Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963 [NOOK Book]

Overview



A wry, moving collection of letters from the late J. F. Powers, “a comic writer of genius” (Mary Gordon)

Best known for his 1963 National Book Award–winning novel, Morte D’Urban, and as a master of the short story, J. F. Powers drew praise from Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth, among others. Though Powers’s fiction dwelt chiefly on the lives of Catholic priests, he long planned to write a novel of family life, a ...

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Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963

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Overview



A wry, moving collection of letters from the late J. F. Powers, “a comic writer of genius” (Mary Gordon)

Best known for his 1963 National Book Award–winning novel, Morte D’Urban, and as a master of the short story, J. F. Powers drew praise from Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Saul Bellow, and Philip Roth, among others. Though Powers’s fiction dwelt chiefly on the lives of Catholic priests, he long planned to write a novel of family life, a feat he never accomplished. He did, however, write thousands of letters, which, selected here by his daughter, Katherine A. Powers, become an intimate version of that novel, dynamic with plot and character. They show a dedicated artist, passionate lover, reluctant family man, pained aesthete, sports fan, and appreciative friend. At times wrenching and sad, at others ironic and exuberantly funny, Suitable Accommodations is the story of a man at odds with the world and, despite his faith, with his church. Beginning in prison, where Powers spent more than a year as a conscientious objector, the letters move on to his courtship, marriage, comically unsuccessful attempt to live in the woods, life in the Midwest and in Ireland, an unorthodox view of the Catholic Church, and an increasingly bizarre search for “suitable accommodations,” which included three full-scale emigrations to Ireland. Here, too, are encounters with such diverse people as Thomas Merton, Eugene McCarthy, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Sean O’Faolain, Frank O’Connor, Dorothy Day, and Alfred Kinsey.

An NPR Best Book of 2013

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In his fiction, Powers (1917–1999), the celebrated Catholic writer best known for his National Book Award–winning 1963 novel Morte D’Urban, explored the culture of postwar American Catholicism and the lives of Midwestern priests. These vibrant letters, collected and edited by his daughter, Katherine, reveal a restless, promising writer and family man with a wry sense of humor and a hunger for literary camaraderie. The daily business of balancing the needs of his wife and five children with his work often had the family on the move throughout the Midwest, and four relocations to Ireland, as they hunted for the perfect home, a part-time teaching position, or an ideal landscape that might allow Powers to have time to write. He intended to publish a novel about family life, but as his daughter explains in the introduction, Powers was “not only living but creating and embellishing it in his correspondence.” The bulk of the letters were written to longtime friend and patron Father Harvey Egan and to Powers’s wife, Betty, when the two were apart. Other noted correspondents include Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Jack Conroy, and Katherine Anne Porter. While primarily for Powers scholars, this collection serves as a touching portrait of one writer’s struggle. Agent: Andrew Blauner, Blauner Books Literary Agency. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“A major literary accomplishment” Booklist (Starred review)

“In these letters, Powers shows a winning modesty, playing neither the whining, unappreciated artist nor the man the fates have treated unfairly. Drollery abounds: If an American is ever made pope, he writes to a friend, he should take the name Bingo.” —Joseph Epstein, The Wall Street Journal

“There are times when you want to wring Powers’s neck, but you can’t help caring about him, liking him, rooting for him....I do wish that Powers would find the readers he deserves, just as Peter Taylor did against almost all the odds, but he seems fated to be a writer known to too few, like Isabel Colegate, J.G. Farrell or Mordecai Richler. Pretty good company, it says here.” —Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post

“What’s amazing, given this meandering and self-mortifying life, is how often Suitable Accommodations made me laugh….devotees of the author’s work…will recognize his voice in an instant: droll, delicious, resigned to the mass production of human folly, including his own.” —James Marcus, The Los Angeles Times

“[Suitable Accommodations] reads like a fully realized epistolary novel, by turns exasperating and poignant and always funny.” —D. G. Myers, The Daily Beast

“…observant, witty, and self-deprecating…” —Paul Elie, Harper’s

“Fascinating, funny, and disturbing.” Minneapolis Star Tribune

“These vibrant letters… reveal a restless, promising writer and family man with a wry sense of humor and a hunger for literary camaraderie…this collection serves as a touching portrait of one writer’s struggle.” Publishers Weekly 

