Books

08.20.13

A Plot Against Living: J.F. Powers’s ‘Suitable Accommodations’

The great Catholic writer J.F. Powers chose artistic perfection as a way of life, and he and his family suffered accordingly, as a new book edited by his daughter shows. D.G. Myers on a restless and undersung genius.

Perhaps no piece of literary advice has been a worse influence on so many poor unsuspecting writers as W. B. Yeats’s “Choice”:

The intellect of man is forced to choose
Perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

For a writer like J.F. Powers, it wasn’t a “heavenly mansion” that got refused. As his eldest daughter, Katherine A. Powers, observes in her introduction to this boisterously painful collection of his letters, Powers’s life was “dominated by the search for ‘suitable accommodations,’ for a house that would reflect and foster the high calling of the artist.” Powers never found the house he was looking for, because he never cared a fig for how he might pay for it.

Powers (1917–99) is best known for his acerbic stories about Catholic priests and his one-of-a-kind novel Morte D’Urban, which won the 1963 National Book Award. Unlike Flannery O’Connor or Walker Percy, his chief rivals for the title of greatest American Catholic writer, he explored the organized side of the Catholic religious life. His priests are parish bureaucrats whose spiritual vocation has long ago disappeared into fundraising and “pastoral” busywork, but who are inevitably drawn up short by an unexpected encounter with God’s mysteries.

As early as high school, Powers decided that he wanted “to be the dark horse in any enterprise, someone with no office or commitments who would do something daring or impossible and save the day.” Once he started to write—he placed his first story in the little magazine Accent in 1943 when he was 23—he no longer wanted to save the day. What he wanted was to “tame the wilderness with prose.” According to family legend, his father had been a piano prodigy, “practicing the piano nine and ten hours a day.” But he had given it up to take a “paper-shuffling job” to support Powers’s mother. “The American Tragedy,” Powers wryly comments. He was determined it would not happen to him. “I don’t want a job, of course,” he wrote to a friend. “Only the freedom to write and, it may be, starve. For I intend to make it like that, have had mind made up for some time, and might as well begin to find out now if it’s possible.”

It is depressing to see the same literary ambition—the refinement of a style—lead to the same economic result in two different generations.

Three volumes of stories and two novels followed over the next four-and-a-half decades—or an average of about 6,000 words a year, if that. Literary fame came too: Evelyn Waugh singled him out at the very beginning of his career as perhaps the best young American writer (although the best American writer of all, he added, was the creator of the Perry Mason series); Robert Lowell said Powers was one of the two dozen greatest American writers of the 20th century; John Berryman ranked him with Chekhov. “I don’t know,” Powers replied, “I always thought Chekhov wrote too much.” His stories were selected for O. Henry Award volumes and Best American Short Stories annuals; he published semi-regularly (and semi-remuneratively) in The New Yorker. But literary fame never translated into economic success, or even much beyond sustenance.

His economic strategy was to “hope something turns up.” Although he appeared on the literary scene just as the postwar expansion of American universities was leading to the establishment of creative writing programs, Powers refused to accept the permanent academic appointment that might have been his for the asking. “Don’t go much for the teaching part,” he complained, although he would like the “chance to use the library.” So instead, he taught a semester here and a semester there, filling in for tenured writers who were off somewhere else, writing. He spent rent-free time at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. He accepted the Guggenheim and Ford Foundation grants that were awarded. He was offered a job as literary editor of Commonweal, but “withstood the temptation.”

Before he married in 1946, after a 13-month stint in the federal pen for refusing to fight in World War II and another year on parole serving as an orderly in a hospital, Powers warned his future bride not to expect him to become “one of those hapless American males with a funny name, such as Blondie’s husband, Dagwood.” She had already sent him “little signs that [his] regeneration includes prostitution on a job masking itself as ‘honest labor.’“ She was mistaken if she thought he could be “domesticated and made to like it.” Yet the union produced five children and endless bills. “I feel completely out of touch with sources of possible income,” Powers told his journal—“and very close to sources of expense: car, rent, food, and so on.”

The Powers family relocated more than 20 times, including four sojourns in Ireland. Katherine A. Powers, a distinguished literary critic who writes a book column for the Barnes & Noble Review, tries to put the best possible face on the circumstances of her childhood, explaining that her father was affiliated with a nearly forgotten midcentury Catholic social movement known as Detachment. Although the church was officially suspicious of the movement, it left Powers with “his essential belief,” his daughter writes: “that life on earth doesn’t make sense and that when you understood that, you understood reality.” Small wonder, then, the family was “forever on the move,” as she puts it. They lived in a series of houses belonging to other people, obliged to uproot themselves when the owners returned or the money ran out or the urge for another round of detachment proved too strong. “I seem to spend my life in other people’s monasteries,” Powers wrote to Lowell, “listening to talk of other gods.”

I wonder if there isn’t another explanation, which explains more American writers than just Powers. Although he had fun describing himself as lazy (“Sleep when I want to. Listen to music”), Powers was an extremely hard worker of a special kind made famous by literary modernism’s religion of art. He was a restless fingerer of prose. He turned sentences around, looked at them, turned them around again, ate lunch, lay down, threw them out, started over. His friends warned that his “perfectionism” (his own word) would make him wacky. Lowell worried that he had whittled away his talent in the pursuit of “some ironic integrity.”

But he was neither the first American writer nor the last to choose perfection of the work as a way of life. Powers may have existed at the opposite end of the economic scale from F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote constantly for money. Yet both men were chronically in debt, Fitzgerald because he pissed away his money, Powers because he never had any money to piss away. It is depressing to see the same literary ambition—the refinement of a style—lead to the same economic result in two different generations. Since about 1970, creative-writing programs have solved the economic problem of American writers by covering the production costs of perfectionism, which can no longer be recouped by sales, grants, visiting appointments, artist-colony stays, and the hope that something will turn up.

Katherine A. Powers has organized Suitable Accommodations as the “novel of family life” that Powers always planned (and failed) to write. It reads like a fully realized epistolary novel, by turns exasperating and poignant and always funny. Longtime fans of J.F. Powers’s fiction will be grateful to her for a fourth substantial book to set alongside the three, the collected Stories and the novels Morte D’Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green, which NYRB Classics keeps in print. Wide readers in American literature will recognize that she has done something more. She has delivered a valedictory and a coda to a way of life that, in J.F. Powers’s phrase, is a plot against living.