Higher Powers

Defender of the faith, J.F. Powers: 1917-1999

WHEN J.F. POWERS made his quiet exit from the world on June 12, he apparently left no mysteries behind. Though the 81-year-old novelist was working until the end, there were no fragmentary manuscripts or unfinished memoirs discovered among his personal effects. He left a ramshackle house with peeling paint on the edge of the campus of St. John's University in Collegeville, where he had taught and lived in monastic seclusion for the final three decades of his life. His work--two novels and a handful of short stories--is long out of print, and his masterpiece, the National Book Award-winning Morte D'Urban is available only in dog-eared copies on the dusty back shelves of libraries and used-book stores.

As great unknown writers go, J.F. Powers was among the greatest and least known. He published at the leisurely pace of one book per decade and often spent days debating the use of a single word in his prose. Nevertheless, his summa poetica, Morte D'Urban, once had everyone from Saul Bellow to Evelyn Waugh declaring him one of America's brightest writers. In the novel, Powers tells the story of a savvy and ambitious priest named Urban who is exiled to an obscure provincial monastery in Minnesota. The author found in this aging and overweight priest a correlative to the spiritual malaise of his century and the divine grace that might set things right. If Powers the writer once cast an imposing shadow, however, Powers the man spent most of his life hidden within it. He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, a fiercely indignant critic of material excess, a gruff, sometimes cantankerous teacher, an ascetic aesthete, and an old-school Catholic who was so fascinated by the priesthood that he made it his life's study.

Before a memorial mass held for the writer last week in the lofty sanctuary of St. John's Abbey Church, two priests discussed Powers's legacy. "He was the ballast for the whole community on social issues," said the first. The second nodded sadly and wandered over to a small display of Powers memorabilia. There was an outline for the writer's second novel, Wheat Springeth Green, sketched on a series of napkins; the varsity letter Powers won from Quincy Academy in Illinois, near his boyhood home; and a series of faded black-and-white photographs. In the first, Powers was sitting at a garden party with his children in rural Ireland, where he lived intermittently when he wasn't teaching. The second was a small portrait of Powers's craggy face with a pipe wedged resolutely in the corner of his mouth. The final picture was a winter scene. Powers was sitting in front of his office window with his face buried in his hands. On a chalkboard, he had written, "Nothing is more trying than the pursuit of pleasure."

It seems appropriate that Powers came finally to rest in the cemetery at St. John's. At the top of a broad hillock, framed by two rows of poplar trees and a dirt road that slopes down to the shore of a small lake, there is a wood and stone cross surrounded by the unadorned tombstones of the monastery's former inhabitants. Down the hill in the secular partition of the cemetery, Powers shares a plot with his wife and his daughter. The inscription, which has not yet been changed to mark the arrival of its newest tenant, is a quote from Alexander Pope: "Heaven, it's purest gold, by tortures try'd/The saint sustained it, but the woman dy'd." It is the sort of pleasant green place in which the wordy and worldly priest of Morte D'Urban finally finds rest after a lifetime of stumbling blindly toward redemption.

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