Man of Letters
“J. F. Powers, 81, Dies; Wrote about Priests.”
So read the stark headline of this great Catholic writer’s obituary in The New York Times in 1999. Powers did write about priests in most of his short stories and both of his novels, including his comic masterpiece, Morte d’Urban, which won the National Book Award in 1963. His priests are not saints, but flawed men who have sacrificed worldly comforts and often their dignity for their vocation, working for a bureaucracy that his protagonist, Father Urban, noted wryly had been “rated second only to Standard Oil in efficiency.”
As we learn in Suitable Accommodations, a new collection of letters edited by his daughter, Katherine A. Powers, J. F. Powers also sacrificed worldly comforts to pursue his vocation, struggling for decades to support his family with his writing. Powers hoped that sales of Morte d’Urban would solve his chronic money problems and enable him at last to realize his quest to buy a permanent home for his family. Despite the award, though, sales were not nearly enough to end a bitter cycle of disappointment and poverty.
According to Ms. Powers in her introduction, her father planned to write a novel about a family man—an artist with ambitions who is driven down in what she calls “a hopeless contest with human needs and material necessity.” She offers this collection of her father’s letters as a substitute for this novel he never wrote—An Autobiographical Story of Family Life—based on excerpts she selected from thousands of letters and several personal journals, from the acceptance of his first story at age 24 to his reception of the National Book Award.
Along the way, Powers spends time in jail for being a World War II conscientious objector, falls in love and marries his wife, Betty, also a writer, publishes stories and novels, securing if not a wide popularity, at least the recognition he needed to gain entry into the literary community and rears five children, moving them back and forth between the United States and Ireland in increasing disastrous attempts to find a tolerable living situation. “No money is the story of my life,” he writes.
His early letters to Betty during their engagement contain many portentous warnings. “I don’t want a job, of course. Only the freedom to write and, it may be, starve.” And later, after she marries him and their life becomes as dire as he forewarned, he writes to her—“I suppose I thought I’d made it clear there’d be times like these”—as if saying so was enough to shed any responsibility.
In addition to his wife, Powers corresponds with old friends, many of whom are priests, including his literary patron, the Rev. Harvey Egan, and new friends as well, including the literary luminaries Robert Lowell and Katherine Anne Porter. Shunning any earnest discussions of literature or faith, Powers fills his letters with keen observations about his predicament, laced with his Irish black humor that often tips into sarcasm. His wisecracking obscures any self-revelations, and we get little insight into his inner life. The tantalizing episodes when he meets another important writer, like Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton, frustrate in their lack of detail or reflection. Regarding Merton, he says, “I liked Fr. Louis quite a lot.”
Despite his desperate need for cash, Powers refuses offers of employment that don’t suit him and in one particularly cringe-worthy episode, he negotiates himself out of a $2,000 fee to option one of his stories for television by insisting on a share of the profits. Worse, he often fails to get any writing done, spending his time betting on horses or buying items at auctions, among other distractions. The sad result is reminiscent of the sinner in C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, who says upon his arrival in hell: “I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.”
As one continues to read Powers’s sardonic laments, one cannot help but wonder about his long-suffering wife, Betty, whom in one letter he accuses as having “no talent for motherhood (once she’s conceived).” Three quarters into the collection, we get a glimpse of her perspective in an extract from her journal: “Jim’s first work in Ireland done today, 6 months & one day after our arrival, followed by his picking up a ‘low ladie’s chair’ from auction.”
That is funny, or would be if we weren’t so concerned about the poor children. In the afterword, Katherine A. Powers writes: “Growing up in this family is not something I would care to do again. There was so much uncertainty, so much desperation about money, and so very little restraint on my parents’ part in letting their children know how precarious was our existence.” According to Ms. Powers, it was her mother, not her father, who “cobbled together the wherewithal for our survival” and, despite having to cook, clean and ration, wrote every day on a strict schedule, trying to bring in money herself. And she did, by publishing her own stories and a novel, though this did not not earn nearly enough to solve their financial problems.
Katherine Powers’s judgment of her father, however justified, pervades the collection. At first, as she discloses, reading her father’s letters made her angry, sad and shocked at the life her mother “had taken upon herself in joining her life to this man’s.” Eventually, though, the letters with “their wit and drollery and festive turns of phrase won me over.”
And indeed, in selecting the letters to tell the story, I increasing felt I was bringing order to a situation where there was little. With that came satisfaction and a certain amount of peace.
The letters presented here do make an airtight case that Powers was an impractical, selfish man and a terrible provider. But what did Ms. Powers leave out? Her criteria for choosing excerpts focused on family life may have served her purpose, but by cutting letters and passages that “are not necessary to the story, including a large number concerning JFP’s deliberations and negotiations with editors and publishers,” she leaves us to consider whether there may have been unpublished excerpts from his letters or perhaps his journals (of which we are given barely a glance) that might have shed a more balanced and nuanced light on the artist we experience through his masterful fiction.
And given a small taste of Betty’s cutting wit, we also yearn to see far more from her letters and journals in the hope that she might further illuminate our elusive subject, whom she marvelously described as a “divinely inspired gadfly,” and perhaps give us insight not only into why she ignored Powers’s warnings and married him, but also into why she stayed with him for so many long decades as she struggled herself to pursue her own vocation as a writer, wife and mother.
Though Powers never did write his planned novel about family life, he did write two autobiographical short stories, both about a father struggling to provide a stable home for his family—“Look How the Fish Live,” in an old house about to be torn down to become a parking lot, and “Tinkers,” in a rundown hotel outside of Dublin. Powers handles the sadness and frustration of the father in these stories with a light comic touch mostly absent from this selection of letters. The husband and wife, who persistently but gently disagree, share a strong bond and wry sense of humor that helps them persevere.