The Gospel according to J. F. Powers

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The Gospel according to J. F. Powers

Portland magazine, Winter 2009

By John Rosengren

   On a visit to Saint John’s University this past summer, I stopped by the cemetery on the edge of campus and paused before the grave of J. F. Powers, my mentor. A three-foot granite headstone marks the plot he shares with his wife and their daughter Mary. Both women died of cancer, survived by Powers.
   He had visited this site almost every day himself since his wife of 42 years, the writer Betty Wahl, had died. He had dedicated his last novel, “Wheat that Springeth Green”--published the year she died, 1988--to her “for being.”
   The title, taken from a medieval French carol, seemed a paean to her:
          “Now the green blade riseth form the buried grain,
          Wheat that in dark earth many days has lain;
          Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
          Love is come again like wheat that springeth green.”
   On those daily loving visits, he had stooped to pluck weeds from the green grass that covered her. He knew that the very ground he tended would become his final resting spot. In that way--and, of course, in the crafting of his fiction--he carried out the admonishment of Saint Benedict, the patron of the campus and that ground, to “live daily with death before you.”
   I noticed that a patch of crabgrass had sprouted on the grave. The headstone showed ten years have already passed since Powers’s death on June 17, 1999. I remember clearly the phone call from a friend with the news that Powers had passed away while folding a basket of laundry in his living room. Though widely respected in literary circles during his lifetime, he was not well known outside his circle of many admirers and too few readers. I worry that the crabgrass is spreading across his memory.

