of Elmore Leonard

I am not saying that his perfectionism (his own word) makes Powers the better writer. Quite the opposite. I am beginning to wonder if the obsession with specificity and exactness, with perfecting a verbal surface, was not simply a fashion which has passed from the literary scene, and not an article of artistic faith at all. If Powers will not be remembered perhaps the reason is that his principle of style, like a green felt hat trimmed with sequins and gold braid and covered with a black lace veil, belongs to a past that is irrecoverably past. Call it the Age of Finish, a closed chapter of literary history. And Leonard, if he is remembered, will be remembered by an age that is not so fussy with its words.

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Fifty years have flown by?  I remember the excited revews of Morte d'Urban.  (Thomas Merton called it "a work of literary genius.")

http://books.google.com/books?id=PN9xYU8FbTMC&pg=PA147&dq=morte+d'urban+...

It was okay, not fabulous.  I'm not surprised Powers has been forgotten, like so many other writers we were supposed to like or be interested in because they were Catholic.      For hundreds of them, see Catholic Authors, by Matthew Hoehn, OSB.  (1948 and 1952.)

http://www.amazon.com/Catholic-Authors-Matthew-Ed-Hoehn/dp/B000K8AK6G

The Garry Wills review was depressing, imho.  How sad to think of Powers' poor wife and family.     

J. F. Powers over-rated? He is one of the greatest American short story writers -- a pitch-perfect stylist, a keen observer of human nature, dead serious, and funny. Saul Bellow, John Updike, James Wood, Flannery O'Connor, Mary Gordon and Donna Tartt are just a few who recognize his astonishing (and enduring) gifts. Want to understand why so many lay people and women religious are pissed off about flat-footed, dim-witted, soul-numbing clericalism? Read the first story, "The Lord's Day," in his Collected Short Stories. And any writer who can use a sack-race (as he did in "Wheat that Springeth Green") as a metaphor for our journey toward God, has my attention and affection.

Not having read Powers, I have trouble believing that he holds his own in the league of modernist writers -- that is, among heirs of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Flannery O'Connor, and in there with Updike, Bellow, Roth. My main reason is that he wrote so much about Catholic priests -- which suggest a narrow niche and probably the old-fashioned literary techniques to go with it. Even among Irish short story writers, excessive focus on priests would have been seen as a sign of  minor talent. The great ones, Lavin, Frank O'Connor, O Faolain, could deal with priests consummatelly but had a much wider reach.

And then, it seems that he wrote about one kind of priest, frozen in time, and did not address the changing psychology and social insertion of clerics, one of the great unwritten stories of our time.

Not having read Powers

Well, there ya go!

Joseph,

I see what you mean about Powers and his priests. And what's with Melville and his sailors, O'Connor and her grotesques, Faulkner and his Yoknapatawpha, Celine and his three dots, Dickinson and her dashes (heck, you can sing almost everything she ever wrote to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas")...?

Even those who liked him (like Mary Gordon) knew his work wouldn't last.  

Here's a link to an article by a former student of his, an admirer, who gives some interesting details.  (He met his wife through Sr. Mariella Gable, OSB, who was forced to have a lobotomy, as HER admirers know.)

http://www.johnrosengren.net/powers

Morte d'Urban, in spite of all the awards, good reviews, etc., sold only 25000 copies.  I wonder if this collection of his letters will cause anyone to go back and read his books.  

(Powers turned down the job Commonweal offered him.)

Need I speak to you of the dangers in pockets?

No, of them I have heard and will avoid them as occasions of sin, though in themselves they are not evil.

I thought Morte D'Urban was one of the funniest books I ever read.  Even though  I probably missed most of the humor (being about a pre-Vatican II Church I know nothing about)  I still thought it was  a hoot.

 

 

 

 

Ms. Powers joins other children of writers in revealing what life with their famous fathers was really like.  (Bellow, Cheever, Salinger, Hemingway, et al.)

A commenter below the Adam Gopnik review in The New Yorker quotes Noel Coward:

 

We know that you're sad,

We know that you've had

A lot of storm and strife,

But is it quite fair

To ask us to share

Your dreary private life?

Gerelyn, the Rosengren piece was interesting indeed.  Thank you.  You seem to have a vast library of excellent links at your command.

Irene, I re-read Morte d'Urban a few years ago and thought it a brilliant novel of mid-century, middle-American Catholicism.  It was also very funny.

Thanks, Lauretta!

(Here's a link to the five-star review I wrote for Suitable Accommodations:  

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B009LRWUDI )

I'm looking forward to Commonweal's review of the book.  (I hope it's not restricted to subscribers.)

It is true that great novelists can focus on a limited population -- Melville, Proust, Faulkner -- but when they do so they revolutionize our view of that popularion and use it for deep soundings of human nature. I think the pre-Vatican II Catholic priesthood could indeed be used in this way, as in several novels of Georges Bernanos. But by all accounts Powers just got stuck in priest-novels without novelty of vision -- had he a novel vision we would have heard of it, as we've heard of Greene and Bernanos. 

"But by all accounts..."  And you've probably read 'em all as extensively as you've read Powers.

 

On the page for the hardcover edition, Amazon provides lots of samples from Suitable Accommodations.  Anyone unfamiliar with Powers will learn a lot about him from the letters.  

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0374268061/ref=s9_psimh_gw_p14_d0_i1?pf...

I searched for "Mariella" to read his letters to Sr. Mariella Gable.  

(Anyone unfamiliar with her or unfamiliar with what bishops could and did do in the 1950s can get a taste of it here:

http://www.csbsju.edu/csb-archives/csbhistory/csbpublications/othercsbpu... )

 

"And you've probably read 'em all as extensively as you've read Powers."

It would not take long to read Powers' output.  

Three volumes of stories and two novels followed over the next four-and-a-half decades—or an average of about 6,000 words a year, if that. Literary fame came too: Evelyn Waugh singled him out at the very beginning of his career as perhaps the best young American writer (although the best American writer of all, he added, was the creator of the Perry Mason series); 

 

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/08/20/a-plot-against-living-j...

(If you were marooned on a desert island, would you take Powers' oeuvre or Erle Stanley Gardner's?)

A dean emritus of my college once held a seminar on a book, with the premise being that particpants were required not to have looked at the book in any fashion beforehand. Something about recollection or apokatastasis. Anyhoo, he was senile. Those in command of their mental faculties know better than to assay at critiquing unread books.*

Really, really good books get forgotten. Doesn't mean they weren't really, really good. I don't think that there is some sort of literary process of natural selection in play, where deficient books fail to live on. One simple reason for the sucess of the NYRB imprint is its focus on revitalizing forgotten gems. Maria Dermoût's The Ten Thousand Things springs to mind.

 

 

*That said, I feel confident in saying that there's no way in the Seven Hells that that book was better than Pale Fire.

Abe,

Evidently, Harry Levin agreed with you, but he let Elizabeth Hardwick and Gore Vidal have it their way:

https://listserv.ucsb.edu/lsv-cgi-bin/wa?A2=nabokv-l;d7ce7ce0.9610

I've only read Nabokov's "Speak Memory," "Lolita" and "Ada." Midwestern Catholic rube that I am, I'll admit I enjoy reading Powers more than I enjoy reading Nabokov.