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.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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