   Upon Powers’ death in 1999, Mel Gussow observed in The New York Times, “In his graceful novels and short stories, Mr. Powers depicted with great humor and awareness the subtleties as well as the isolated nature of the spiritual life. Although he was not a priest, he seemed to have an interior knowledge of what it meant to be one in the United States in this century, and he was expert in capturing the idiom of clerical speech.”
   Quite simply, J. F. Powers was a literary giant. He beat out John Updike, Katherine Anne Porter and Vladimir Nabokov for the 1963 National Book Award with his first novel, “Morte d’Urban,” about a charming priest at home on the golf course. Most of the stories from his three collections originally appeared in The New Yorker. Updike selected his story “Death of a Favorite” for “The Best American Short Stories of the Century.” His pen pal Flannery O’Connor sought Powers’s comments on her work and wrote him, “I admire your stories better than any others I know.” His second novel, “Wheat that Springeth Green,” about a priest who’d traded his pursuit of sainthood for the business of running a parish, received laudatory reviews. Powers’s oeuvre drew praise from the likes of Saul Bellow, Evelyn Waugh, Frank O’Connor, Philip Roth, Sean O’Faolain, V. S. Pritchett and Pete Hamill. The humorist Garrison Keillor once described Powers to me as “wildly funny.”
   He inspired writers like Mary Gordon, author of six novels and the McIntosh Professor of English at Barnard College. “Powers was doing something no one else was doing, which was very exciting to me,“ she says. “He was aspiring to the highest literary standards, the highest rhetorical line with carefully constructed sentences, the cool ironic tone and the underlying deep subject matter of faith.”
   I didn’t know any of this when I met Mr. Powers during my junior year at Saint John’s University. With only a vague notion of his reputation, I had applied for an independent study of creative writing he taught selectively. I had heard various reports from other students: that he was eccentric, sometimes crabby, but a good teacher.
   Powers’s office was hidden away on the fourth floor of the political science building, a solitary room reached by a narrow staircase behind a wooden door. I was accustomed to the offices of other Saint John’s faculty cluttered with books spilling off bookshelves onto the floor and papers heaped on their desks alongside large computer monitors. Powers’s office had arched windows on two sides with bare wooden floors. It had a desk with a chair and another wooden chair for a visitor. He had neatly tucked several books on the shelves. No computer. Nothing on the walls. His studio was sparse, like his prose. It smelled faintly of pipe smoke.
   Throughout the spring semester of 1985, I climbed that narrow staircase every two or three weeks to learn what he thought of my short stories. He welcomed me with a formal friendliness. There was never any question of whether I could call him by his first name, the way other faculty invited us to address them. To his friends, he was Jim, but to us students, he was always “Mr. Powers.” He wore eyeglasses with dark plastic frames that looked straight out of a black and white photograph. His face had a sour, serious expression. He clutched a pencil.
   We sat side by side and went through his markings on my stories. Some pages had more of his pencil marks than my ink. He noted with brackets where I could cut words. He squiggled lines under awkward phrases. He added missing commas and struck errant ones. He circled inconsistencies where I’d typed “100” on one page but then spelled out “one hundred” on the next. He noted in the margin, “say it better--I’m tired of that word” (adrenaline) and “dialogue isn’t going anywhere, is it?” and “Any point in this? Bad transition is why I ask” and “such a cliché it’s hard to take seriously” and, where I’d written, “A twinge of anxiety shot into his gut,” he’d penciled “THIS IS A GOOD EXAMPLE OF A BAD SENTENCE. STUDY IT.”
   In one story, he circled where my characters “began,” “retorted,” “continued” and “challenged,” then connected them with lines and noted in the margin, “Ask me for my sermon on this.” The sermon preached that it was best to simply use “said” for speech and let the character’s words carry the weight. He also preached against passive voice and verbs ending in “ing”; he believed the simple past tense was strongest. I also discovered he disliked the use of “as” (because I was fond of it back then), and he railed not only against obvious clichés but anything that had the scent of one.
   He discussed the use of detail, how he had once seen a coal truck pass by that said on the side So-and-so’s “coal is hot stuff” and liked it so much he used it in “Wheat that Springeth Green.” He talked about the need to be less explicit and more indirect with endings. He referred me to other writers as well, recommending James Joyce, Jonathan Swift and Evelyn Waugh, but warning against the likes of William Faulkner, whom he thought needed a more zealous editor.
   The overriding theme I remember from Powers was that there was too much “hoping” in my writing. I wasn’t sure what he meant. He elaborated that I was hoping that what I’d written was good, hoping that the reader would buy it. “Hoping--that’s a vice,” he said. “You hope it’s good, and then when someone tells you it isn’t, you fight back. They go together: hoping and fighting back.”
   Instead, he said that I had to find a way to make the story--with its characters, details, action and plot--work on the page. That I had to find this way of knowing it did myself and trust that. It was a matter of knowing what was right. “You have to know where the baloney is so you don’t let it in there,” he said. “So you don’t have that smell.”
   After these sessions, I walked down the narrow staircase from his office feeling discouraged. The few places where he had marked, “good sentence” or “nice and clean” about a paragraph or “this strikes me as original and very good” about a detail eluded me. I dwelled on the many shortcomings in my writing that he had exposed. By the time I left the building, I was ready to change my major to biology, convinced that I could never be a writer.
   I tried to ease the sting of his comments by dismissing him as a curmudgeon and a dinosaur out of touch with the times. But I couldn’t escape the fact that he knew what he was talking about--much better than I did. Over time, I began to understand him differently. He could have easily dismissed my stories as the awkward fumblings they were. Instead, he took them seriously and considered them more carefully than I had, going over them line by line, word by word. He did not like to see anyone trespass his standard for writing. He wanted me to see that. At times, it seemed to pain him that I had not caught on. In retrospect, I recognize that was Powers’s kindness.
   In one of our conversations, Powers summed up his poetics in a single statement: “God doesn’t like crap in art.”
   That was also a protest against what he saw happening to society. His comments during our sessions often strayed from my writing to campus life, which was his window to the world. He lived in a stucco house in Flynntown, a tiny neighborhood on the edge of campus with a handful of houses next to several student dwellings. He did not own a television until 1987 when his mother-in-law moved in. He complained about students wearing blue jeans and asked me why they spent their time throwing “those round things,” meaning Frisbees--he couldn’t come up with the word. The circles of students on the Commons kicking hackeysacks, which had just come into vogue, might as well have been aliens, they fell so far from the world he saw in his mind’s eye, the one that he created in his fiction.
