The Magazine

Literary Postcards

The writer’s vocation in J. F. Powers’s correspondence.

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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One of the things you learn when you read the letters of great writers is how rarely great writers talk about literature in their letters. Mostly they talk about money. The letters of Henry Ford show more interest in big ideas and artistic principles than do those of James Joyce. When Joyce wrote a letter, it was usually a complaint about how expensive everything seemed—and would the recipient mind enclosing a small check in his next reply?

Couple

The primary reason for this, of course, is that great writers are often poor. The devotion to literature is a time-consuming one, and the remuneration isn’t typically all that great—at least not at the moment of writing. Although the heirs often seem to do all right; it’s said that the royalties from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical setting of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats paid more money into the Eliot estate, all by itself, than T. S. Eliot managed to make from his poetry during his lifetime, including the cash from the Nobel Prize.

But there’s a second reason that writers’ letters are often so relentlessly unliterary, and it’s the same reason that carpenters’ letters usually contain little about carpentry. Who needs a busman’s holiday? When you sit down after a hard day’s work to drop a note to mom or an old college chum, you don’t want to engage the same deep thoughts about literature and the human condition that you spent the day struggling to get into your novel. Oh, a few writers indulge themselves; but those mad letter-writers—Charles Dickens and George Bernard Shaw, for example—are usually mad writers simpliciter, pounding out prose at prodigious rates. If you’re a slow writer—as, say, the fiction master J. F. Powers was—you can’t afford to pour the soul of your craft into a letter.

That’s not to say that the letters of J. F. Powers are dull. They aren’t, exactly. Now collected by his daughter in Suitable Accommodations, covering the years 1942 to 1963, the letters are lively, restless, comic, more than a little selfish, and unceasingly smart—much like Powers himself, one imagines. He never undertook the novel that he said he long planned to write, a tale of family life to match his tales of the lives of bachelor priests; but he tried out some of its themes in his letters. 

Or so at least his daughter claims, noting in her introduction that Powers was “not only living” the unwritten novel, “but creating and embellishing it in his correspondence.” Named after Powers’s friend Katherine Anne Porter—who helped convince Accent magazine to publish “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” Powers’s first important short story—Katherine Anne Powers wrote a long-running column on books for the Boston Globe and, later, for the Barnes & Noble Review under the title “A Reading Life.” A dutiful daughter, she has been a good shepherd of her father’s reputation, but we should probably take those words “creating” and “embellishing” as signs that she doesn’t fully agree with the picture of the family, with five young children, that Powers put in his correspondence.

A handful of the letters gossip with other writers, especially those from the Yaddo crowd: Porter, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jack Conroy. And another handful are to friends he met while living in the extremely Roman Catholic section of Minnesota, around Collegeville and St. John’s. But many, many of the letters—close to a majority—are to two correspondents: Powers’s wife Betty and Father Harvey Egan, a Minnesota priest who became Powers’s promoter, sounding board, and patron. 

I confess to not much enjoying these letters. What emerges from the ones to his wife is just how often he was gone. He was, as his daughter observes, always on the hunt for suitable accommodations, moving through the Midwest and Ireland in search of a perfection that always eluded him: an ideal house, a fitting job where he could teach writing, a rich Catholic social setting, a compelling view from his study window. Even without her replies in the collection, Betty comes across as wry, intelligent, and long-suffering. 

Much of the religious discussion is in the letters to Father Egan: remarks on the Catholic journals, the latest papal encyclicals, the continuing influence of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day, and the “Detachment movement” (a school of 20th-century Catholic thought, under the influence of which Powers would go to prison as a conscientious objector during World War II). But there is, in these letters to his priest-supporter, a tone of performance, even of the duty a client owes a patron, that make them seem less informative than they might have been had the friendship been more balanced.

The letters in this (presumably) first volume of correspondence end around the time Powers won the 1963 National Book Award for his first novel, Morte d’Urban. It was the peak of the Catholic literary renaissance in America: Walker Percy had won the award the year before for The Moviegoer, the dying Flannery O’Connor was at the height of her early fame—and Powers seemed the next young star in that firmament. 

What’s more, he deserved it. Consider just the delicacy with which Powers handles the broad humor toward the end of Morte d’Urban. A worldly priest has sustained a golf injury (of course), which gives him the headaches that will lead to his death. Powers writes:

His severest attacks now came in pairs, the first one lasting about a minute, with an interval of perhaps forty seconds between them. .  .  . When somebody was in the office, and he felt the first section coming down the tracks, he swiveled around in his chair, saying, “I’ll be with you in a minute, Father,” and opened his breviary, and closed his eyes, and waited until both sections had come and gone. Thus he tried to disguise his condition from others, and thus, without wishing to, he gained a reputation for piety he hadn’t had before, which, however, was not entirely unwarranted now.

The picture of the human condition and its possible sanctification may never be bettered than in that quiet and ironic phrasing: “which, however, was not entirely unwarranted now.”

Shortly after Powers’s death in 1999, a Catholic magazine asked me for something on him. At the time, I felt the need to be a cheerleader for his work: Here was one of the great writers of the mid-20th century, and his reputation was fading as fast as the sunset. “J. F. Powers, 81, Dies; Wrote About Priests” the New York Times had dismissingly titled his obituary. And all of his books were out of print. 

In the years since, the publishing imprint of the New York Review of Books has brought out new editions of all his fiction; his reputation as a prose stylist has been somewhat restored and his place in literary encyclopedias established. If, in the 1990s, he was mentioned as an afterthought to Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, he now often leads that list of Catholic writers in America. This doesn’t mean he’s read or anthologized as much as a novel like Morte d’Urban—or a short-story collection like Lions, Harts, Leaping Does—deserves to be. If you haven’t absorbed J. F. Powers, the letters in Suitable Accommodations are not the place to start. But they may be the place to end up. 

Joseph Bottum is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.