Monday, May 7, 2007

J. F. Powers: Hissing of Suburban (Rectory) Lawns

J.F. (James Farl Powers) was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, the same year as my dad and a year before my father-in-law, 1917, dying in 1999 at Collegeville, Minnesota (home of St. John's the largest Benedictine monastery in America and its adjoining, well, former college!). Powers was once highly regarded in the decades when Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothy Day and Walker Percy spoke along with Powers about American Catholic culture. I never knew until researching this blog entry that he was a CO in WWII (takes some commitment) and at the height of the war joined the Catholic Worker Movement. Thirteen months in jail for draft resistance in 1943 in what must have been a difficult experience, to say the least. His sharp wit and fierce commitment may have mellowed a bit with the years, but his photo shows a man with a scowl, as much at himself than at the world he knows he too is haplessly and helplessly tangled up in, as much as his priests who must deal with bills to pay and prayers to say with equal devotion. Jim Powers hit his stride in the late 40s, and he's linked with postwar Catholic triumphalism-- not his but that of his subjects, mainly small-town clergy stuck between the Windy City and the Twin Cities in the fictional dioceses of Great Plains and Ostergothenburg. I think of Iggy Pop from Ypsilanti, last name Osterberg, born around, well, 1947.

Powers for his later reputation as a writer remembered more by his peers than by his audience may be blamed on his own Midwestern humility and commonsense, far removed from the bicoastal swagger. He admired the diligence and industry of the common folks, from which he came, and as a failed salesman in the Depression knew what it was like to tough it out. Couldn't afford college. Had to be a writer even if it meant a hand-to-mouth existence less comfortable than that of many of his fictional creations. However, he had contacts who had moved up, and perhaps dropped him a few tidbits of gossip or insight that he could embed in his stories. At least one contact, a boyhood friend, became a highly influential priest in the pre-Vatican II movement for reform. A reform that perhaps did in the Church as he knew it best. Powers remains self-effacing, perhaps one more reason I have always liked his work. He observes, fades in and out of the presence of his subjects, preferring to let them speak for themselves or, give them enough rope....

Powers, if less dramatically than his better marketed and often more gladhanding peers, examined the Catholic edifice that a century of immigration, financial savvy, and episcopal finagling had erected. Not its triumphalist post-war expansion into sprawling parish-church-convent complexes, acreage of teeming children in uniforms, phalanxes of seminarians pushing dorms to bursting as Vatican II was convening. Out of this, priests had to deal with shaking hands with donor devils. How else were the children of God going to be wise unless they cozened up to the wiser children of the world. What a haunting passage from the admonitions of Jesus in John. The priests in Powers follow this injunction with all its terror and ennui and despair, ultimately having to rely on a faith that their exterior actions, delineated by Powers by action rather than commentary, convey. Rather than Bing Crosby or Jimmy Cagney or even Karl Malden, the priests in Powers deal with less dramatic or less contrived battles. Powers shows us the spiritual malaise of the priests, the ennui of those who had to live another half century after their early piety had ebbed, going through the motions at some concrete and glass monstrosity rising above the new sidewalks and tract homes. Still, perhaps for the last time in American Catholicism, these frontline clergy in their unheralded way soldier on their own viae dolorosae.

A couple of rural dioceses in largely Lutheran Minnesota, Germans with stolid temperaments, some Catholic and some not when such distinctions mattered, and the occasional Irish American priest or layperson thrown in for ethnic color. Unpromising on the surface. All the more challenge for a skilled writer in the waning days of Catholic separatism and parochial "we're number 2 so we try harder" to limn. "Second only to Standard Oil" was titled a chapter of Powers' first novel about a preacher of the Clementines (whose rivals were the Dolomites and Dalmatians, not to mention the Jesuits and Redemptorists) among the Land of Lakes and Chicago and forlorn retreat houses in between, "Morte d'Urban," which won the National Book Award in 1963. Powers takes this mundane subject of a smart, worldly cleric's reassignment to the boondocks and out of it he turned his savage critique of a materialist and almost cruelly calculating society and out of it made a quiet work of art about a priest's immersion, and not only once at a conveniently placed climax but in true Catholic form over and over in bumbling, unexpected, and tragicomic epiphanies, in an incomplete and more realistic form. Protestants stress salvation as known prior to death. Catholics, at least like Fr. Urban and his maker, know better of their creator.

Fallon Evans, with whom I took Brit Lit for credit at LMU and an Irish Lit class for fun at the remnants of Immaculate Heart, compiled in 1968 a thin volume of critics responding to Powers. I see how John V. Hagopian contributed a volume to the Twayne series, which seems to have covered every author alive by now, in 1970, and that's it. Nancy Hynes OSB mentions on the Nimble Spirit writer's site how she's working on the biography of Powers. Moments ago it occurred to me that I had not come across any such lengthier work, so I figured I had better look Powers up before embarking on yet another Grand Project that one day later I find Someone Else has already beaten me to, story of my academic career. I wish Sister Nancy the best of luck, and the reissue by NY Review Press of Powers' two novels "Morte d'Urban" and "Wheat That Springeth Green" (1988) as well as the collected stories from his three anthologies ["Prince of Darkness," (1953), "The Presence of Grace" (1969), and "Look How the Fish Live" (1975)] is welcome. Perhaps, as with many on the NYRP backlist, Powers is a "writer's writer," but we need such guides in our Slough of Despond as we modern day pilgrims trudge our Teva'd and Birkenstocked Pilgrim's Progress.

