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.