Thrift, Schemes & Restlessness Characterize Both Katherine & J.F. Powers’ Writing

As the oldest child of a long-suffering writer bent on evading any 9-to-5 routine, Katharine Anne Powers presents her father, J. F. (James Farl known also as Jim) Powers, in a sensitive yet honest “autobiographical story of family life” between 1943 and 1963. He never finished the fictional depiction of his real-life predicament, always chafing against conformity as a conservative Catholic intellectual during the war and the boom years, but as Katharine shows, Jim channeled self-pity and satirical send-ups into his correspondence. From thousands of his letters and some of his journals, she depicts how Jim “worked up the theme of life mowing him down”.

Resigned but never stoic, bitter yet motivated, J. F. took life’s difficulties personally. Born in 1917 in small-town Illinois, grandson of an Irish immigrant, early on he opposed giving in. Encouraged by pacifists, inspired by the little-known Detachment movement within the mid-century Catholic counterculture, the Powers family tried to turn away from the capitalist, consumerist, materialist, and militarist majority of FDR’s deals and Ike’s likes.

He dropped out of night school at Northwestern. He groused while catering to a rich man as a chauffeur. Fired from a bookseller’s job for refusing to buy war bonds, denied his conscientious objector status as a Catholic (due to “just war” theory), indicted by a grand jury in 1943 for refusing induction, he served 13 months in a federal penitentiary. His children found out about their father’s conviction only in 1959, when a classmate called him a “jailbird”.

Certainly, reticence combines with frankness in the Powers clan. These letters reveal a young man determined to go his own way, somehow wrangling the respect of others who would support his desire to simply hide away in the woods, to farm (not a likely vocation), and to write stories. Paroled, assigned as a hospital orderly in St. Paul, he yearns to quit, “But I know it’s a forlorn project. I have only my reasons. I can’t think of a single one of theirs–and them’s the ones that count.” This snippet shows Powers’ hop between introspection, stubbornness, and slang. Like his characters in the deft short stories, spare and cutting, that he began to publish in literary magazines, their creator enjoyed examining his pain, and expressing his quiet desire for release from his pal, dissatisfaction.

Chief among his targets, and characteristic of his best fiction in story or novel form, the Church and its complacent clergy compelled his sharp gaze. The Church Jim wanted would challenge the secular powers; the Church he found perpetuated its foibles, “second only to Standard Oil”, sunk into corruption and incompetence. Powers refused to take a steady paycheck: “eight hours out of my life daily so the system may prosper and the crapshooters running it”.

What Katharine labels as her father’s “intransigence” against working for a living (in a steady job) sparked tension with his wife, Betty Wahl. A diligent writer herself, fresh out of a Minnesota Catholic college, she attracted J. F. He proposed to her two days after he met her. They wrote each other nearly every day before their marriage less than six months later. Yet they had met only five times during their courtship.

A few days before their nuptials, Jim lashes out at Betty by letter after she demurred sharing what would be their first small dwelling with Jim’s longtime pal, now a priest. A miscarriage soon after their wedding, a desperation in his letters whenever he and Betty are apart, and Jim’s insistence on moving away from the city led to evident stress. Raised first in a dugout with a tar-paper roof, in a Minnesota November, Katharine was born in 1948. The Powers dwelling was set into the ground, fifty degrees inside, barely heated, but with much damp and no running water.

Jim resents sharing Betty’s parents’ summer cabin–loaned out to the newlyweds despite the Wahls’ suspicions about their gangly in-law as an ex-prisoner, pacifist, and deadbeat–with her family. The Powers return to St. Paul, but the new father finds no contentment. Doggedly impecunious, he bemoans his thrift. But he refuses a job, teaching creative writing now and then if he has to; he turns down an offer at Bennington. When Betty wants to spend five dollars on a cabinet for Katharine, Jim complains in a telling phrase drawn from their religious inculcation: “if we are two in one flesh, we are not yet two in spirit”. While their daughter keeps her own italicized commentary spare, one wonders when reading these letters her own reaction to the revelations of one parent to another here.

Katharine’s editorial asides tend towards her father’s own reticence regarding the inspiration let alone content for his stories. The family appears detached. This may frustrate readers new to Jim’s fiction. While all of it is back in print in the NYRB Classics series, neither father nor daughter mention much to clue us in. One of J.F.’s best submissions to The New Yorker is dismissed with “another cat story” as its sole detail; normally Jim satisfies his correspondent with “a story” as the entirety of its reference.