“One of the funniest, most socially exact, heartrending and thoroughly enjoyable writers alive.” —Jonathan Raban, The Sunday Times (London)

 “I see no limit to his possible achievement.” —Evelyn Waugh, CommonWealth

Kirkus Reviews
His daughter's selection of correspondence reveals the American Catholic writer as immature, irresponsible and hard to live with. Not that his wife and children got much time with J.F. Powers (1917–1999), who preferred solitude or the company of male friends to family life. He told his wife before they married that he wasn't the domestic type and she should not look for him to maintain a steady income. Powers always avoided Thanksgiving and Christmas with his wife's relatives, choosing instead to spend the holidays with old schoolmates or other friends. Many of these were priests, and Powers drew heavily upon their careers and experiences for his first novel, the 1963 National Book Award–winning Morte d'Urban, the story of a priest banished to the backwoods. Catholic writing flourished in the mid-20th century, and Powers contributed to the many magazines of the religious left and right. Nonetheless, he was constantly low on money and often took short-term teaching jobs that enabled him to relocate and leave his loved ones behind. At the same time, he was obsessed with the artist's relationship to his house and fixated on finding just the right place to live. The family moved constantly, three times to Ireland, and Powers insisted on his own space in each building. Even with that, he rented separate quarters so he would have a private place to work and write letters. His correspondence constantly references his work but mostly to say conditions were just too difficult for him to create. This volume would be more interesting if it included letters from others, particularly his long-suffering wife, but perhaps these would have only made it more distasteful by further exposing a character who comes across as completely self-absorbed and selfish. Thoroughly disenchanting: Powers' admirers would do better to reread his stories or novels.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780374709686
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Publication date: 8/20/2013
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 480
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

J. F. Powers died in 1999 at the age of eighty-one. His two novels and a collected volume of his short stories are available as NYRB Classics. Katherine A. Powers is a book columnist and reviews books widely.

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Read an Excerpt

1

Fortunately, I am under no obligation to earn a living wage

September 8, 1942–November 6, 1945

 

 

In 1942, when this story begins, Jim was twenty-five years old and living in Chicago with his parents in their apartment at 4453 North Paulina Street. He had a job at the wholesale book company A. C. McClurg and was also writing. His story “He Don’t Plant Cotton” (whose characters were based on the jazz musicians Baby Dodds, Jimmie Noone, and Lonnie Johnson) was accepted by Accent: A Quarterly of New Literature. The magazine had been founded in 1940 by Kerker Quinn in concert with six other editors, including Charles Shattuck, who became Jim’s most helpful editor and critic.

CHARLES SHATTUCK

4453 North Paulina Street

Chicago

September 8, 1942

Dear Mr Shattuck,

Naturally, I’m very pleased that the editors of Accent like “He Don’t Plant Cotton” well enough to publish it.1 […]

Concerning the who’s who data, this will be my first published story. Aside from the fact that I am 25 and live in Chicago, there is nothing I wish mentioned about me: because those facts, paltry and insignificant, are at least accomplished.

Off the record, I work for a wholesale book company. In fact I might even be what the Publishers Weekly and booksellers refer fondly to as “a bookman,” but the bestseller wars have left me, in spite of my tender years, battered and scarred beyond finding much solace in that hallowed term, smacking of crafts and guilds though it does.

In italics, I want to get away and, yes, you guessed it, Write. I am not working on a novel now.

I do not think my years are tender. Time passing haunts me even more than Space intervening.

Thanks once more. I am hoping you will be able to publish the story soon.

Sincerely,

J. F. Powers

Jim applied for the status of conscientious objector in November 1940 but was classified 1-A in September 1942. His great friend from his Quincy College Academy days, George Garrelts, ordained a priest in September 1942, was a strong supporter of Jim’s decision to resist military service. After a failed appeal, Jim did not present himself for induction on April 3, 1943. Arrested two weeks later, he spent three days in the Cook County Jail before being released on a thousand-dollar bond. He was indicted by a grand jury on May 6, 1943, and on September 30, 1943, was sentenced to three years at Sandstone Federal Penitentiary in Minnesota. He served thirteen months before being paroled.