   James Farl Powers was born in 1917 in Jacksonville, Illinois, a Protestant town where he and his family were the only Catholics. A pacifist, he went to federal prison for 13 months as a conscientious objector rather than serve in the Army during World War II. Think about that for a moment. This wasn’t Vietnam, which became hip to oppose; duty to this cause was akin to a patriotic moral imperative. But Powers felt otherwise. He objected to the use of violence, whether it was used against the communist threat or the Axis of Evil. He also didn’t like the idea of the government telling him he had to be a soldier. He was willing to go to prison for that. Even there, he bucked the trend. While the other conscientious objectors behind bars read “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” he refused. He did not need Thoreau’s reassurance. He was a man bent on marching to his own beat.
   Powers once told me he had wanted to go to Yale and hang a pennant on the wall, but that he realized that just wasn’t for him. He couldn’t. He was saying that he had wanted to be able to be one of a larger number, someone who could rally with the others around a cause. But that was not his nature. His righteousness--a Christian virtue--destined him to be a loner. He accepted that fate.
But he did not want to be a martyr or be called a hero. When his oldest son once asked him about going to prison, Powers snapped angrily at him and would not talk about it. Another time, when a reporter broached the subject, Powers made up an elaborate fabrication about a case of mistaken identity landing him in jail.
   When I met him forty years later, he remained serious and stubborn in his convictions, particularly about art. “One night on ‘MacNeil/Lehrer,’” he recalled to me in the years after he purchased his first television set. “Richard Wilbur said that something happened in the ‘60s that we haven’t quite recovered from: People got the idea that things didn’t necessarily have to be well-said, you just said what was true. What was right. What you felt. In other words, it didn’t have to be art. Or art came through action painting--that whole idea.
   “I say that’s heresy as art. People would like to believe that all you have to do is blat out whatever comes to your mind because you’re such an honest son of a gun--you’re wearing overalls and you got a hole in your right knee. . . . And you should listen to that the way you listen to a poet or an artist? I don’t think so. But this is the simple-mindedness that we have.”
   Art to his mind was a much more serious pursuit, one that drew from the very best qualities in us and that aimed at the highest possible audience. “There is a common quality in all art; in a sense that really good paintings, sculpture, music, writing have,” he told two students interviewing him for the Saint John’s literary magazine. “I can’t name it. It has something to do with God-given spirit, going beyond oneself. I think it’s possible to write something, for me to write something, that even God might like. It’s possible for me to hit a note, to get in a mood, to write something that is worthy of God’s attention. Not as a soul seeking salvation, but just as entertainment for God. This may be blasphemous to say, but I do believe it. I don’t think God is there and we’re here--and there are no connections. I think there are connections, and I think art is certainly one.”
   Powers staked his literary reputation on that belief. He also sought his own immortality by it, believing that if he hit that right note often enough, he could live on in the hearts of men and the mind of God. His writing frequently probed the souls of those supposedly most dedicated to God: priests. In their daily, mundane routines, he laid bare their pettiness, their vanities, their peccadilloes and their virtues--in short, their humanity. He did so with sharp wit, keen prose and meticulous crafting.
   Taught by Franciscan friars at Quincy College Academy, Powers contemplated the priesthood for himself. He felt the attraction toward a life of prayer. Celibacy seemed a fair price. But, ultimately, what deterred him from that vocation was the obligation of pretense. “I couldn't see myself standing outside church Sunday morning talking to a bunch of old women,” he said.
   Instead, Powers married, raised a family and became a priest to his craft. Sister Mariella Gable, OSB, a member of the College of Saint Benedict English faculty, scholar of Catholic writers and acquaintance of Powers, sent him a sample of her best student’s fiction. Impressed, Powers asked to meet the student when he was visiting a friend at the seminary in nearby Saint Paul. Sister Mariella introduced him to Betty Wahl. He married Betty shortly after her graduation in 1946.
   They had five children. They named their first Katherine Anne after Katherine Anne Porter, who had convinced the editors of Accent magazine to publish Powers’s first serious short story, “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” in 1943. Porter also became Katherine Anne’s godmother.
   For 13 years, they lived in Ireland, where writers did not have to pay income tax. He was lured back to the States by Saint John’s University, where he became Regents Professor of English. He and Betty lived there from 1975 until their deaths.
When he was working on a story or novel, Powers went to his office every day, even on Sundays. Some days he labored all day over one sentence or a particular word--would that character say “pal” or “chum”?--or even over whether or not to insert a comma. Such was his painstaking attention to detail, his fidelity to his craft.
   Interviewing him for a profile in the late ‘80s, I asked how he worked, if he set a goal for himself like Anthony Burgess to finish three pages a day or like Ernest Hemingway to write 500 words a day. “That’s a chickenshit question,” he said. “Nine out of ten writers give a pat answer. Most writers are not like me in that they’ll just say something (to a reporter) that you can use, damnit. They won’t try to say something to get it just right. That’s what I do.”
   He finally said he did not write every day. But he did outline. He thought a writer needed to know where he was going before he started writing--the outline was his road map. He plastered pages of his outline for “Morte D’Urban” over the walls of his office. Once satisfied with the outline, he punched out first drafts on his Olympia typewriter. He marked changes on the manuscript in pencil. Betty typed his revised drafts before she got too sick. After that, an elderly nun at Saint Benedict’s Monastery assumed the duties, but Powers wouldn’t let her type the final manuscript of “Wheat.”
   Instead, he hired a former student who had recently graduated, Brian Ragan, for that job. He told Ragan it would be a good exercise for him, that it would help him as a writer. Ragan also figured Powers didn’t want the old nun typing the chapter about teenaged Joe Hackett, the future priest, contracting a case of venereal disease. “He was afraid she might change things,” Ragan surmises.
   Powers complained that the writer’s life was a hard one, that only a fool would pursue the vocation as he had. When I asked him in one of our sessions if he believed I had what it took to become a writer, he said he did not want to falsely encourage me. He suggested I marry, raise a family and gain some life experience. But he did not altogether dismiss me. Several years after my graduation, he inscribed a copy of his novel, “Wheat”: “Good luck to you in your work, especially if you go on as a writer . . .”
   A few years later, after I’d had a collection of short stories published and freelanced articles for various magazines, I asked him to write me a letter of recommendation for a graduate program in creative writing. “What do you want to do that for?” he asked. He hadn’t needed any graduate program in creative writing. Nor had any of the writers he admired. He told me he thought I had to learn on my own what worked and what didn’t. The only reader I had to please was my editor, he said.
   I was set on the idea, though, and he eventually relented. One day before heading off to daily Mass, he surrendered a letter in an envelope that was not sealed. I waited until I was alone to open it, as he knew I would. He had written on Saint John’s letterhead a single sentence to the effect that he believed I could succeed in graduate school. I was initially discouraged, feeling damned by faint praise, until I realized he had probably agonized over that sentence, and then I was grateful for his endorsement.

