The writer’s vocation in J. F. Powers’s correspondence.
Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By JOSEPH BOTTUM
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?
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.