While inside, Jim was allowed to write two letters a week. He worked in the hospital and, to some extent, on his own writing. Unlikely though it was, and thanks to the friends he made there, prison gave Jim a sense of what life might be for an artist. Among his fellow inmates were a number of cultivated, idealistic men who were also conscientious objectors. Among them were John Marshall, with whom he wrote and produced a play, and two of Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentices, Jack Howe and Davy Davison. Howe drew up a plan of a farm for Jim that represented to him a more intellectual and cultivated expression of the ideals of the Catholic Worker movement.

CHARLOTTE AND BILL KRAFT

Sandstone

May 22, 1944

Dear Charlotte and Bill,

[…] You make your life in New England2 sound attractive—even to me. At times I’ve thought my place to be there. But most of the time I’ve wondered if there is any place for me except in some branch of the government service. There is a justice, hardly poetic, in the way I find myself tied up in destiny with millions of people when what I want most is to be separated from them. […]

The weather is nice and I’m tempted to get out of the dormitory, but when I do, there’s only a sandy lot surrounded by concrete walls—and so monotony has the upper hand always. There is no grass. A while ago I saw somebody playing with a small snake. There it was lying in the sand, pushed about by prison shoes, and I guess it will die eventually. It can’t get out either. […]

Write when you feel like it—and love.

James (Powers) 1939

CHARLOTTE AND BILL KRAFT

Sandstone

June 11, 1944

Dear Charlotte and Bill,

[…] This is Sunday in Sandstone, and it has rained intermittently all day. […] The letters from Mother and Daddy brought sad news also—Eric Swenson is dead and Russ Alonzo’s brother, whom I hardly remember … Well, I don’t know what to say about these things. I can only hope these boys thought they were engaged in good work. If so, it’s not so bad, as we must all die sooner or later and it is a privilege to die for something meaningful—however funny that sounds. As Father George says, it is very strange how such fuss is made about certain saints who died for the love of God, the hardships and martyrdom they thrust upon themselves, and yet when millions die for—they don’t know what, most of them—it is not wondered at, except secretly by many afraid to speak out. […]

Wm Fifield,3 […] who wrote to me several weeks ago, mentioning that a nun plans to use “Lions”4 in an anthology she’s editing,5 writes again that he is a CO and understands my situation. I had written to him, explaining my inability to write a long letter. […]

Love,

James (Powers) 1939

CHARLOTTE AND BILL KRAFT

Sandstone

June 25, 1944

Dear Charlotte and Bill,

This is Sunday again, and it’s hot. […] Despite the play and story I’ve done since coming here, it is impossible to work. Absolute absence of privacy and solitude and silence—makes James a disgusted boy. And then when a day like this comes along, I can’t even escape my own body, which sweats and twists under the heat. That is why I hate summer and why I am happy whenever it is raining and grey. I look out the window now, see across the dusty yards, and there on benches the inmates sit and talk and doze. For all my indolence, I have no talent for that sort of thing. I guess it is the equivalent in my mind of the way Mother and Daddy used to sit out on the back porch. How to spend a lifetime in an evening. […]

Fr George writes of the nice lady parishioner who came to see him about her soul and, more immediately, her finances. She wanted him to recommend a good investment. He recommended the poor. She appealed to common sense. Fr George told her she’d better come back and see the pastor. I’m rather dazed to hear the sermons at your church are strange and different and literate. What a relief it must be for you not to hear about picnics and carnivals. […]

Love,

James (Powers) 1939

CHARLOTTE AND BILL KRAFT

Sandstone

July 21, 1944

Dear Charlotte and Bill,

[…] I just finished a letter to Mother and Daddy in which I told them my ideas about political conventions and farms for the future. The farm is more than usually on my mind because I saw the complete plans the night before last. About six or seven cottages, a twin building joined by a walk: place to eat in one (including a fireplace, huge and “roaring”) and a little theatre in the other (including projection room for movies, mostly “foreign”). Finally, a barn. A barn such as I cd not have imagined and which even now I can hardly understand, for the architect (one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s young geniuses)6 understands the needs and whims of chickens, hogs, horses, cows, and all the rest. The entire project would cost between $50 and $60,000. Which I am told is less than the same number of buildings wd cost if they were (which they aren’t) ugly and cheap. I know of course you are wondering what we get to drink here that makes me talk loosely about that much money. It is not so much, considering my literary prospects (not what I’ll make from books, but the people I’ll meet). Anyway, that’s the setup. Something beyond a pension to work for. I’m wheeling and dealing where I can. […]