Instead, his letters fill with homely and exasperated content. By the ’50s, Powers attained respect (and among clerics and some outraged faithful, notoriety on a small scale) as a leading writer, however humbly paid, of Catholic mores in the short story form. He longed to work on a novel. Both of his novels draw from his stories, most of which appeared in the postwar decades.

His best work limns in spare, direct prose many seething or ambitious characters in the imaginary Ostergothenburg diocese. Put-upon curates, preening pastors and business-first bishops contend against meddling housekeepers, sly nuns, and their pious, annoying, and inept parishioners in small-town, German Catholic and Scandinavian Protestant Minnesota. Jim’s fiction presents the petty chancery conflicts and rectory politics within the environment whose liturgically reforming, rural counterculture in a conservative Catholic community had attracted Jim to find Betty (her brother was a monk at the center of this movement, St. John’s Abbey and University) and try to live for a while in that dugout.

Unsurprisingly, Jim tensed up. The letters to his bride-to-be demonstrate this. Confronted by responsibility, he resented his procrastination. Children soon followed, five over a decade beginning with Katharine Anne. While Marquette and later Ann Arbor provide him with part-time and sporadic teaching, he rejects a steady position elsewhere. He visits the most frequent recipient of these letters, Fr. Harvey Egan, often staying with him on extended stays, as well as with his parents, who had moved to Albuquerque with a sister. Meanwhile, Fr. Egan keeps supporting him by writing checks.

In between Jim’s Minnesota stints in St. Cloud–writing, browsing at Gopher Surplus, watching minor league baseball, listening to boxing matches, and teaching only if he must–the Powers clan lived in Ireland as long as their breadwinner could support them, on the sales of his stories. They moved back and forth a total of four times; three of which are documented by wry Katharine in the span of these letters. This peripatetic decision to keep uprooted attests to both Jim’s small budget, in an era when Ireland was affordable compared to the US, and to the patriarch’s own knowingly romanticized but also realistic appraisals of his ancestral homeland. He longs for Ireland but his visions soon fade. As he silences his local parish priest after the family relocates the first time to staid Greystones to rent a home south of Dublin: “I knew the torture of marriage, had dreamt of the beauties of celibacy.”

Yet, from afar (a pattern that seems to increase with time), he writes to Betty–with three small youngsters to care for–on her birthday in 1953: “It’s a sad state of affairs when a man’s most carnal thoughts are of his wife. See that you are worthy of them.” Within whatever these letters disclose or hint, he remained skeptical that marriage or fatherhood would fulfill him. He mocks himself for the lack of “sex” in his fiction, and titles himself “America’s Cleanest Lay Author”. He longs to run off to a cabin, to keep writing. “I am not by nature cut out for this life, as it’s defined in these parts by the chamber of commerce and our bishop, who is devoted to Christian family living, as everyone knows.” This deadpan tone suits Powers and his conflicted, capitalist priests well.

On a side trip to St. John’s, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton summed up astutely his host for dinner in St. Cloud for his “mixture of dryness and spontaneity, a thin sensitive person whose vocation is to go through many unbearable experiences”. But by 1957, with a Kenyon Review fellowship, J.F.’s letters express hints of satisfaction. His affection for his greatest fictional creation, Fr. Urban (whose name before he entered the Clementine Order was Harvey Roche), begins to emerge.

The Powers had rented the “red house”, St. Cloud’s oldest, but when that site was targeted for expansion of the state college, Jim had to carry out a second “removal” of the family to Ireland. While moving from Greystones to Dalkey nearby, they learned Betty was pregnant with their fifth child. They pass Ireland’s coldest Christmas in 60 years, without central heating, in a drafty place.

At 40, despair deepens, despite Jim’s recourse to a favorite pastime, sometimes in the company of writer Seán O’Faolain, betting on the horses. He rents a Dublin office only to fritter away most of his time writing letters as well as going to estate auctions, bookbinding, and gluing old furniture. He confides in Fr. 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.” Yet, he will not let give up his office. He insists that Betty, about to give birth, forget about vacating what she calls a “freezing mausoleum”.

