I knew J. F. Powers long ago and he has always been a vivid figure to me, even though I haven’t a very detailed memory of personal encounters. He was not often in New York and when I say I have a vivid memory of him perhaps I am thinking of J. F. Powers the writer. Just recently I was asked to write an introduction to his brilliant novel Morte D’Urban, and for once I was pleased to have the opportunity to honor the return to print of this wonderful contribution to our literature.
Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award in 1963, and I do have a memory of that occasion because I was on the jury with two other writers, one of which was Gore Vidal. Our judging was by way of a person-to-person call and since I felt strongly indeed about the superiority of Morte D’Urban I naturally feared the others might not be considering it in the surf of print one gets in prize matters. The first vote on the phone was that of Gore Vidal and when he said Morte D’Urban I was relieved. The third judge was outraged, I won’t mention his name, and with some acrimony refused to sign the usual unanimity of choice. But it was two-to-one and that was that. I treasure that remembrance from my many services as a bridesmaid in a solemn literary rite such as prize giving.
Powers was a middle westerner of a unique patrimony. A middle western Roman Catholic and this was in much of his work the landscape of his art which was rich in homegrown comedy. The priest serving in the boondocks were likely to be of a German ancestry somewhat different from the Irish of Boston and New York. Morte D’Urban takes place in Duesterhaus, Minnesota, a cold, dusty, windy, forlorn village. Their order is named the Order of St. Clement, “unique in that they were noted for nothing at all.” They are settled in a big, drafty, disheveled old house and along with reading The Office there is a lot of patching-up to be accomplished and much discussion of economies of a drastic nature such as the difference in pennies between making a station-to-station call instead of a person-to-person call. The priests Powers has assembled are not unworthy of their calling. What he brings to them is their mundane humanity, their little tics of personality that do not disappear with ordination.
This angular vision, the saturation in this uncommon world was a fresh voice in American letters. Powers is a cradle-Catholic and casts his eyes on the plodding demands made on an ancient church in a go-go country, the United States. His people are locals and in many ways different from the brilliant, sometimes self-congratulatory tone of convert writers like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, both of whom praised Morte D’Urban when it was published. For a more intimate picture of J. F. Powers I quote from the tribute his daughter, Katherine, wrote about him in the Boston Globe. He was a family man, although not outstanding in financial support since his books usually went out of print. Life seems from her account to have made of her father a sort of unfrocked mendicant friar. He picked up his clothes from the Salvation Army which he called the Sally. Every day he traveled in his old car to the grave of his wife and daughter, in winter to whisk the snow and ice from the headstones and in summer to attack the weeds. It was at the grave, she tells us, that he was last seen alive. I think her words about our departed colleague belong in the Academy archives.
What I have said here gives a more ascetic and churchly tone to Powers than is accurate. I remember him as tall, rangy, skeptical, and humorous about life, gently acerbic about our follies, not excluding his own. I want to quote from letters Robert Lowell wrote about his friend. When John Berryman was in Minnesota, Lowell wrote to him: “Do you know, by the way, my friend Jim Powers, the short story writer? He’s rather poker-faced, makes dry Irish, sardonic jokes…. His novel is coming out. Eleven years it took him and should be a masterpiece.”
Later Lowell, Berryman, and Powers met in Minnesota and a letter from Lowell to Elizabeth Bishop describes the encounter. He writes: “Also saw Jim Powers and had a marvelous time talking banter with him, just as though no time has passed. Wonderful moment, John in his exaggerated way was saying about Powers: ‘Why this man is the best prose writer in America. His Lions, Harts, and Leaping Does is as good as Chekhov!’ Then Powers, smoking, saying slowly, face unchanged: “I don’t know, John. I always thought Chekhov wrote too much.”
I’m sorry Jim Powers did not grace the Academy dinners more often, but in my fragments I leave him here.