The sky is beautiful today—peace, it’s wonderful—and I can’t remember the sky being like this anywhere else. A different feature daily. I was thinking today (while watching the clouds) how far I’ve traveled from the canoe trips I took with Ramona7 around the Chain of Lakes. I told you she got married January 1943, but did I tell you that she expected a baby in November? Well, she’s all taken care of, and it’s a good thing, I’m thinking, for me. She never meant what she said about being different. It took Fr George to detect that a long time ago: the first time he met her.8 […] Listened to the convention tonight and lost a bag of cookies on Wallace.9

Love,

Jim (Powers)

MARIELLA GABLE

Sandstone

August 1, 1944

Dear Sister Mariella,

The authorities have graciously permitted me to write a special purpose letter to you.

I was very happy to hear that you wish to use my work and feel indebted to William Fifield and Harry Sylvester for bringing it to your attention. […]

Since leaving Chicago, escorted by a U.S. marshal, I have been doing time at Sandstone prison in Minnesota. The “rap”: failure to report for induction, or conscientious objection to war. For me, the project and prison have been gifts from heaven, periodically bewildering as such, but essentially blessings. I have had the honor of living among men of goodwill in these places, a few of the uncelebrated, if not unknown, victims of peace and war in our age “of moderate virtue and of moderate vice.”10

[…]

In Christ,

J. F. Powers

CHARLOTTE AND BILL KRAFT

Sandstone

August 4, 1944

Dear Charlotte and Bill,

[…] I have hopes for a merrier Xmas this year than last: I’m assured on all sides the war will be over and it is very probable I’ll be out on parole and settled, as it were, by then. As a matter of fact, if Washington okays my parole, I may make it by September. […]

Fr George is (or recently was) in Oakmont for a retreat, and a fellow here is going to Oakmont next week to work for Fr Farina.11 Took a lot of accounting at Creighton University and came here as a Catholic CO and now knows accounting is as far from his heart as murder, and will donate his life to such work as Fr Farina and the CW movement entails.

You ask about the farm of the future. You are right: there will be no advertising or insurance men about (unless of course they have mended their ways). You are wrong: there will be no arty people passing through in the summer as though it were Wisconsin Dells. Who lives there lives there. No part time. It will not be a tourist camp. We will get our living from the earth. A living is not so much as the light companies and grocers try to make city people think. It will be a risk of course. I’m dead sure “risk” is the magic word. The condition of the cities is due to the fact that people will not risk anything to live. They would rather die for not living—it is a slow process like an all-day sucker.12 A slow process, even if it isn’t any good. If you’ll watch the forthcoming Life magazines, you’ll see some specimens of F. L. Wright’s work. It will be an article on “Broadacre City,” Mr Wright’s dream city. My farm is the work of a fellow whom Mr Wright called “the finest draughtsman he ever met.”13 […] And now, once more, my love to both of you.

James (Powers) 1939

CHARLOTTE AND BILL KRAFT

Sandstone

August 18, 1944

Dear Charlotte and Bill,

[…] The weather here is cool again, and the trees in the distant bluffs are changing color, just beginning to, and I am told the summer has practically spent itself. I am glad. […] I read “Renner,”14 and it doesn’t sound as bad as I was afraid it might—I’ve changed here: am not so quick to see tragedy where I did. I used to give the businessmen a rough go, and the mistake was in limiting such treatment too much to them. The innocents I find are ever harder to find than before. I am thinking of alleged pacifist societies and related groups. More than before I realize that pacifism alone is no use. It is an essential part of Christianity: there is the root—not in pacifism or labor unions or education. This means, then, I was somewhat taken in by “do-good” organizations; it does not mean the business boys, the common sensers, get off any easier. Being here has matured me. There are people and types of endeavor—architecture, for instance, which I was hardly conscious of. And they all have their way out for humanity. […]

