His Bleak Materials

J. F. Powers at One Hundred
J. F. Powers in 1948 / Star Tribune
J. F. Powers in 1948 / Star Tribune

In May 1981 I was invited to lecture at St. John’s University and monastery in Collegeville, seventy-five miles northwest of Minneapolis. J. F. Powers, who’d been teaching creative writing at St. John’s for many years, came to my talk that evening and asked me back to his house. We hit it off immediately, drank and talked till midnight, and eventually became good friends. Tall, thin, and severe-looking, he was a handsome man with thick wavy hair combed straight back. He smoked a pipe and wore a sweater over his shirt and tie. He had a sharp Irish nose, thin upper lip, and features of clerical cut. Though often mistaken for a priest because of his manner and books, he was married and had five children. Pondering the contrast between Jim’s conviviality and the chilly isolation of rural Minnesota, I went to sleep, for the first time in my life, in a monastic cell.

I was rather shocked when I returned the next day to look more closely and see the primitive conditions of his hair-shirt house, a drab grey stucco dwelling that had originally been built for the workmen who served the monastery. The bookshelves were rickety, the furniture shabby, the floors were bare and there were no modern appliances. He disliked household chores but, with monk-like penitence, did his laundry, in a rusty bathtub, on his knees. In the fierce winters, with only a strand of barbed wire between him and the North Pole, the uninsulated roof and thin walls made it impossible to raise the inside temperature above sixty-two degrees, even with the furnace and fire going full blast.

Jim was old enough to be my father and our filial bond was strong. We both loved literary gossip, valued wit, and took a satiric view of human folly. Early on he defined our friendship by creating wildly exaggerated, semi-comic characters for both of us: believer, atheist; corny Midwesterner, savvy easterner; ignorant autodidact, learned professor; cautious introvert, reckless wild man; blocked writer, prodigious ink-spiller; hoary hermit, social butterfly; resolute recluse, manic traveler. Commenting on my ambition, he paid me a backhanded compliment by remarking that I’d make a good monsignor but would never become a bishop. When I offered to take him to lunch in nearby St. Cloud, Jim looked puzzled and mordantly asked, “What did I ever do to you?”

His amusing inscriptions in my copies of Morte D’Urban illuminated his characters and themes as well as our friendship: “Let Fr. Urban be a lesson to you when you hit the big time,” and “To Jeffrey Meyers, Honorary Oblate in the Order of St. Clement—Jim Powers (Founder).”  After we’d been discussing the Sermon on the Mount, he inscribed one of his books: “To Jeffrey Meyers, who has given literary workaholism a good name, from one who toiled not and neither did he spin if he could help it.”

Despite his acute intelligence, Jim was still unworldly and a bit naïve, and this simplicity made him teasable. I discovered just before my second lecture that the sole of my shoe had become detached and was flapping about. Since Collegeville had no shops, Jim eagerly fetched his own supply of glue, hammer, and nails, pounded in a small mountain of metal and proudly said, “That ought to do it.” After a time, I glanced down at the shoe and casually remarked, “I’m afraid the sole has come loose again.” Jumping from his chair, he knelt down, examined my footgear—and realized he’d been fooled!

 

J. F. Powers, a master of witty and sophisticated fiction, was born one hundred years ago this month. In the 1940s, when he began to publish, Catholic literature flourished in America. Thomas Merton’s mystical The Seven Storey Mountain was a bestseller; Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson brought out works on Thomist Scholasticism; the poets Allen Tate and Robert Lowell, who expressed his Baroque intensity in Lord Weary’s Castle, were prominent converts; Flannery O’Connor produced Gothic tales of sin and redemption. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, a popular promoter of the faith, lectured the nation on television. Powers was not mystical, scholarly, poetical, redemptive, or popular. He lived in Minnesota and Ireland, far from the centers of cultural power, remained aloof from literary politics, and refused to promote himself through readings and interviews. Often forgotten in his lifetime—he died in 1999—he produced isolated masterpieces separated from each other by prolonged silence, and every decade his reputation had to be revived. He wrote timely stories about racial conflict and some short pieces about his own family life, but early on he discovered his true subject: the lives of Catholic priests in the Upper Midwest. 