   Home alone in the evenings after his wife died, Powers liked to watch the Twins and eat ice cream--Edy’s Almond Praline and Raspberry Cream Crunch were his two favorites. But, he told me, he had to watch what he ate and drank because he was in training. “In training?” I asked. I knew he was a baseball fan but he was well into his seventies and didn’t seem to have an athletic bone in his body. The term puzzled me.
   “As a writer,” he said.
   Ah, he had used the term in a religious sense. Powers had a monastic devotion to his art, which put him right at home on the campus of Saint John’s, run by the monks of the Benedictine Abbey.
   But he was suspicious about religion. ”He has that devotion to the Church which is often expressed in a kind of smothered anger, in disgust at its failures,” James Wood observed in a 2000 New Yorker article. Powers cloaked that anger and disgust often in subtle humor. For instance, in ”Wheat,” the protagonist, Father Joe Hackett, goes through the motions of reading his daily office. “If the text suggested a line of thought, he went along with it for a bit, not counting the time entirely lost. But he no longer hoped for a breakthrough, no longer forced himself to meditate, lest God and he both be bored.”
   Powers held the Church to the same standard that he held all writing. It upset him to listen to a Gospel where Christ says, “I came not to save the self-righteous but sinners.” “The self-righteous person is a sinner,” Powers said. “Whoever made the translation didn’t know that. Now this is the Roman Catholic Church--this is the Church that doesn’t let anything slip through. Apparently we’ve got a lot of illiterates translating scripture. To me that’s diabolical. If there’s one thing that makes me want to not believe in the Church--and think that I’m a damn fool to believe in the Church--it’s things like that. I don’t know of anything worse that you can do with words.”
   Nevertheless, on Sundays he walked to Mass at the Abbey Church half a mile up the hill from his house. He sat faithfully in a balcony spot where the acoustics of Marcel Breuer’s concrete canyon swallowed the sound and made it impossible to hear. I also saw him regularly at the monks’ 5:30 afternoon daily Mass in the choir stalls, where Powers sat in the back row and stepped to communion with seeming reluctance. He admitted to me that he didn’t enjoy going to Mass. “I figure you have to make a bet,” he said. “You can’t go to the horse races and not make a bet. You can’t go through this life and just be a spectator without ever laying it on the line. I’m betting on God to win, not to show.”
   When I asked him why he still went to Mass every day, given his doubts, he told me that he had made a deal with God and was just keeping his end of it. “I went to Mass every day because my wife was in need of a miracle, which didn’t happen,” he said. “And I didn’t think it would. But I had to try. I’m still trying. I thought I’d get a rest when she died. Thought I could let up on the prayer, but I can’t. See, I have to pray now that she’s in heaven.”
   He came from a generation that had an abiding faith in a just God, but watching his wife suffer recurring bouts of cancer eroded that belief. Betty had fought cancer since 1972. It would go into remission, then recur. The last bout claimed her life in 1988. Powers also lost his daughter Mary to breast cancer in 1992 when she was in her early forties. “My father’s faith was shaken by my mother’s fight with cancer,” his son James observed. “He had a strong faith up until then.”
   Powers became increasingly bitter toward the church after his wife’s death. “There are people who believe nothing I've said about there being a God and a next world,” he told one interviewer. “Maybe they're right.''
   When all else failed him, he placed his hope in art. “He was devoted to writing,” James says. “It made life make sense. America was all business and crass--everybody was after money.”
   He compares his father to Clint Eastwood’s crusty character in the movie “Gran Torino.” “That guy was a bit like my father in his last days--a crude version--but he became disillusioned,” James says. “He just couldn’t understand things, what had happened to America.”
As the new millennium approached, Powers seemed to have lost his way. He published his last story, “The Old Bird, A Love Story,” in 1991. Midway through 1999, he was gone.