Love,

James (Powers) 1939

CHARLOTTE AND BILL KRAFT

Sandstone

September 1, 1944

Dear Charlotte and Bill,

[…] I’m writing this letter from the barbershop, where I’m waiting my turn. There are three chairs, and tonight the library and hospital workers get theirs. […] Sometimes I feel I must have checked my brain and responsibility (to myself) at the front gate when I came in and they were mailed home with my clothes. I won’t ask again about Bill’s deferment, but only hope he stays unmolested where he is. There are train tracks within whistling distance, and when they sound in the night, and the dogs bark, you know you’re in jail. […]

Love,

James (Powers) 1939

CHARLOTTE AND BILL KRAFT

Sandstone

October 8, 1944

Dear Charlotte and Bill,

Sunday, about 9:00 in the morning, and I’m sitting at a big long table in the dayroom, listening to some wonderful Negro spiritual singing. […]

We must pray that Dick survives and that Mother and Daddy are spared further sorrows.15 I feel my parole will take a weight off their minds, despite my assurances that I was and am all right here, which is the truth. They were never able to believe that, I always suspected. When you were home, did you feel that they worried about my being here much? Did the neighbors make them feel embarrassed? Now the spirituals have stopped and it is white hymn singing, which, as far as I’m concerned, is something else. This is a chill bleak day, the trees in the distance are many colors and I should very much like to walk through them. […]

All at once, with a date set for my departure, I find myself engaged in counting the days—an old practice among jailbirds. I have, of this writing, 23 days and a “get,” which means “get up.” I’ll leave on the 9:39 train on the morning of November 1—All Saints’ Day—a Wednesday. I’ll be paid $50 a month at St Joseph’s16 and furnished with a room and meals. That isn’t bad—especially the room. Not waking up in the morning in the midst of a multitude. Pray for Dick.

Love,

James (Powers) 1939

CHARLOTTE AND BILL KRAFT

Sandstone

October 19, 1944

Dear Charlotte and Bill,

[…] This is the best time of the year for me, and I’m glad to think I’ll see and smell some of it this year. I’m writing this on my lunch hour, birch trees stick up in the distance like white whiskers. The sky is dull grey and blue. […] How I wish I had my typewriter, or the right to use one, when I look at my handwriting. Now a train is whistling across the frozen plains, and of course I’m put in mind of November. Till I hear from you again—Happy Days.

James (Powers) 1939

Jim was paroled on November 1, 1944, and, as a condition of his release, was assigned a job as an orderly at St. Joseph’s Hospital, St. Paul, Minnesota. At first his duties included work in the morgue, an assignment he found unbearable; later he was given the job of sterilizing instruments on the night shift.

CHARLES SHATTUCK

St Joseph’s Hospital

St Paul, Minnesota

November 3, 1944

Dear Mr Shattuck,

This will be a note, no more, to let you know I am out in the world again. I was paroled to this hospital November 1, All Saints’ Day. You wouldn’t think the government had such a feel for the liturgy. I am in my room in an adjoining building known as the Boys’ Dormitory. So far the majority of the Boys are still in the throes of having solemnized Pay Day. That’s the way one nun explained it to me. They are maintenance men and so forth and like the Middle Ages, the strange, maimed flock that always attaches itself to Catholic institutions. Civil Service wd never stand for them. When they find out I am a conscientious objector, they will either canonize or slaughter me …

[…]

Had to move a still sweaty stiff, fat too, around in the autopsy room yesterday. Wish T. S. Eliot might have been there. I will probably settle down to work in the operating rooms and orderly. Today I worked from seven to three, which leaves a good hunk of the day to me. Marred today by necessity to report to Police (as I’m one convicted of a felony), and it’s funny to see them trying to take the questions and fingerprinting and photography seriously, all the rigmarole designed to keep society safe. […]

Will send you something if I can write something. I may have ossified under censorship and indolence. […]

Jim Powers

JOHN MARSHALL

St Joseph’s Hospital

St Paul, Minnesota

[Late 1944 or early 1945]

Dear Marsh,

Friday evening and I have just received your card. […] I have just been lying here on my bed, waiting for a certain bug to bite me again (presently, I don’t know where he is on my person) and considering the nature of the religious who run places like this hospital: the latter train of thought precipitated by what we had, or didn’t have for supper tonight. I ate a piece of bread and a glass of milk and left the scene of the crime. Fortunately, I am under no obligation to earn a living wage and can go out and eat a meal when this happens (this week, four times). […] Write to me again, especially when you run out of postcards. And God—not the God of institutions—may He bless you.