Powers has no whisky priests or saintly sinners, no tormented adulterers or miraculous interventions

Deliberately regional and focused on a celibate minority within a Catholic minority, his elegant and subtle fiction is universal and enduring, his characters both commonplace and exotic. One priest, paternal as well as fatherly, puts on a comic apron, turned outside in, to make breakfast for the old monk who’s celebrating the early Mass; another idly uses his Roman collar to practice putting on his bedroom floor; a third vests himself in a “white fiddleback chasuble” regrettably spotted with ink when the pastor had shaken his fountain pen. Priests form a secretive fraternity closed to outsiders, yet are exposed to the prying eyes of their housekeepers and parishioners. At the bottom of the hierarchy of power that stretches all the way to Rome, curates in isolated parishes yearn for promotion; priests, struggling against loneliness, boredom, and sloth, try to reconcile the spiritual and material worlds. Commenting on his choice of subject, Powers said: “I write about priests for reasons of irony, comedy, and philosophy. They are officially committed to both worlds in a way that most people officially are not.”

Powers’s themes are very different from François Mauriac’s Jansenist preoccupation with universal evil and Georges Bernanos’s portraits of anguished village priests, as well as from the fiction of the English converts, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. He has no whisky priests or saintly sinners, no tormented adulterers or miraculous interventions; no aristocrats with incense and idols in their private chapels, no priests like Waugh’s wise and worldly Fr. Mowbray, who tries to instruct the impatient and obtuse business mogul Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited

Waugh taught Powers close observation, subtle wit, savage unmasking of falsity. Like Waugh, Powers is deeply amused by his characters’ faults, but also conveys the urgent need—with salvation at stake—to rise above them. Like Joyce and Waugh, he assumes that the author shares the defects and aspirations of his creations. In his essay “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church,” Waugh, emphasizing Powers’s themes of disillusionment and spiritual waste, wrote that his presbyteries “are not mere literary inventions.”

Reading those admirable stories one can understand why there is often a distinct whiff of anticlericalism where Irish priests are in power. They are faithful and chaste and, in youth at any rate, industrious, but many live out their lives in a painful state of transition; they have lost their ancestral simplicity without yet acquiring a modest carriage of their superior learning or, more important, delicacy in their human relations, or imagination, or agility of mind.

Powers’s incisive stories are told from the priests’ point of view. Essentially ordinary men, with human needs and failings, they negotiate their way in the church and the world as if it were possible to reconcile the two. His characters reveal the limitations and consolations of belief, and his work affirms his faith even as it challenges it. There are in Powers’s hard-nosed tales no joyous rites, like baptisms and weddings, or even funerals, where priests are needed; no charming and lovable Hollywood pastors like Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. His limited men often lack knowledge and insight, and fail to follow a spiritual path and provide spiritual guidance.

In all the stories there is the presence of Powers: his omniscient sigh of resignation, his laughter that fends off despair

Subject to the conservative hierarchy and bound by a vow of obedience, Powers’s priests have little room to maneuver. The rectory or the cloister is home, where men of different characters, ideas, tastes, abilities, and generations are forced to get along together. His priests, to use Greene’s phrase, look for ways of escape. In petty disputes they cannot win, they exact compensatory revenge. They escape loneliness by devoting themselves to golf and beer, by taking boys out for hamburgers and sweating with teenagers on the basketball court (they cannot be seen alone with young women). Bored with hearing confessions and visiting the sick, they curry favor with wealthy men, devote themselves to fundraising and real estate. But they are committed to their vocation and have to endure.

The narrowness of this world supplies Powers with all the room his art requires, and out of this bleak material he wrote some of the most amusing stories in American literature. Though his humor is absolutely American, he cultivated a chaste satiric style derived from “the scrupulous meanness” of Joyce and Waugh. His observation of detail is acute, and he creates his Midwestern interiors and landscapes with economy and grace. He uses supple Joycean techniques, inhabiting his characters’ consciousness, sliding in and out of their minds, tracing the flow of their needs and anxieties. Yet we detect in all the stories the presence of Powers: his omniscient sigh of resignation, his penetrating wit, his laughter that fends off loneliness and despair.

 

Prince of Darkness (1947) contains his greatest story. The allusive and poignant “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” is a winter’s tale about intellectual pride and spiritual snobbery, laced with mordant wit. Written in Powers’s late twenties, in Joycean language and rhythms, it reveals the mind of Didymus, an old frail priest, Franciscan monk, and rationalistic teacher of geometry. Didymus’s older brother Seraphin, a priest returned from Rome and clearly dying, has recently asked him to come to St. Louis for a final visit. Didymus hasn’t seen him for twenty-five years, but refuses to go. During torments of conscience about his own imperfections, he suffers a crippling stroke that forces him to question his own faith and humility, and to reflect on sainthood, mortality, and salvation.

