Though James Farl Powers has devoted the greater part of his life to writing about the Catholic clergy, he never seriously considered donning the collar. "The praying would have attracted me," he claimed in a 1960 Critic interview. "I wouldn't have minded the celibacy. But I wouldn't have liked the social side, the constant footwork. I couldn't see myself standing outside church on a Sunday morning talking to a bunch of old women."
Nonetheless, Powers knows the world of the priesthood from every angle. In two acclaimed novels and a few dozen short stories, Powers has pierced this institution's carapace with satire, exposing the mild, floundering people inside. For a writer who professed to "consider the human situation as essentially comic," though, Powers is much more than a bitter jokester. In the priesthood, the author finds a microcosm of American society, governed by the same petty intrigues, ugly prejudices, and rigid hierarchies. He consistently returns to the figure of the fallen priest as an example of the incompatibility between the modern and the spiritual world.
If the compromises of clerical life repelled Powers, they also became the raw material for his best stories. Two early pieces, "Lions, Harts, Leaping Does" and "Prince of Darkness," illustrate Powers's fascination with the rich and often paradoxical relationship between the lofty standards of the Catholic religion and the imperfect humanity of those who practice it. In the first story, a quiet meditation on redemption and mortality, an aged priest comes to terms with his brother's death and faces the question of his own salvation. In contrast, "Prince of Darkness" follows the dealings of Father Bruner, a priest too much in the world, who, like Milton's Satan, makes a hell of heaven through lack of faith.
Given Powers's low public profile, it's rather difficult to trace the origins of his complex fascination with the priesthood. From a middle-class beginning in Jacksonville, Ill., and an average career at the Quincy Academy, Powers moved to Chicago and into the heart of the Depression. There he became a mediocre door-to-door insurance salesman. Although he took a few classes at Northwestern, Powers couldn't afford college. Instead, he spent his days cloistered in the reading room of the public library, poring over Sinclair Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and James Joyce.
Growing increasingly desperate, Powers took a job chauffeuring a wealthy investor on a driving tour of the South. He took a typewriter in tow and began writing short stories in the Packard. The first of these early stories, "He Don't Plant Cotton," is a passionate if somewhat trite description of a racial incident. Powers's indignation at the plight of African Americans is mirrored in his other Depression-era stories, many fueled by an acute sense of social injustice.
During the second World War, Powers became increasingly disillusioned, considering the waste and drudgery of the war a symptom of a mentality that was equal parts bigotry and stupidity. Turning to religion as radicals a generation later would turn to Che and LSD, Powers briefly rejected the corrupt world for a clerical retreat at the Benedictine monastery at St. Johns in Collegeville, Minnesota. He was deeply affected by the anti-war message of the priests he met there and became a pacifist.
Powers would eventually land in jail for his convictions. After losing his job in a Chicago bookstore for refusing to buy war bonds, he declined to show up for induction into the armed forces, and was sent to Sandstone Prison in Minnesota for 13 months. After his parole, Powers moved to St. Paul, a city he praised chiefly for its "central location" between the prime meridian and the international date line. He wrote steadily but slowly, taking a teaching job at St. Johns University to pay the bills. His experiences there inspired Morte D'Urban, a satirical look at the provincial rectory life of Catholic priests, and Powers's first and most celebrated novel.
Despite the book's ecclesiastical focus, Powers intended it as a commentary on a broader American culture, asserting in a New York Post interview that Morte D'Urban was no more "a book about and for Catholics than Wind in the Willows is a book for animals." The work begins by introducing Father Urban Roche, a priest with the charm and wit of a politician and the savvy of a traveling salesman, a star on the rise in the Chicago branch of an obscure monastic order. As a devout Catholic and practicing opportunist, Urban's view of the clerical calling is pragmatic. Yet when he runs afoul of some apparently petty, politicking superiors, Urban is ordered off to a remote mission in the wilderness of Minnesota.
Surrounded by yokel priests and oafish laymen, the ambitious father plots to regain his earthly position by building a golf course. Like Mallory's fallen knight, Urban must undergo a purification of the flesh, in this case a wound inflicted by a wayward golf ball, to find redemption. Powers weaves medieval leitmotifs into his narrative, transforming Urban's adventure into an elaborate parody of the Arthurian legend. At the same time, Powers creates a masterful balance between the picturesque ruins of the medieval world, as embodied in the quiet piety of the monks, and the encroaching cruelty and avarice of modern America.
Although Morte D'Urban won the National Book Award in 1963 and was widely praised by critics, Powers didn't linger in the spotlight. He lived on and off in Ireland, taking teaching posts when money ran low, and eventually settled into a post as a creative writing professor at St. Johns. He wrote slowly, often only a handful of short stories a year. He described his meticulous writing process with classic Hemingway swagger in a Minneapolis Tribune interview, saying "I'm like a seasoned fighter, not a sucker for an easy punch; I can't write a lot of junk." Considering that he published at the leisurely pace of one book per decade, few charged him with writing a lot of anything. More often, critics regarded him only as a parochial novelty act, a specialist in a particularly antiquated area.
Appearing nearly 25 years after Morte D'Urban, Powers's second novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, also explores the peculiar world of the Catholic clergy. Father Joe Hackett is a priest with his feet firmly planted in the secular world. Arrogant, superficial, and occasionally self-righteous, he has no illusions about his calling: "After years of trying to walk on the water it's good to come ashore and feel the warm sand between my toes," he says. Following Father Hackett through Vatican II and the turbulent late '60s, the novel charts his unfocused career, decline into alcoholism, and eventual redemption.
Without the wicked irony of Morte D'Urban or the reformist zeal of his early stories, Wheat That Springeth Green is a quiet meditation on the failure of humanity to live up to the divine standard of the Catholic faith. As always, Powers leaves open the possibility of grace.
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