Jim

JOHN MARSHALL

St Joseph’s Hospital

St Paul, Minnesota

April 9, 1945

Dear Marsh,

I rec’d yours this morning and derive some consolation from your misery, as it seemed to take the edge off mine. You at least are a young man and have your life before you. Me, I am growing old and fast. I am moreover like a fish thrown up on a sandbank and left to lie there in the sun. I am speaking of the jolly hospital and, as Private Carr wd say, the fucking medical profession. Don’t say a word against the fucking medical profession! All of which means things are beginning to catch up with me. The sunniness is gone out of my mien (remember?). Last Thursday and again Saturday (supposed to be my “day off”) I worked till nigh on midnight cleaning up the morgue after the fucking medical profession. My sands are running out. I am not writing.

More and more I am considering the uselessness of trying to sandwich in a little sense in all this nonsense. There is no room for writing in my days and nights. The only extracurricular vocation open to me is that of the alcoholic. One could be drunk fairly regularly and get by. There are provisions for that. But when one is trying to set down something in writing and it grieves one’s soul to see how it comes out, and then just when some of the awfulness, through work and revision, is going out of it, there comes the call to the post room.17 What then? I am in love with the idea of nihilism and tolerable of unions. The first settles this hash for good, and the other comes to hard terms with it. I have thought of working a transfer somewhere, not that I’m sure it isn’t this way everywhere and always, but I know it’s a forlorn project. I have only my reasons. I can’t think of a single one of theirs—and them’s the ones that count. […]

I have letters from editors wanting things, and I can’t get time to produce them. The time I get is hardly enough to type them. I am becoming a has-been without ever having really been. Now, I don’t want to mislead you into thinking I actually think my chips are all cashed in, but I do want you to know, as I’m beginning to, this spare-time creation ain’t what I cracked it up to be in jail. Peace. Write.

Jim

JOHN MARSHALL

St Joseph’s Hospital

St Paul, Minnesota

April 27, 1945

Dear Marsh,

A line from the hospital. No enemas, etc., at the moment. […] I am simply moldering. I am constantly tired. I walked down to the river after supper tonight. It is good down there. Things can be seen for miles: trains, limestone cliffs, the river losing and finding itself in the sun. But I haven’t the power to do more than fall on a bench and listen and look in a daze not of my own making. I wonder if I am physically deficient—or whether indolence has reached the tertiary state with me. […]

I think if I had nothing to do—no work—I’d be all right. But I must say that it seems strange that I am not up to sweating for my daily bread like the others. God, it is often said, gives what he intends to take away, and only enough of whatever it is to go around. It seems now that I am only getting enough—to the last drop—to get me through the days. I find, on rereading this, I’m pouring out my heart to you. It all comes, probably, from the fact that I’m not writing anything these days. I don’t feel quite the cad I did a few months ago; then, it seemed, I had a little time. Now I have none which doesn’t suffer from the effect of rising and retiring. In and out of bed. A bug in a glass. […]

Pax,

Jim

Jim found a girlfriend in a young woman, just out of high school, who also worked at the hospital. “Hugs and kisses, nothing else,” she reported in a letter after Jim’s death. “He coaxed me into giving him my high-school ring—I had just graduated. I left for nurses’ training in September. […] He never returned the ring.”

JOHN MARSHALL

St Joseph’s Hospital

St Paul, Minnesota

June 18, 1945

Dear Marsh,

Rec’d your letter today and was very happy to have it. I should have answered your previous one before this, but it was so full of things hard to write about and I kept thinking there’d come a day. There didn’t, so I must simply say, as we say in the Men’s Dining Room here, It’s rough and tough and hard to stay with. You are indeed a very sensitive and complicated person, as even somebody like Domrese18 could see, and the world is made to smash you if you are that and not some more things besides. Since you are some more things, you will be all right, I think. In fact I think I should be in the same boat if I were so fortunate, or unfortunate, as to be knee-deep in quail, the way you are.

