The scholar and critic Denis Donoghue begins his introduction to the New York Review Books edition of “The Stories of J.F. Powers” with what may well be the definitive description of this astonishingly gifted and remarkably unproductive writer. He writes:
“He was James Farl Powers on his birth certificate and Jim Powers to his friends. In the history of modern fiction J.F. Powers (1917-1999) was a distinctive figure, a loner, emerging from quietness every few years when he published a book or won a prize, but otherwise content to mind his own professional business. He is sometimes described as a writer’s writer, but he was also a reader’s writer, if we assume a reader who thinks of fiction as intelligent art rather than low entertainment. Such writers tend not to be abundant, they work hard on their sentences. Powers published only a few books . . . but these are treasured, guarded with jealousy by those who know of them.”
Implicit in this is the suggestion that the admirer of Powers is somehow superior to other readers, and indeed the number of these admirers has always been small. Like Peter Taylor until his unexpected break from obscurity in the late 1980s, Powers was — and remains — essentially a cult writer, read and venerated by a very small number of people who keep his flame flickering against general indifference. In this they are helped by New York Review Books, which keeps all his work available in three handsome paperback editions, and now by his daughter Katherine, who has edited this collection of his letters written between 1942 and 1963, the period between his apprenticeship as a writer and his receiving the National Book Award for Fiction for his superb novel “Morte d’Urban.”
Katherine A. Powers, whose excellent criticism and journalism have appeared in many places, among them The Washington Post, envisions these letters as a substitute of sorts for the novel about family life that her father contemplated but — as with so much else — never got around to writing. “The letters that make up this story begin with Jim at age twenty-five and the acceptance for publication of his first short story,” she writes. “They then leap forward to letters from prison [he refused military service during World War II] and on through those recording high hopes, great promise, and a passionate courtship and marriage to Betty Wahl. Then comes the black comedy of children, five all told, great poverty, bad luck, and balked creativity. Central to this progression is the matter of where and how to live. Jim’s married life was dominated by the search for ‘suitable accommodations,’ for a house that would reflect and foster the high calling of the artist.”
It soon becomes clear in this book that a chief reason Powers published so little was that he spent so much time writing letters. Conducting one’s correspondence is of course a classic means of diverting one’s attention from the more important and challenging writing tasks at hand, and Powers seems to have indulged himself in it virtually every day of his adult life. He also seems to have been as hasty in his letter-writing as he was painstaking and dilatory in writing his fiction, which in the end adds up to two novels and 30 short stories. Readers in search of literary distinction will find only traces of it here, and for that matter there isn’t much literary gossip, either. Instead Powers jokes, tells stories, worries about houses and money, complains about the distractions of marriage and fatherhood, and in general looks “askance at the life I lead.”
He was a singularly gifted writer who set the highest standards for himself and met them with singular consistency, but he was also a dreamer and an idler. Katherine Powers has said elsewhere that he “had powers of procrastination that went far beyond the merely amateur,” evidence of which is to be seen here as he fiddles with the furniture in the rooms where he wrote, attends auctions (and spends money he really doesn’t have) and indulges what he calls his “great capacity for indolence, for lounging about.” In one of his many letters to Harvey Egan, the Catholic priest who was his incredibly generous patron and an inspiration, if not exact model, for Father Urban in “Morte d’Urban,” he says, “The truth is I’m lazy,” and he’s right. But as his daughter says in her brief afterword, though she found herself “becoming sad and occasionally angry” at the feckless lives her parents lived, “in the end, [his letters’] wit and drollery and festive turns of phrase won me over.” Me too. There are times when you want to wring Powers’s neck, but you can’t help caring about him, liking him, rooting for him.
Betty Powers, like her husband, was a writer; she published several short stories in national magazines and one novel, and she shared her husband’s ineptitude at parenting. The two loved each other deeply, and they loved their children every bit as much, but they had more children than they had wanted, and the kids got in the way. “Things are rather rough here with the babies,” Powers wrote to Egan in 1949. “Don’t expect much peace during the day, but when they take over the night too, that’s bad. What’s the Church’s stand on desertion? Very rough on Betty, body and soul; only my soul suffers.”
Eight years later, after the birth of the fifth and last, Betty wrote in her own journal: “Five, five, five. How did it come about? I keep repeating . . . they are, in the end, the only thing that will have mattered. I believe it; I feel it. And yet they defy peace and order and what of art — of Jim’s if not mine? Are we to make him into just another man who will die, his body rot, his possessions be dispersed, and his immortality all in heaven? God does intend there to be man-made beauty on earth. We are to make order of it all. Order and art.”
Or, as Jim put it a few days earlier in a letter to Egan:
“I personally dislike this stretch of life ahead of me: the father of numerous children; the husband of a woman with no talent for motherhood (once she’s conceived); and with the prospect of making no more money than in the past. I see another office, spending more and more time in it and away from home, darting to the rescue at home, spanking this child, playing with that one, and finally gumshoeing the girls through their teens, tottering down the aisle with them when they marry and trying not to think about their husbands, who, I daresay, good for nothing else, won’t even make money. . . . So what do I know for sure? Only that I’ll have my art, and so I should pay more attention to it. Do not set a place for me at the church supper. Do not expect to see me running with the others in the stretch simply because I started with them at the beginning. I am looking for another course.”
Which, of course, he never found. He was completely fixed in his ways. What is remarkable is that his marriage somehow survived until Betty’s death in 1988; that his children grew up to become productive adults and to regard their parents with love, albeit love tempered by exasperation; and that somehow he managed to write the 30 wonderful stories and the two splendid novels about worldly priests, “Morte d’Urban” and “Wheat That Springeth Green” (1988). I do wish that Powers would find the readers he deserves, just as Peter Taylor did against almost all the odds, but he seems fated to be a writer known to too few, like Isabel Colegate, J.G. Farrell or Mordecai Richler. Pretty good company, it says here.
An Autobiographical Story of Family Life:
The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963
Edited by Katherine A. Powers
Farrar Straus Giroux. 450 pp. $35