   As a young man, Powers had worried about his immortality. He did not want death to diminish him. That explains his painstaking approach to writing, his desire for perfection in his art. The standard he set for himself was not simply to write as well as he could but a quest to strike that right note often enough that it would please God and resonate with readers long after death had silenced his typewriter.
   The adulation from reviewers and fellow authors only underscored his small readership. His best-selling novel, the National Book Award-winning “Morte D’Urban,” sold only 25,000 copies, which disappointed him. “Wheat” sold out its initial print run in only a few weeks, but he was hurt that his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, had such little confidence in the novel that it had originally printed only 8,500 copies. He suffered the ignominy of seeing his books go out of print.
   Powers’s death renewed interest in his work and prompted New York Review to reissue his novels and publish “The Stories of J. F. Powers” in 2000. But, a decade after his passing, that interest seems to have faded. His book sales don’t rank in the top 100,000 on amazon. That’s not because he didn’t strike the right notes--he did in his style, wit and characters.
   It’s his subject matter that threatens his memory. The priests Powers portrayed inhabited a Church--mostly pre-Vatican II--that no longer exists. “It’s a subject matter that’s very limited in time and place,” Mary Gordon says. “His style is superb and his characterization sublime, but it’s sad because I don’t think he’ll be remembered.”
   Except, perhaps, by those of us touched by his work. Which is sad because rarely has there been a writer more deserving of immortality than J. F. Powers.

John Rosengren is an award-winning author of six books and hundreds of magazine articles.

© John Rosengren

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