He avers that he and Betty will not realize each mistake until they make it, not in the least surprised by each of them. A few of Betty’s terse journal entries intersperse with a few of her husband’s: “Jim as divinely inspired gadfly” sums him up in his wife’s phrase. He abandons trying to make it abroad. Back in St. Cloud, seven Powerses share for awhile another house with Betty’s folks.

The Powers move, but Jim loses chapters of his Fr. Urban novel in progress. He tells his confidante Fr. Egan: “You see I have this parrot, who lives in a rectory, and says: God love you!” The Great Plains, as usual, wear him down. Powers hates poses by Twin Cities literati as if poetry matters more than museum fundraisers “hobnobbing with the wives of chain drugstore magnates”. He laments to Betty that he’d rather have good reading vanish than sustain the farce that highbrow culture trumps lowbrow. Shutting himself up rather than retort at a Catholic Worker talk by Dorothy Day, his journal records he has “little faith in the common people to save themselves from themselves”.

The slow pace of producing quality fiction defined Powers’ long career. Three short story collections total thirty stories over four decades; his two novels in 1962 and 1988 expand some of the clerical settings. Morte d’Urban, the first published, was mishandled by Doubleday. Misprints and text breaks cluttered it; few copies were kept in stock. Evelyn Waugh’s blurb was bungled. Still, it won the National Book Award, beating out not only John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers but Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and Ship of Fools by Jim’s friend and his daughter’s namesake, Katharine Anne Porter.

He tells Fr. Egan ten days before the award was announced how he turned down lecturing at Columbia and the University of Chicago; he tried on “used dress cloth-lined” galoshes at Goodwill. He dismisses St. Cloud to novelist Jack Conroy: Morte shares the bestseller list there with Happiness is a Warm Puppy. He meets Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper at his acceptance speech, but the awardees’ appearance on the Today show is cancelled. He rejects more job offers, dreaming of buying an Irish house on royalties. Sales of Morte in hardcover by the following summer tally 25,000, half of what he had estimated.

Naturally, the Powerses move back to occupy a drafty hotel in Greystones. This experiment led to the only story Jim wrote about Ireland, “Tinkers” (1975) and to Betty’s only novel, Rafferty & Co. (1969). (I critique both in a recent article published before Jim’s letters were compiled in the galley proof I review here; Katharine Anne Powers’ long-awaited edition of her father’s correspondence enriches to the limited source material previously available on J.F. Powers and Betty Wahl.)

Katharine shares an afterword, reacting to reading twenty-one years of letters. Jim’s droll wit and turns of phrase “won me over”; she felt a distance from herself and the situations described. Her sister Jane, while “bowled over” by J.F.’s warmth in the early letters for Betty, ultimately felt saddened. Their father’s “truculence” rankled, and the extent of his determined impracticality rouses uneasiness.

His oldest daughter cuts off her father’s garrulous or telegraphic reminiscences at the end of 1963. She conjectures this as when and where the “family novel” mooted by Jim would have concluded. He had moved to Ireland to evade popular culture, but as his children matured during the ’60s, Katharine predicts that J.F. could not have handled their evolution during this–of all decades. She alludes to a crucial fact downplayed tactfully by Betty’s fictional counterpart in her own family novel: “It was based in a gentle way, far too gentle, I would say, on life in Ireland with a man something like Jim.” Katharine’s mother tried to write daily when she was not cooking, cleaning, scrimping, and saving. A shy or evasive sense within these letters, I add, is the tacit presence of Betty’s devotion.

While Jim frittered away years, Betty followed a strict schedule and tried to bring in some money by writing stories for The Kenyon Review and The New Yorker. They share with Jim’s stories economic prose, no sex, and a bemused eye cast upon domestic distress, greed, folly, fate, and gullibility. Thrift, schemes, and restlessness characterize both writers. Her satirical, poignant, if a bit uneven (a subplot sprawls) Rafferty spun off her shorter fiction, similar to her husband’s stories extended into Morte and Wheat That Springeth Green. That appeared the same year Betty died of cancer, 1988. Jim held out to 1999. A professor at St. Cloud State, the college whose expansion uprooted the “red house” and sparking “removal” two to Ireland, told me that he feared approaching Jim, who suffered no fool gladly.