Lest you pigeonhole JFP as another Catholic Novelist to be patronized and ignored if you do not dip your finger in the holy water font, may I add he has written about cats, Negroes (as they were called in Powers' pacifist days in the wartime of These United States) and the sandlot with equal verve. (The lastmentioned ensured his place in the Library of America's "Baseball: A Literary Anthology" which Spuds will like when a bit older.) Powers for me shines best in his stories. Very droll, midwestern, and poignantly wry. No easy feat. When priests had training not in psychiatry but polyphony. Homiletics-- not that it helped much-- more often than hermeneutics. Reminds me a bit of George Saunders in a pre-cubicle, pre-glass windowed conference room time of "The Office." Grandchildren of Powers' mid-century grey flannel communicants and greying clerics may have abandoned candlelit devotions to crown a plaid-skirted colleen or bambina Queen of the May, K of C, and Legion of Mary for the flickering pleasures of the Wii, plasma HDTV or Blu-Ray, but the discomfort remains. Is that all there is?

Richard Weber's piece in a 2000 issue of Notre Dame magazine sums up the "deadly serious" tragicomic quality of this chronicler of Midwestern dull days and long celibate nights that tempt us all no matter our own vowed state of grace or the number of occupants in the bedroom of our chosen residence. The Noonday Demon, we realize, tormented Powers and his characters relentlessly, amidst these somnolent car lots and TV-droned rec rooms. Powers imagines lives among meddling housekeepers, annoyingly scrupulous penitents, and basement sodality socials. It's also why JFP never had a calling himself-- too reluctant to spend his decades kibitzing with old maids on the front steps after Mass, or kissing up to fat cats so the temperature= dollar gauge on the painted billboard outside those same steps would move up a notch or two to show the building fund's rise. God & Mammon, the priest trying for holiness on the golf course, told to render unto Caesar: JFP finessed these clerical and lay tensions very well. Within a decade, it seemed to him and me, this all vanished.

There is also a misleadingly titled Sept. 2006 blog entry on First Things by Joseph Bottum called "Bottum: The Greatest Catholic Writer of the 20th Century" which is actually not self-promoting the blogger but, as it should be, about Powers. Bottum accurately locates the first cause of Powers' subsequent semi-obscurity in the last third of the 20c to the decline of clerical authority, the post-conciliar slump in both priestly vocations and hierarchical pomp, and the assimilation of Catholics into the secularized American mainstream after nearly two hundred years of separatism both wished for and foisted upon them.

The past week, I may add, Boston U.'s Stephen Prothero energetically promotes his new book calling for if not fluency than a barebones "Religious Literacy" by students in college. I suppose high school would be too contentious. Evolution can't even stay in textbooks without disclaimers, so imagine apologists and detractors of a comparative religion course meant to praise every faith-based contingent without offending anyone else that still meets the cleverly worded and magnificently conceived establishment clause of our First Amendment.

Few of my students when I ask them about the curse on Adam & Eve after they're expelled from Eden have any clue what I mean. Most nominally are still Christian, but with growing numbers from Africa and Asia, I am not so sure-- Copts, Hindus, Buddhists, and the unaffiliated mingle with the few who know about the Reformation or Gutenberg. Nobody seems to put those two into a cause and effect relationship, but a college instructor has to justify his pay, no? (Although those ads during Dodgers games for union-trained pipefitters making more than I do on the non-tenured treadmill midcareer and twelve years post PhD tempt me to a midlife crisis.)

The new Steve Carell movie may teach them about Noah, but there's widespread ignorance about Pandora's Box, the flight of Icarus, Dr. Faustus, or even the Sorcerer's Apprentice in "Fantasia." Nobody knows what's a muezzin, what distinguishes Buddhists from Hindus, or what Muslims are enjoined to do five times a day. And yet most profess a vague identification with what used to be known as gospel truths.

(Image note: daughter Mary Farl Powers-- these Irish Catholics I know, not very original with the names over generations as I bear semi-silent and grudging testimony to every day I sign my own moniker-- went to Ireland and became an artist, a member of Aosdana in 1981 and QED a distinguished talent before her own death in 1992. She was born there. JFP and family lived in Greystones south of Dublin twice for two year stints and once in Dalkey for the same. Two times in the 1950s, one in the early 60s. A sign of the times: they could live cheaper in Ireland off his occasional story sales to the likes of The New Yorker than back in Minnesota while he taught creative writing on and off at the U of M or the other U of M[ichigan]-- or Marquette, or the decidedly non-Midwest Smith! P.S. Is not a farl a potato bread roll-- not a bap!-- in the North? This via the NI Arts Council is of Mary's print "Emblements.")

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