J.F. Powers has long occupied a place in Minnesota’s literary pantheon. His two novels and three short-story collections met with critical praise and an enthusiastic readership, nationwide and beyond. Often irreverent, Powers, a committed man of faith, wrote lively and comical portraits of Catholic priests in the Midwest, flawed human beings working in a flawed institution. Most of us can relate in some way, as these tales transcend their apparent limitations.
While the art remains primary, personal letters can humanize the artist by making the private public. Katherine Powers’ selection — her father’s letters to close friends and relatives, plus some journal entries of both parents — amply fulfills that purpose, as she aims to construct, after a fashion, the “family novel” that he talked of writing. Tracing the arc from his first publication, while imprisoned for conscientious objection, to “Morte D’Urban” and its National Book Award, we witness courtship and marriage, the birth of five children, relative poverty and a never-ending search for “suitable accommodations,” bouncing between various homes, mostly in or near St. Cloud or in Ireland.
Powers was impractical, discontented and often sharply resentful of his children, seeing his family life as a trap, an absurd and severe impediment to his writing life. For the sake of the latter, he avoided outside employment as much as possible, asking: “Should a giraffe have to dig dandelions or a worm fly a kite?” Nevertheless, we see him frittering away the time (he loved horse racing, for one thing). To his credit, he was not unaware of his failures, both at home and at work. His wife, Betty, another writer, was mostly supportive. She saw him “destined by providence to fulfill [the] role of artist” and as a “divinely inspired gadfly,” though she, too, was frustrated by the demands of family.
A second customary function of published letters is to reveal how and whence the art came about. There are encounters here with many renowned persons, especially writers, including Robert Lowell, Eugene McCarthy, Tyrone Guthrie, Thomas Merton, Ezra Pound, Evelyn Waugh, John Berryman, Saul Bellow, Dorothy Day, Sean O’Faolain, and Katherine Anne Porter. Inspiration for some of his characters, especially Father Urban, is obvious if incidental. But there are few specific insights into craft, how Powers wrote. However, this is in line with the editor’s express intention. Through a sense of filial duty, she has undertaken this sometimes painful task with its memories. She says: “Growing up in this family is not something I would care to do again.”
If you’ve never read anything by J.F. Powers, first do yourself that favor. Then satisfy your curiosity by reading this fascinating, funny and disturbing book.
Mark Gustafson writes often for Rain Taxi, and has an essay in the fall issue of the Kenyon Review. He lives in Minneapolis.