Quodlibets: The Return of J. F. Powers

The current issue of Critic magazine (no relation) features statements by various authors on their current projects and among the welcome news is that J. F. Powers has finished an as yet untitled new novel.

I sometimes fear that a generation of Catholics has grown up without even knowing of Powers. In a way, this would be understandable. He was never a prolific writer and there has been no novel since the one and only Morte d’Urban of twenty years ago. Readers of the New Yorker will have seen an occasional short story in the pages of that magazine, which has long been hospitable to Powers, and there have been collections of stories since the novel, the most recent being See How the Fish Live. It may be that, in his way, Powers has been a casualty of the changes that have rocked the post-conciliar Church.

No writer ever had a surer sense of clerical and religious life as it was still lived in this country twenty years ago than did J. F. Powers. When Prince of Darkness, his first collection of stories, appeared, it caused a more than literary sensation in Minnesota where Powers has lived for most of his adult life. His scenes of clerical life, particularly in city rectories, had an uncanny accuracy and it was difficult for priests to see how a layman could know so much about them. It was assumed that he had informants among the clergy — Judases of a sort—who fed him anecdotes and gossip, describing for him what an interview between Archbishop John Gregory Murray and one of his priests was like. The stories in that volume were widely regarded as contes a clef and much fun was had misidentifying Powers’ characters with all too flesh and blood priests.

Surely it is anything but praise of a writer to suggest that he or she is simply recording what privileged observers could see in the real world. Whatever Powers may have heard or seen was so transmuted in his stories that it was as if one were seeing for the first time what in some sense had been there right under one’s nose. An “epiphany.” And it is right to evoke Joyce in speaking of Powers. The Irish are masters of the short story and Powers is the most Irish of American writers—I mean in manner and treatment, not in subject. Frank O’Connor, in The Mirror in the Roadway singled out Powers and saw him as the poet of the submerged population of clerical life.

Morte d’Urban was, I think, more a suite of connected short stories than a novel, and I do not mean that as criticism. I will take Powers any way I can get him. But I do think he is naturally a short story writer. Each of the chapters of Morte d’Urban has the unity and point of a story, an extremely good short, story; the overall unity of the book comes as much from the character of Father Urban as from a plot.

When I suggest that Powers is a sort of casualty of the Council, I mean that he caught and conveyed the pre-conciliar Church in America better than any other writer. I do not mean that he merely took snapshots of what was already there for any observer. Nonetheless, there is a sense in which he has been deprived of his subject. There are no longer priests and nuns and bishops of the kind Powers wrote of and who became more real than the priests and nuns and bishops’ we knew. Powers wrote stories of that pre-conciliar Church with caustic affection. And, for their impact, he could count on extra-literary givens as to what priests and nuns should be like; indeed, without such assumptions his stories would not live or, worse, would require footnotes.

What can J. F. Powers, the writer, make of the Church in this country now? He is no Walker Percy for whom the wide secular world has provided the context for his religious themes. Powers’s talent, subtle, pointillistic, indirect, would seem ill adapted to the clerical hustlers and strident nuns of today. I may be wrong. It may be that he has found a way to treat this extremely different scene in his old accomplished manner.

But what I hope he has done is write a novel set in that pre-conciliar Church which is his essential subject. For J. F. Powers to return us to that world would be an event in literary history.


Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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