 In a brilliant lyrical passage at the end of the story, which recalls a Joycean “epiphany” as well as the lacelike snow in Joyce’s “The Dead” and in Fitzgerald’s “Babylon Revisited,” a storm obliterates the ground and levels everything under its uniform whiteness: “The snowflakes whirled at the window, for a moment for all their bright blue beauty as though struck still by lightning, and Didymus closed his eyes, only to find them there also, but darkly falling.” Powers uses Didymus’s scruple—about whether or not to visit his dying brother—to reveal the priest’s intellectual vanity and to question the meaning of his existence in the faith. The old priest slips out of life in an agony of regret as the blinding snow suggests the impossibility of spiritual certainty. 

Powers’s masterpiece Morte D’Urban (1962), whose title suggests the Arthurian themes in the work of Sir Thomas Malory, won the National Book Award in 1963. In the novel, at once comic and profoundly serious, Fr. Urban struggles to fulfill his vocation and to get things done. A real operator, attractive and athletic, a dynamic preacher and fundraiser with a gift for handling people both high and low, Urban is the right man in the wrong Order: the willfully mediocre Clementines. Based in a leased building in Chicago, members of the order conduct missions and retreats and serve as visiting priests. The novel’s locales are confined to Chicago, Minneapolis, and small Minnesota towns connected by train to the ramshackle retreat house, St. Clement’s Hill, at the end of a dirt road, and to the fishing lakes in the north. 

Throughout the novel Urban is beset by worldly temptations—ambition, fame and power, gifts, money, and sex—but he’s so skilled at milking his connections and grasping opportunities that he doesn’t see the dangers ahead. There is no literal Morte d’Urban as there is a Morte d’Arthur, but he recovers his vocation and is reborn, a sadder and wiser priest. In the ceremony which elects him as provincial, he repeats the principles of the twelfth-century Cistercian monk St. Bernard of Clairvaux, affirming the primary importance of the altar and the sacraments in a true priest’s life. Despite the blows to his pride and the failure of his ambition, Urban keeps trying and endures. Powers, always artful and amusing, creates a comic masterpiece about a flawed man’s inner life.

Powers worked on his last novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, for twenty-five years and published it in 1988. The action of the novel begins in the 1930s, but mainly takes place in 1968 when his hero, Fr. Joe Hackett, is forty-four. This long gestation had some negative consequences: the material seems less fresh and original; the comic tone less sure and consistent; the conclusion more contrived. Yet Fr. Joe’s spiritual biography is as compelling as Fr. Urban’s, and even more profound in its religious, moral, and social implications. Morte D’Urban is about power and ambition, Wheat about money and principles. The Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 is a crucial offstage event, and behind the comic plot lies the slow agony of the Vietnam War. Wheat is a heavy-hearted comedy.

At the end of the novel the various stories are neatly tied up at a party where many of the characters take a curtain call. An unexpected legacy to resolve the plot is a timeworn but fitting device. Joe remains uncorrupted by money, and the gift releases him from the burden of tedious solicitations and a fund-raising thermometer on the front lawn. As a boy Joe thought there were two problems in being a priest: having to “live in a run-down neighborhood” and “always having to try to be like Our Lord.” At the end, he has to do both. He’d started at Holy Faith and now leaves, without an assistant, for the slum parish of Holy Cross.

Powers’s fictional priests exemplify the human condition and reveal the cost of the clerical life. His parish priests are the workhorses of the hierarchy, often isolated, lonely, far from family and friends. Always available to help others, they have no one to confide in. Most make compromises and succumb to lesser sins: drink, gambling, television, and cars. Urban and his other priests dedicate their lives to an ideal they find hard to achieve. They don’t expect people outside the church to value the ideal, but feel betrayed when episcopal leaders go out of their way to diminish it. Candidates for the priesthood are scarce these days, and many have left the priesthood. Celibacy is like reality: few can take it. Some of his priests are nasty; none of them are saints, or even especially good men. His subtle humor is his way of facing the essential weakness of humanity.

Living next to a monastery, Powers met many priests who came there to recover from alcoholism, sexual problems, and mental breakdowns. He went to Mass every day, but sat alone in the balcony. I once remarked that I envied his faith. He replied that he might be as skeptical as I was, but had made the same wager as Pascal. He wanted to believe and hoped faith would carry him through doubt.

Published in the July 7, 2017 issue: 

Thirty-two of Jeffrey Meyers’s books have been translated into fourteen languages and seven alphabets. He’s recently published Remembering Iris Murdoch (2013), Thomas Mann’s Artist-Heroes (2014), Robert Lowell in Love and The Mystery of the Real: Correspondence with Alex Colville (2016).

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