Powers, J(ames) F(arl)

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POWERS, J(ames) F(arl)

Nationality: American. Born: Jacksonville, Illinois, 8 July 1917. Education: Quincy College Academy, Illinois; Northwestern University, Chicago campus, 1938-40. Family: Married the writer Betty Wahl in 1946; three daughters and two sons. Career: Worked in Chicago, 1935-41; editor, Illinois Historical Records Survey, 1938; hospital orderly during World War II; teacher, St. John's University, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1947 and after 1975; teacher, Marquette University, Milwaukee, 1949-51; teacher, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1956-57; writer-in-residence, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, 1965-66. Awards: American Academy grant, 1948; Guggenheim fellowship, 1948; Rockefeller fellowship, 1954, 1957, 1967; National Book award, 1963. Member: American Academy.


Short Stories

Prince of Darkness and Other Stories. 1947.

The Presence of Grace. 1956.

Look How the Fish Live. 1975.


Morte d'Urban. 1962.

Wheat that Springeth Green. 1988.


Critical Studies:

Powers by John F. Hagopian, 1968; Powers edited by Fallon Evans, 1968.

* * *

J. F. Powers is noteworthy for having brought his penetrating gaze and straightforward style to recording life in the northern Midwest beginning in the 1940s. His stories should be compared to the best modern southern fiction, which so depends upon locale for its tenor and profundity. The name of one of his fictional towns, Sherwood, brings to mind Sherwood Anderson, whose Winesburg, Ohio seems an early forerunner of Powers's enterprise. Powers's tone is as wryly humorous and serious, but the life of his town is different. It is modern and, thus, depicted as under the pressure of suburbanization.

A part from a handful of stories in Prince of Darkness and The Presence of Grace, his main characters are priests or people significantly related to the Roman Catholic Church. For example, Myles in "The Devil Was the Joker" is a would-be priest, and Didymus in "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does" is an aged monk tortured by doubts of his worthiness. Most characters are parish pastors and their curates. It is their quotidian lives, dense with Church politics, rivalry, and the banalities of the rectory, that fascinate Powers. The narrator of "The Presence of Grace" remarks that "there was little solidarity among priests—a nest of tables scratching each other."

These stories of the "spiritual" life trace situations in which connivance and venality abound, making any hint of grace under pressure an ironic or astounding occurrence. Broadly speaking, they show that at every level of social interaction, no matter how low the stakes, the struggle for power surfaces, tainting everyone, including those with a yearning or capacity to transcend vicious or petty motives. But Powers is never ponderously serious. His approach is humorous, his arguments carried in a satire often tempered by mercy. Even when he is able to report some honorable conduct or motive, however, he does not sully his objectivity, moral judgment, or wit with an easy sentiment. His amusing seriousness is kin to Joyce's in "Grace" and "Ivy Day." We never doubt his characters' vices, but we are bound to smile at the distance between their estimations of themselves and the truth, a gap minutely and trenchantly observed through his exceptional narrative voices.

The dramatization of hypocrisy and of the failed imitation of Christ takes up a good deal of Powers's interest. Various pastors give the demonic Mac entre to parishes where he peddles a low-brow religious magazine ("The Devil Was the Joker"). But Mac gets in because he also deals in a line of ill-gotten commodities for the domestic empires of those clerics. The goods range from appliances to vulgar bric-a-brac, and the deal is often cut during a poker game. The priests are properly loath to discuss either the marketplace origins of these items or the "friends" who provide them to Mac. In a pair of tour de force tales told by a cat (Fritz), Father Burner, a curate under the pastorate of Father Malt, spends his time coveting his senior's office and reading Church Property Administration through all the "seasons" of the Church calendar: "Baseball, football, Christmas, basketball, and Lent" ("Death of a Favorite" and "Defection of a Favorite"). His is the temporal Church. And while his basic goodness asserts itself by the end of the second story, the cat's eye view has by then probed every nook and cranny of the rectory and of the worldly ecclesiastical psyches that haunt it.

Yet all of these failings are, as Didymus muses, "indelible in the order of things: the bingo game going on under the Cross for the seamless garment of the Son of Man." Consequently, Powers searches for the presence of grace amidst the "grossest distractions" and the "watered down suburban precautions and the routine pious exercises." And he often does locate it, frequently to the amazement of a protagonist hardened by cynical habit. That is the essence of Father Fabre's realization that his rector's well-practiced casuistry is deeply moral when it needs to be ("The Presence of Grace").

While these matters dominate, Powers's few excursions into nonclerical settings are excellently accomplished and deserve more note than they have received. In particular, "Trouble" and "He Don't Plant Cotton," stories about racial conflict written early in his career, are enormously compelling. The first gets inside the sensibility of a black boy, the storyteller, as he watches his mother die from a beating administered by a white mob during a riot in New Orleans. The story thoroughly realizes and champions the boy's perspective, which is characterized by a righteous anger temporized by his grandmother's astute morality. The Church is important, albeit secondarily, because the family is Catholic and knows that among Louisiana's white priests there are a few antipathetic to bigotry. Their presence, however, in no way undercuts the story's focus on the racial basis of the boy's experience, a focus finely maintained by the first-person narration. This work has no truck with the hollow peace many whites—and blacks—were still making with racism at mid-century.

"He Don't Plant Cotton" deals with the confrontation in a Chicago bar between three black musicians and a group of white drunks from Mississippi. Two focuses are kept in balance. The musicians inhabit their music in a pure devotion to its authenticity, even as economic necessity compels them to perform the degenerate version of it constantly "requested" by the racists and fashion plates out on the town and slumming. On the other hand the feigning is emotionally too expensive, and the social control on their hostility erodes as the evening wears on. Powers conveys their artistic conviction as a moral dictate and esteems their choice to be fired rather than be manipulated and degraded by bigots and a boss who would have them pander for his own benefit. It is certainly interesting that the female among the three, and the one under the most overt pressure, is the prime mover of their rebellion. In her youth she complements the grandmother of "Trouble" in the moral sphere. These are not the works of an author outdistanced by time.

—David M. Heaton