A comic writer’s critical eye
By George O’Brien
September 5, 2013
Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963, Edited by Katherine A. Powers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 450 pp., $35
Even though his career was by no means a failure, and both his great comic novel, Morte D’Urban, and a generous selection of his inimitable short stories remain in print, J. F. Powers is seldom mentioned when significant authors of the 1950s and early 1960s are being discussed. This neglect and its causes add up to a brief but revealing chapter in mid-20th-century cultural history, glimpses of which may be had from this impeccably edited selection from Powers’s voluminous correspondence, with additional material from his equally voluminous journals and briefer extracts from the journals of his wife, writer Betty Wahl Powers. But as its title indicates, the book’s main focus is on a more intimate kind of history, and from the loving but certainly not uncritical portrait of the artist that emerges, it is clear how much Powers himself, by commission and omission, was complicit in not making the name for himself that he might well have; or rather that he seemingly had little interest or confidence in capitalizing on the name he had.
He hardly lacked success. A National Book Award winner in 1963 for Morte D’Urban—among the other finalists were Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Dawn Powell’s The Golden Spur, and his friend Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools—Powers also won various prestigious grants and awards, was published regularly in The New Yorker and other leading periodicals, and received favorable reviews and impressive endorsements. He was on first-name terms with such correspondents as Robert Lowell, Evelyn Waugh, and Flannery O’Connor; among his acquaintances were Eugene McCarthy, Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day. For somebody who thought himself to be “outside the system,” he had no great difficulty in earning the respect, the affection, and the ear of public figures. Yet, he seems more inclined to regard himself as “a back number” than to develop his literary ambitions (the editor, his daughter, tartly observes that he might well have written fewer letters and more fiction), and it becomes painfully clear over the course of the book that Powers’s tendency not to take life as he found it crippled his literary output.
James Farl Powers was born in 1917 to an Irish Catholic family in Jacksonville, Illinois, but Suitable Accommodations begins his story in Chicago in 1942, when he was sentenced to three years in a federal penitentiary for conscientious objection. Powers spent 13 months in jail, serving the rest of his sentence as a morgue attendant in a St. Paul, Minnesota, hospital—in certain respects a crueler punishment, due to the nature of the work, and the social isolation it imposed. Obviously, it is simplistic and presumptuous to suggest that this early experience shaped Powers’s later outlook and personality. All the same, the themes of confinement and estrangement recur throughout Suitable Accommodations, beginning with the book’s title. The repetitions pervade fundamental areas of Powers’s adult life: from his sensitivity to the constraints of being the father of five to the heartfelt cry in one of his journal entries, “no money is the story of my life,” to a more general recognition of “the terrible fact that there is no one I know and respect who, living here, in Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, or anywhere else, isn’t happy, an exile already, and becoming more and more of one as American society changes for the worse”—although one reason for staying in Minnesota was the circle of radical Catholics with whom Powers often agreed and more often disagreed.
As a man who had suffered for his convictions, his sense that social and cultural values were in decline exacerbated his painfully acquired knowledge that principle could be a liability. He was skeptical of the self-serving nature of clerical and education institutions, and found deep-seated failings in the literary profession and in the spirit of public life generally. Powers was a hard man to please, and nobody knew that better than he did.
Evidently hoping to find an antidote to the American scene, the family made several trips to Ireland. It was cheap to live there then, and the short story was the national literary form—one that thrives on limitation and the inescapable, and in which Powers’s genius was most at home. A particular specialty of his was portraits of priests, figures in whom constraint and possibility, obedience and authority, attain a peculiarly piquant critical mass. But neither church nor state (or, for that matter, anything else in Ireland with the possible exception of Leopardstown racecourse) had the desired therapeutic effect. So it was back once more to homely St. Cloud, Minnesota, and a way of life that amounted to “a plot against living,” a distressing phrase, bearing in mind that plots are nothing if not deliberate. Not only did Powers show an impressive talent for time-wasting and for getting in his own way generally, he also rejected the numerous university posts offered in the wake of his National Book Award success, though he eventually did join the faculty of St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota. Other more lucrative offers from television were also rejected. A book of stories and another novel followed what Powers was unable to see as the high point of 1963. He died in 1999, having produced three story collections and two novels, an unhappily low yield, however high the quality.
Thomas Merton saw Powers as “a thin, sensitive person whose vocation is to go through many unbearable experiences,” and no doubt there is much to commend such a view. But it’s the manner of the going through that ultimately is the most remarkable aspect of this life-in-letters. The constriction and frustration, the sense of “not being cut out” for pettiness and poverty (who is?) that feature so heavily in the correspondence are not the whole story. A saving grace, at least from the reader’s point of view, is Powers’s tone—wry, self-mocking, painfully honest, and keenly alert to the quixotic condition of fallen man, a species of which he takes an ornery pride in being a member. This is the same tone that gives his fiction its subtlety and buoyancy. A case in point: the book’s title comes from one of his typical quips: “We are pilgrims only, but since the trip’s quite long, I tend to look around for suitable accommodations.”
The insidious triviality of daily life, the indifference of the world at large, the banality and vulgarity of much that masquerades as culture, all these and more are subjected to Powers’s impatience and scorn. Yet he emerges as neither a Job nor a Jeremiah, but rather, in his wife’s words, “a divinely inspired gadfly,” confused and intolerant that hardly anything is what he had in mind. But, at least in the productive years covered by Suitable Accommodations, Powers can still be ruefully affirming—most winningly through protagonists whose very limitations are the source of their vividness—that there is a certain sweetness in the apple that he knows to be sour, even as he cannot stop himself from eating it.
George O’Brien is professor emeritus of English at Georgetown University.