The Magazine

Literary Postcards

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

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.