With the sudden appearance of a “liberal” Pope—albeit a liberal Pope who is, as many exasperated Catholics have pointed out, just as strong as ever on Church teachings on abortion and homosexuality, just less inclined to fetishize them before other, more urgent ones—there may be no more serendipitous moment to be thinking again about the writer J. F. Powers. Powers was an American Catholic whose stories decorated these pages for many years, and who has been brought back into the spotlight by the appearance of a new collection of his letters, “Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Edited by one of his five children, Katherine A. Powers, the book provides a wonderful picture of a now lost type: the radical-liberal Catholic of the forties and fifties, whose allegiance to the rules of the Church (all those children!) was part and parcel of his allegiance to what would now seem an extravagant, not to say extremist, egalitarian politics. Katherine Powers rightly calls this “the nearly forgotten American Catholic countercultural religious and social ferment of the mid-twentieth century.”
Powers’s name resonates for few readers today; Joseph Bottum, writing in the Catholic journal First Things, called him “the greatest of the writers in the 1950s American Catholic renaissance, and the most faded.” Powers specialized in small comic sketches of the worldly vanities and transcendental longings of parish priests and friars, mostly in Minnesota, and was a sort of cross between Chekhov and Garrison Keillor. He was, for quite a while, very well-regarded. His novel “Morte D’Urban” beat out Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” for the National Book Award in 1963, and he was, for many years, a mainstay of the New Yorker’s fiction pages. His tales had a Trollopean sensibility: he accepted the necessity of the divine institution, without unduly sanctifying its officials. Small rivalries (I recall one good story in which a priest with a valet engenders the envy of his colleagues) and little epiphanies (as in the beautiful ending of the story “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” in which a dying friar loses his pet canary in a snowstorm ) were his subjects.
The collection of letters reveals that he spent the war years as a conscientious objector, and as a sympathizer with the Detachers—a Catholic movement, never officially approved, but apparently tolerated, that insisted that American materialism and militarism were both evils to be avoided at all costs by good Catholics. The idea of an American Catholicism whose central purpose was to stop the national-security state and the supermarket—in those days, supermarkets were seen as Wal-Mart is now—is alien to us, and Powers’s immersion in the often self-defeating politics of left-Catholic activism, with its glamorized poverty, is fascinating to follow from letter to letter. At one point, he writes mordantly to Robert Lowell, at that time a Catholic himself, “If you must get married, I say to young people, be sure you can afford a fifteen-room house, and servants. That comes as a blow to them. They read The Catholic Worker [the Bible of left-Catholic activism] and all the rest and are accustomed to thinking in terms of Mary and Joseph and the manger. We have the manger, but we are not Mary and Joseph. Anyway, we are not Joseph.”
His Catholicism is never less than solid, but it is never unduly sanctimonious. He shares, in his fiction, what Wilfrid Sheed, a fellow Catholic of the same vintage, called a sense of “something to do with the actual texture of life. To put it too simply, I have always felt that life would be duller, grayer, without religion. I have seldom, as an adult, felt that religion provided consolation (for every scrap of that, there has always been the two of agitation), but I have felt it added a heightening, an intensity, to everyday experience.” That heightening of the everyday is what Powers routinely achieved. (It is, by the way, a pleasure to be mentioning Sheed again and again on this blog, here in relation to Powers, and previously on Salinger. The best literary critic, or essayist, of his time—make that from the early sixties to the late eighties—he, as much as Powers, needs a new lease on bound life.)
So why has Powers been so much eclipsed? Bottum suggests that it has something to do with the decline of the priestly vocation in America, but an outsider may wonder if it doesn’t have more to do with a less, shall we say, catholic self-definition of the faith. If the Lubavitchers had become the dominant force in American Judaism, there wouldn’t be much room for an Isaac Bashevis Singer, let alone a Philip Roth.
The new book is also an account of the perpetual difficulties of making a living while writing books, throwing a nice, if somewhat slanting, light on what seems to be the still greater difficulties of these times. The constant comic element in the letters—well, comic if it’s not happening to you—lies in the Powers family’s restless search for a home—the “suitable accommodation” of the title. Powers was successful, but he was always rather desperately scraping together a living and seeking a permanent place. His search took him; his wife, Mary, who was also a writer; and their long-suffering kids on what reads like a never-ending journey from Minnesota to Ireland. This vagabonding must have been partly due to his own bad luck—he never had that single big book that can make the difference in a whole career—but it seems largely related to his own incapacity for managing a household’s finances. (His daughter’s introduction is written, one feels, affectionately, but with clenched teeth, a note of ancient exasperation with her impractical dad still hard to keep out of her sentences.)
Part of the trouble is that, as bad as things are for writers now, they may have been even worse then. These days, what one might call the secondary occupations of the writer—adaptations for screens large and small, the college classroom, the lecture circuit, the creative-writing course, not to mention the ceaseless work of writing introductions and editing texts, even the travel magazines—were not available to Powers, at least not in a way he could easily grasp. Perhaps, just as the real life of a rock band may still lie in recordings, while its material life takes place in the concert hall and, God help us, in its merchandise, the real predicament of the contemporary writer is that, while the vocation remains on the page, the occupation has shifted to everything around it. (Perhaps such work was around then, too; Powers might just have had too much dignity, or too much residual Detachment, to try it.) Meanwhile, his letters are full of light and funny turns: “I’m waiting for someone to point out that whatever else old J. F. may be, he’s never dealt in sex. But there’s no one saying it and America’s cleanest writer goes his lonely way.” He still does.
Following up an earlier post, two notes on Salinger at war: even more strenuous Glassians than I have written to remind me that, while there are indeed no references to Seymour Glass in combat, there are at least two references to Seymour in Europe: one, in “A Perfect Day For Bananafish,” in which we’re told that he’s sent a book of poems in German—Rilke’s, presumably —home to his baffled fiancée, the other in “Seymour: An Introduction,” in which Buddy notes that they were both in the “European theater.” At the same time, though, it should be added that Salinger makes sure that we know that Seymour’s reputation as a “schizoid personality” long preceded his service, even making clear that he has attempted suicide at least once, long before his induction. (He still has the scars on his wrists.) Salinger, never afraid to editorialize about his own inventions, also makes it plain that it is “his own dazzling scruples”—and, in particular, American acquisitiveness, including his own spiritual acquisitiveness—that have undone Seymour. On a related front, a keen-eyed young reader I know reminds me that, in “The Catcher in the Rye,” it is Holden’s older brother, the true Salinger figure in the novel, a short-story writer named D.B. (!), who has been in combat. (“He once told me and Allie that the Army was practically as full of bastards as the Nazis.”) Like Salinger, D.B. landed on D-Day. Salinger makes a point of unambiguously distinguishing the younger Holden’s secondhand experience of the war from that of his own G.I. generation.