Catholic writer J.F. Powers remembered through his letters

November 22, 2013

Bobz Book Reviews, General

“Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of a Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963,” edited by Katherine A. Powers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York, 2013. 450 pp., $35.

powers cover

Spending the last few weeks peeking into the life of the late Catholic writer J. F. Powers through a collection of his letters made me wonder, does anyone write letters like these any more?

Powers, the long-time professor of English and writer-in-residence at St. John University in Collegeville, used his gift for the language in frequent missives to friends and colleagues, which makes this collection of his letters read much like a memoir, or better yet a novel.

Perhaps cyberspace holds all the emails and social media messages we peck out nowadays, and perhaps and a tech-minded historian will be able to pull them down and gather them into book form. But I’d be surprised if any achieve the literary quality of those that Power’s daughter Katherine A. Powers has adroitly edited and packaged.

Take this sample from a letter in which he describes the long-time leader of St. John’s Abbey, Benedictine Abbot Alcuin Deutsch:

“He is a good man, but his last name is Deutsch, and if he’s like a lot of other Germans, and I think he is, he expects to get to heaven for not having made any impractical moves during his stay on earth. I have often wondered why they didn’t try to prove, somewhere along the line, that Jesus Christ received a gold watch for 33 years of service.”

That Powers ended up living much of his life in Minnesota’s German-plentiful Stearns County and working for the German Benedictines at St. John’s is just one of the ironies of the man’s life.

An good writer, but a poor one

“Suitable Accommodations” makes for interesting reading because it takes us into the mind of this unique character, a man author Evelyn Waugh tabbed “one of our greatest storytellers,” an author who won the National Book Award for his first novel yet never achieved the success he felt was his destiny.

Perhaps because his specialty was priests his was a limited audience and not populist fare.

The award-winning “Morte D’Urban,” the novel about a charming Midwestern priest who is as much a man of the world as he is a man of God, sold only 25,000 copies or so, and failed to receive the kind of promotion one might expect from a publisher like Doubleday.

Many of even the earliest letters — the collection covers 1942 to 1963 — foreshadow the life James Farl Powers was to live.

He refers to a steady job as “prostitution . . . masking itself as ‘honest labor.’ ”

He decries people who take the “safe” way through life with “a good position” or “in business for himself” with “nice homes.”

The irony, and it’s in the title of this collection, is that Powers was consistently writing in his letters about trying to find “suitable accommodations” both for his then-growing family and for a place with the peace and quiet to allow him to write.

Every so often he leans for money on his good friend Father Harvey Egan, pleading to the priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for funds to keep the wolf from the door until the mail brings a much-anticipated check for a short story he has submitted to The New Yorker or to one of the small-circulation literary magazines that have purchased his work over the years.

The late Father Egan, a one-of-a-kind himself as the pastor in later years of ultra-progressive St. Joan of Arc Parish in Minneapolis, gets credit for preserving many of Powers’ letters.

None of which fits, however, when you read in a 1947 letter to Father Egan that Powers’ tastes in liturgy lean toward the conservative. Living in Avon, not far from where Powers is teaching at St. John’s University, he writes:

“We like to go to St. John’s [Abbey Church] because there is no lay participation, or I do. I am only slowly getting the idea that I am surrounded by people who are working night and day for things like the dialogue Mass. Imagine my dismay at the discrepancy between the party line and my own feelings in these matters.”

Later he’ll refer to himself as “anti-laical” but also “anticlerical.”

Along with letters Powers wrote, his daughter has included a handful of entries from his journal. Often they show a man in despair: “May 18, 1959: Out of gas — creatively . . . I feel absolutely powerless these days to prevent financial ruin. Ideas for stories don’t come.” And just eight days later: “Money, money, money — this is the answer to every question confronting me.”

Man of many interests

Scraps of Powers’ varied interest show up regularly. He’s fond of playing the horses, especially during the family’s several stints living in Ireland.

He follows the minor-league St. Paul Saints baseball team, keeps abreast of the gossip surrounding the design of the new Abbey Church at St. John’s, chimes in a number of idea for names of the new National Football League team being established in the Twin Cities in 1961, would have preferred the Democrats had nominated his friend Eugene McCarthy instead of John F. Kennedy to run in the 1960 presidential election.

“I did not, and do not, like Kennedy. That doesn’t mean he’s no better than Nixon. . . . Gene McCarthy nominated him . . . in the best speech of the convention. Too bad it isn’t Gene instead of Jack, if we have to have a Catholic. I understand Pope John’s already packing. I think we can use him, too.”

He refused military service during World War II, was imprisoned for it and released to do compulsory work at St. Joseph’s Hospital in St. Paul.

A curmudgeon if there ever was one, he  was against the Legion of Decency (which rated movies for decades according to Catholic morals), wasn’t thrilled that fasting regulations were eased, agreed with author Evelyn Waugh that he was more of a short story writer than a novelist and presciently had this to say about Calvin Griffith, the tight-fisted owner of the then new Minnesota Twins baseball team: “I do not think Cal will ever put our welfare before his own.”

It’s such good writing you’ll be disappointed that the letters end with 1963. You’ll want to know the rest of the J.F. Powers story, but daughter Katherine explains well at the volume’s end why that won’t happen.

That epitaph one should read on one’s own…bz

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About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 40-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zyskowskir@archspm.org.

View all posts by Bob Zyskowski
  • Fr Mike Tegeder

    Very well done Bob. Thank you.

    Fr Mike Tegeder

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