Commonweal Marks J F Powers Centenary

The Roman Catholic literary magazine Commonweal has marked the centenary of novelist J F Powers birth with an article on Powers’ career entitled “His Bleak Materials” by biographer and critic Jeffrey Meyers. The article begins with Meyers’ memoir of a 1981 visit to St John’s University in Collegeville, MN where Powers taught creative writing.  Meyers was invited to stay in Powers’ home next to a monastery, and when he woke after a night of drinking and talking he found the house was barely liveable. It had been built to house the construction workers who built the monastery. But such dodgy housing was the story of Powers’ life as has recently been told in his collected letters (Suitable Accommodations) edited by his daughter who knows from first hand experience what living in such structures can be. 

As explained by Meyers, Powers wrote little due to family commitments, lack of a remuneraitve day job and a nearly perpetual writers’ block. But what he did produce was memorable and worth reading. Meyers describes what he considers Powers’ best story as well as his two novels, Morte d’Urban and  Wheat that Springeth Green. These are still available from New York Review Books as is a collection of his stories. Meyers also mentions that Evelyn Waugh admired Powers’ early stories and helped to promote his work:

Waugh taught Powers close observation, subtle wit, savage unmasking of falsity. Like Waugh, Powers is deeply amused by his characters’ faults, but also conveys the urgent need—with salvation at stake—to rise above them. Like Joyce and Waugh, he assumes that the author shares the defects and aspirations of his creations. In his essay “The American Epoch in the Catholic Church,” Waugh, emphasizing Powers’s themes of disillusionment and spiritual waste, wrote that his presbyteries:

“…are not mere literary inventions. Reading those admirable stories one can understand why there is often a distinct whiff of anticlericalism where Irish priests are in power. They are faithful and chaste and, in youth at any rate, industrious, but many live out their lives in a painful state of transition; they have lost their ancestral simplicity without yet acquiring a modest carriage of their superior learning or, more important, delicacy in their human relations, or imagination, or agility of mind.”

Waugh reviewed two collections of Powers’ stories and Powers reviewed The Loved One and A Little Learning. One of Waugh’s reviews is collected in Essays, Articles and Reviews as is the essay quoted above. They each visited the other’s home and corresponded from 1949, when they first met on Waugh’s lecture tour of the Eastern US, until the 1960s. Powers’ letters to Waugh are collected in Evelyn Waugh Studies, 45.1 (Spring 2014).

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