Salvation in the Mail: Katherine A. Powers on J. F. Powers

The Powerses were forever on the move,” writes Katherine A. Powers in the Introduction to Suitable Accommodations, a selection she has made from the large, quietly zany, and grimly comedic correspondence of her father, the novelist J. F. Powers. If all of life is a pilgrimage, then the spiritual journey made by the Powers family was one unusually beset by crates, labels, and changes of address; Powers Senior had a chronic case of the existential fidgets, and he did not hesitate to inflict it upon his nearest and dearest. Four times there was a decampment to Ireland; four times a return. In between, other removals. Large, cold dwellings; small, impossible dwellings. Dwellings too cheap or too expensive. The difficulty, the lack of a home, as Katherine Powers shows us, jibed rather unfortunately with her father’s apprehension of man as a being in cosmic exile. It also gratified certain cherished intuitions regarding the fate of the Artist. J. F. Powers would certainly have detested, if he ever heard it, Don Maclean’s ballad “Vincent.” The sentiment, on the other hand, might have appealed to him: But I could have told you, Vincent / This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you…

Suitable Accommodations is a broad pleasure, the letters catching the author of the National Book Award–winning Morte D’Urban in a variety of moods and modes. From a Minnesota prison, where in 1943 he began a three-year sentence as a conscientious objector (he served thirteen months), he writes: “There are train tracks within whistling distance, and when they sound in the night, and the dogs bark, you know you’re in jail…” To his future wife he writes with devout carnality: “You say it [grace before meals] with more beauty than I’ve ever seen. It is perfect when you say it, like a dog digging a hole with its muzzle.” We see him as a midcentury American literary man (“Lowell and I went out to St Elizabeths Hospital to see Ezra Pound”) and as an intelligent Catholic horrified by the televisual evangelizing of Bishop Fulton Sheen: “That voice, those gestures, and those red eyes. All ham and pride.”

Throughout, in short passages of commentary and interstitial material, Katherine Powers  supplies her own mordantly comic effects. She conjures her father in one of his Irish phases, for example, “reading newspapers, studying racing forms, fixing up his office, wandering around Dublin, attending estate auctions, and ministering to his purchases: rubbing unguents into leather-bound books and cases, gluing furniture, and pursuing woodworm with a hypodermic needle primed with poison.” Doing anything — anything — but writing, in other words.

J. F. Powers’s special subject was the Catholic Church — more specifically its priests, and the accommodations they were making, suitable or not, between (over here) the base and shifting demands of contemporary American reality and (over there) a fixed celestial imperative. There was humor in this, and Powers was a very funny writer. “The intimate relation between humor and faith,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr, “is derived from the fact that both deal with the incongruities of our existence…. Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those which do not affect us essentially. Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence, which threaten the very meaning of our life.” It is not always easy to tell, reading Suitable Accommodations, whether the incongruities that threatened J. F. Powers were immediate or ultimate. “Betty exclaimed during the course of changing diapers, getting milk for the baby, trying to quiet boys, etc.: ‘Suicide would be better than this. No, I shouldn’t say that.’ But I’m afraid that’s about it.” That that wasn’t about it — that there was plenty more, good and bad, and the letters to prove it, is our good fortune as readers.

James Parker and Katherine A. Powers had the following conversation at Matt Murphy’s Pub in Brookline, Massachusetts, in August 2013. Four pints of Guinness — two each — were consumed.

James Parker: He liked getting letters, your father.

Katherine A. Powers: Loved it. He lived for mail. No dog waited for a mailman with more eagerness. He loved writing letters, he loved receiving them. And he didn’t get up early, so by the time he’d got himself organized and sat down for his breakfast — and he had great powers of procrastination, diddling and diddling — the mail would be there. And if there was a letter for him he’d sit there looking at it and sort of relishing it, picking it up and putting it down and examining it, the picture of contentment. Then he would finish his breakfast, take his cup of tea and go sit in whatever special chair it was in whatever house we were living in, and then he’d go “aaaah” and open it up — he had a special knife, and a special way of doing this, so you could hardly tell it had been opened…

JP: Like a burglar.

