In l966 Smith College, seeking to rev the English department and attract more literature majors, invited J.F. Powers to be the school's first writer in residence. Three years before, Powers, who died this week at 81, had been a sure-thing winner of the National Book Award for "Morte D'Urban."
The novel's title--the death of Urban--is the theme of the story: how urbanity and worldliness die in a priest in whom they should never have lived. Father Urban was a fund-raiser for his religious order. He saw himself as the Lord's bulldozer, his blessed opportunism cutting wide swaths through secular forests. The care of souls was indeed his calling, but the priest pursued his toil among the wealthy and comfortable.
Earlier novelists with a spiritual bent--Graham Greene and Francois Mauriac among them--wrote of whiskey priests and womanizing priests. Powers's Urban was different. Ably withstanding the pleasures of the bottle and the bed, he succumbed to the sins of the expense account. The angel he wrestled with, as he toured the land hustling bucks, was worldly success. The novel's conclusion comes after a comedic golf scene. Urban is conked on the skull--clearly divine intervention--by a stray shot from another fairway. Hospitalized and recuperating, he becomes a recovering worldling who regains his soul.
Powers's first book of short stories, "Prince of Darkness," was published in 1947. "The Presence of Grace," his second collection, appeared in 1956, and "Look How the Fish Live" followed in 1975. In 1988 "Wheat That Springeth Green," a novel about a Minnesota priest, was nominated for the National Book Award.
In the spring semester of Powers's year at Smith, I wrote a profile of him for the Critic, a small literary magazine in Chicago. At the time I was jobless, futureless and nearly penniless. It was only empathy for my condition that prompted Powers--who had little use for publicity and instinctual wariness about reporters--to agree to be interviewed.
The day went well. Powers--reserved initially and then a gracious storyteller at his home--invited me to attend his creative-writing class. I was astonished. Here is this literary craftsman of surplus talent and deep reserves of self-discipline, and only seven out of the 2,500 women at Smith had signed up for his course. Was he discouraged? No, he said, he felt elated: "In the fall semester, I had two students. Things are picking up."
So began my friendship with Powers, one to be bolstered when I periodically visited him on trips to St. John's and the College of Saint Benedict. From 1975 to 1993, he taught creative writing at both colleges. "There are people who say you can't teach writing," he told me at Smith. "I think this is right in the sense that you can't teach surgery to people who can't slice bread. You teach writing in the way you teach surgery--use of the knife, sewing up. The surgeon studies anatomy. The writer does, too, inside and out, meaning character and psychology. People who have no feel for character--who have no feel for other people except as male or female, old or young, fat or thin, good or bad--will not make writers. They can't be taught writing."
Former senator Eugene McCarthy, a onetime Benedictine novice at St. John's and a pal of Powers's, recalled him yesterday as "beyond comparison in how he worked as a writer. I remember him spending a full day choosing among words, getting the best one for a sentence. Someone asked, which word did you finally pick? Jim replied that he hadn't decided yet. For him, one word was a day's work."
James Farl Powers was born in 1917 in Jacksonville, Ill. Lacking money for a four-year degree program at Northwestern University, he took English and philosophy courses at night. After a year, he left to find work, eventually hiring on in a Chicago bookstore that doubled as a hangout for writers.
Powers was a conscientious objector during World War II and was one of more than 6,000 men sent to federal prison for draft refusal. He did 13 months, a character-shaping experience. In 1945 he wrote in Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker newspaper: "Here I was in jail because I objected to war, and all about me were men locked up for other reasons. It seemed to me as I listened to these men, that I was surrounded by innocence. I felt old and guilty among them. These men, too, were objectors. They would know that if only they knew themselves. The mild, floundering, tender people, betrayed by leaders, themselves betrayed, the young men marching off to war with books of poetry and New Testaments in knapsacks. They were the leaven. Without them in its armies, war would collapse instantly of its monstrous evil weight."
In the monastic Benedictine community at John's, Powers was embraced as a spiritual brother.
When asked by the Minnesota Monthly in 1988 for his thoughts on God, Powers replied: "I think He's creative, if I can say He, but I'm not going to get into that. The best thing I can do as a writer, as an artist, is do something God can appreciate."
CAPTION: J.F. Powers won the National Book Award in 1963 for "Morte D'Urban."