KAP: And then he’d read it very, very slowly, savoring each drop as if it was a fine port. And if he got two letters, or three…

JP: He was made.

KAP: Absolutely made, yes.

JP: He does get a bit grumpy, at one point in the book, when you’re all in Ireland, and no one from “the Movement” is writing to him. Could you talk about that?

KAP: Well, these were people, friends, who had started out as young married couples living in the environs of St. Johns, in rural Minnesota. They had all these high aspirations for changing the world, and they’d moved there because it was such a vital part in the left-wing aspect of the Catholic Church. Big families, pacifism, anti-capitalism. And lay participation in the liturgy — which my father was absolutely against, incidentally. He called it “anticlericalism.”

JP: He liked authority, your father.

KAP: He did. He liked order. And he wanted the Church to be something which it probably never has been — austere, with good taste. Good taste was very important to him. He didn’t actually draw much of a distinction between good art and good religion.

JP: Thomas Aquinas would have been with him there, I think.

KAP: Is that so?

JP: If it’s good art, it’s good religion. By definition. I think.

KAP: Well, for my father aesthetics and morality were the same, pretty much. Bad taste was bad morals. Anyway, he got involved with these people because he was a pacifist. And there were so many different movements in the Church at that time, it amused him to call them the Movement. And he wanted to hear from them. And what he really wanted to hear, truth be told, is how it wasn’t all working out.

JP: He needed to hear that.

KAP: Because it was funnier. If people were having wonderful, happy Catholic family lives it wouldn’t have been the least bit interesting.

JP: Some of the funniest letters in the book are the ones he writes to Father Egan.

KAP: Well, Father Egan wasn’t that great of a letter writer himself, but he was fertile territory for my father.

JP: He seems to have been confident that Father Egan would understand every level of his humor.

KAP: Exactly. He can make all sorts of allusions, and he knows that he doesn’t have to explain anything.

JP: And Egan was a patron to him, too, wasn’t he? Your father is always thanking him for the latest check.

KAP: Indeed.

JP: I was wondering about the size of those checks. Would Egan be sending him, say, a hundred dollars?

KAP: Oh no, I think it was more typically 25, 75 dollars…

JP: See, I think I would be humiliated if a Catholic priest was sending me checks for 25 dollars, to support my vocation as a writer. But your father doesn’t turn a hair.

KAP: No! He thinks it’s great.

JP: He was pretty certain that the destiny of the artist in this world is to fail, right?

KAP: He was a little more reflective and ironic about it than that — but yes, basically.

JP: And for him it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

KAP: There was something self-destructive about it. Almost as if he wanted to show that this is what happens. All those moves, for example.

JP: Ah, the moves. Even after reading the book, I still don’t get the moves. I understand the procrastination, every writer understands that. But the moves. The bloody removals.

KAP: Well, it was a way of putting off the real thing. Life, I mean.

JP: It’s so horrible, though — moving. Such a horrible experience.

KAP: It’s awful, awful.

JP: I’ve only moved twice in my life. I hated it!

KAP: It is terrible. Because we’re mammals, and we need our things.

JP: Is this your father’s version of the madness of the artist? I mean, all of his contemporaries  — Lowell, Berryman, Roethke, they’re all in the book — they were getting drunk and crashing around and having affairs and nervous breakdowns. He didn’t do that. What he did, instead, was drive you all to Ireland and back again, and from house to house to house.

KAP: Instead of from woman to woman.

JP: Or bottle to bottle, you know, or loony bin to loony bin.

KAP: I think that’s true. And my mother thought that he would eventually get all this out of his system. She kind of believed that her whole life.

JP: But she was in on it, too. All the moving.

KAP: She was, but he was like a cult to her. She was completely — one might even say hornswoggled by him. She was completely dedicated to his greatness. Just like your wife, I imagine. [Laughter]. And she worked every day. She wrote three hours a day.

JP: This is the horrible irony. She was a committed, disciplined, productive writer.

KAP: Absolutely committed.

JP: And she’s living with this chaotic, procrastinating man — who is a great writer…

KAP: What I could never understand, what I still don’t understand, is if he cared so much about his art, why couldn’t he ignore the house he was in? Why did it matter so much where we lived?

JP: Because he was always looking for the ideal spot, I suppose.

KAP: Because aesthetics and morality were the same thing. He thought it would be wrong to live in a little rambler.

JP: Or a big, drafty house…

KAP: Well, that wouldn’t have been wrong so much as uncomfortable. But the houses that he thought were good were completely impractical, they were subsiding into the ground and slated for destruction and so on. He didn’t even want to live in a wooden house. I mean, what does it matter?

JP: Yet as a younger man, when he went to prison as a conscientious objector, he served his sentence, as far as I can tell, completely uncomplainingly.

KAP: Oh, he never complained about that.

JP: He did his time, wasn’t traumatized or anything…

KAP: Well, it was a pretty decent prison.

JP: Yeah, but another writer might have made more out of it.

KAP: True. But for him, when he was in prison, he was in prison, and that was that. It was when he came out, and felt that he should be allowed to write without the interference of a job, that’s when the trouble started.

JP: His lack of guilt about not wanting to work is sort of admirable to me.

KAP: Well, that’s a good thing, or it can be — but only if you’re prepared to put up with the reduced circumstances that will inevitably follow.

JP: Right.

KAP: Because this was the big contradiction in my father’s case: his great doctrine was that we have here no lasting home, nothing is supposed to work out —

JP: It doesn’t add up.

KAP: It doesn’t! And Americans believe it is going to work out, which is why he said Americans believe in Santa Claus. The Irish didn’t, by the way. They lived in the world of the spider and the fly. A much more realistic view of the story. But that was the great doctrine, anyway: we don’t fit in here, and anyone who thinks it’s supposed to work out must be out of their mind. On the other hand, when things didn’t work out for him, he took it unbelievably personally. We’d go to Ireland and it would turn out that the house was cold, or more expensive than he’d thought, and my mother couldn’t get decent help and so on and so forth, and he couldn’t believe it!

JP: And did he really believe, finally, that he was going to write something that was going to make him loads of money? Have a great popular success?

KAP: He really did. And that didn’t make sense either, given his grim view of the culture and the things that are popular.

JP: D’you think he thought that women were ganging up on him?

KAP: He thought that women were always ganging up on him. He thought that women were very materialistic, and that they were always trying to train and tame men. He didn’t see this in the Hemingway-esque sort of way, as an assault on his potency — he saw it as an assault on something far more precious.

JP: His essence. As an artist.

KAP: And as a man. I mean there’s no doubt about it, he was a complete sexist. But then who wasn’t? Even the women…

JP: In the letters he seems to be continually exhorting your mother to get a haircut. Why was that?

KAP: He wanted her to look more pulled-together. And then in Ireland he wanted her to look more “county.” Tweed skirts and so on.

JP: He never seems to have felt the need to be an apologist, in any sense, for his religion.

KAP: Not at all. And I think that’s the sign of a true artist – the assumption that people are going to get it, they’re going to understand your vision, without needing footnotes or special tutoring of any sort. But one wonders too how far he could have gone with his subject — the Church, I mean. Because by the time he does Wheat That Springeth Green the material is getting pretty thin…. The Church was starting to unravel. In Morte D’Urban the Church is totally impregnable, second only to Standard Oil. He couldn’t have imagined what was going to happen in the space of only ten years. The so-called reform of the liturgy and the guitars and all that — it completely blew his mind.

JP: Like Evelyn Waugh. Killed by Vatican II!

KAP: Well, my father was also like Waugh in that he suffered terribly from boredom.

JP: How would that manifest itself, when he was bored?

KAP: Oh — he thought he knew what everybody was going to say. He couldn’t let you finish a thought, because he knew you were going to come out with some ’60s nonsense. We were all under the spell of this thing, in his mind, and nobody was going to say anything penetrating, nobody was going to say anything with any edge or nuance. And in some cases he was right. But really he lost his sense of the absurdity of life and it became more of a plod for him — as if everybody around him had been lobotomized. He became much more isolate, he didn’t make any new friends. And of course the telephone was the absolute killer for all letter writers.

JP: What do your siblings think of all this, this work you’ve done? You include something of your sister Jane’s reaction in your Introduction.

KAP: Yes, she found it very painful. My two brothers haven’t read the book. They’re not against it, you understand, they just haven’t got around to it.

JP: The figure of the worldly priest — there’s a kind of incarnational aspect to it, in your father’s work. Like in Morte D’Urban, Father Urban really helps a few people, spiritually, in his worldly-wise way, and you think: This is what grace might look like, enfleshed.

KAP: It did fascinate him. To know businesspeople, to be effective in the world, to raise funds, to be a good fellow – but for a priest this was all so treacherous, too.

JP: There’s this almost neurotic sort of spiritual alertness or vigilance in his writing, the attention to the fluctuations of one’s virtue and so on…

KAP: He was very interested in the minute movements of conscience.

JP: He would have made a beautiful Jesuit.

KAP: Except that he never went to college. But he loved casuistry, he loved separating the finer points of right and wrong. Finer and finer, until sometimes it became so fine there was nothing left except this tiny grace note, that you almost couldn’t hear.

JP: I heard a good sermon once on the parable of the wheat and the tares, the point of the sermon being that it’s not given to us, here, to separate the one from the other. The wheat from the tares, the tangle of motives, good and bad, et cetera. All of that will be made clear later, at harvest time.

KAP: I’m not sure he would have gone for that. Because he did believe in these separations and gradations. One of the expressions he loved was that somebody has “larceny in his heart.” You know, he may seem to be doing some good but really he’s trying to get a deal or take some old lady’s pension or gratify himself in some way. And it is either theology or neurosis, who can say…. But when I realize that that is not what God is all about, I feel vastly relieved. Because I don’t know about you, but in my Catholic upbringing, when it comes to the examination of conscience, everything you do is impeachable. Everything! It becomes impossible not to do wrong.

JP: And then in the ’60s Thomas Merton comes along, with this idea that the Self is this grotesque fiction, this sort of colossus that must be demolished so you can achieve your authentic identity in God…

KAP: I think my father would have gone for that, because he believed in mysticism of the highest form.

JP: Although he never expresses that in his books.

KAP: No, no. But he told us about it. And he didn’t mean mysticism in a woolly way, but as a very difficult…state to arrive at, requiring much discipline. A union of spirit and understanding with God.

JP: He’d tell you about that?

KAP: Yes, because I would be dismissively calling someone a mystic, and he’d say you’re misusing that word. It meant something very precise for him. Very precise, no bullshit. And I think before he got married, before he went to jail, when he went on those retreats, that was what he was trying to achieve, that kind of union.
JP: I’m thinking about Didymus in “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” — when he collapses, his hallucinations and so on. Your father did have that sort of visionary fifth gear, didn’t he? He could go there.

KAP: In his prose, he could.

JP: That’s what I mean. And it kind of informs everything he writes, even when he’s describing quite everyday stuff. Fixing a car or balancing the books or whatever. That’s what makes it all so…nuttily potent.

KAP: Nuttily potent. Make sure you leave that in. Because it’s not symbolism.

JP: No, it’s not. It’s things seen in the light of eternity. Or something.

KAP: The dying priest in “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” strangely enough, was based on someone he looked after when he worked at the hospital. So that’s an essentially mystical story, based in reality. He really did believe in heaven, my father. He met a priest once, after a talk he’d been giving in Detroit. This priest, an old man, came over to talk to him, and when they were saying goodbye he said, “See you in heaven.” My father really liked that.

JP: Because heaven is where it all finally makes sense.

KAP: Right.

JP: And the fact that it doesn’t make sense here — that’s our guarantee that it will make sense there.

KAP: Exactly. And that was the way he would explain everything that didn’t work out, once he’d got over his personal peeve about it. “Betty,” he’d say to my mother, “what did you expect?” It’s the way to win every argument, of course. Because whatever you complain about — no money, no house, nothing being published…. Well, what did you expect?