I had my first chance, the first that was really right from all angles and especially the physical, in the last two or three weeks, but I put my foot down, thus hamstringing the moment for the comforts of the long view. I see myself a little better now and do not sally forth with quite the abandon, with only a heavy cargo of fine expressions which usually came to something else in the minds of my loved ones, but that was all right then as I kept hammering away at what I meant, which was usually something about beauty or life’s tough and why not make the most of it, and all the time I was getting my carnal share. But my problems are not over by any means in that respect. I page through Harper’s Bazaar and see several women each month I’d seriously consider settling down with if they weren’t just in Harper’s Bazaar,19 so you can see I am still entertaining the idea of crossing over.

But now to other things. Quite a few people like the CW 20 stuff, and quite a few don’t; it splits up into those who think of me as the fine young writer of fine short stories and those who welcome a little propaganda from any quarter and don’t know much about the other. But I, as you suspect, know what I’m doing. Watch the CW as I have another coming and it’s got its boots laced way up to here. After all I am, as I always maintained, a simple soul and simply don’t want my sons (if I can get my wife out of Harper’s Bazaar) to be a fuckin’ soldier.

I am moving into other quarters. To the Marlborough. That is an old red stone dump creaking with age and old women where I will have two rooms, so to speak, by the grace of God and a piece of molding bisecting them, and a toilet I can call my own as well as a bathtub that sits out in one of the rooms with a lid on it. Sounds like (that letter) a fine setup for an old deflowerer of Quaker womanhood like yourself, the one-balled fury. It is a block from the cathedral, but truth to tell I don’t intend to do much about that. The view is the thing, looking out over the City of St Paul and farther over the river and into the distant sun-swept hills. When I told Weinstein21 this, he said ah ha at last you are set up in the approved Esquire style. Then—sound of distant trumpets—I begin to write. […] See you around. Let me hear from you.

Jim

For a few months, Jim shared his place at the Marlborough on Summit Avenue in St. Paul with Ted LeBerthon, a newspaperman, critic, and writer who was involved with the Catholic Worker movement.

JOHN MARSHALL

150 Summit Avenue

St Paul, Minnesota

July 9, 1945

Dear Marsh,

[…]

Your schedule literally knocks me out, just to scan through. How can you do it? I do not mean to express only amazement but curiosity. I want to know for my own sake. I find myself constantly weary, dropping in and out of bed in a way I never did before. I mean before the Stone. I was talking to a fellow who was hot on B Complex, but you know how lukewarm I am about anything in packages or via machinery, like your shortwave set. If I get some of this B Complex, it will be like going in to buy some condoms, that painful—which by the way I managed to do only once, in Juarez, and I was not moving only under my own power at the time. So you might, from what you know of my case, put a couple of dogs on it and let me know how it turns out. I have a lot of work to do and will never make it in my present condition. […]

Now it is 10:30 in the evening, and I must go down the hill to the hospital. My American Sterilizer is waiting on a park bench for me. I work nights now, you know. 11–7. Get a couple of hours sitting or reading in. No posts.22 Few people. Little food. Some heat. Also deliver ice at sunup. I am a familiar figure with my ice and tongs. I can’t recall whether I told you I had moved: two rooms with a view.

Jim

Father Harvey Egan became Jim’s greatest correspondent and an extraordinarily generous literary patron. He was also an industrious writer and sender of pamphlets, the subjects of which changed with his own galloping enthusiasms. Like Garrelts, Egan was, at this time, a zealous Detacher; that is to say, both priests were adherents of the rigorously ascetic movement known as Detachment.23 Still, Egan’s embrace of this persuasion did not affect his passion for baseball, horse racing, boxing, and hockey.

HARVEY EGAN

The Marlborough

Just off Leicester Square

Old St Paul’s

July 25, 1945

Dear Reverend,

I’m going to give you one more chance before taking my cause to a higher authority. I am not ignorant of the sender of a series of cryptic missives received by me or my servants. The single, dread word “Detacher” is enough. I will not pretend to be unaffected. I am, as it would be foolish to deny, a man with a past. But I have paid my debt to society once, nay, a hundredfold, for I was in the beginning, as I am now, and ever shall be, an innocent man. I was, in fine, a Jansenist, a great follower of Baius,24 Quesnel,25 and the Saints26 (Lanahan Blanks Blues, 3–0), yes, I guess I had my fun and there’s still the piper to pay. But you are not the piper, Reverend Sir, and if it is not clear that I wish to put all that you and your ill-starred ilk represent behind me, then, forsooth, as I say, I shall seek out justice from the highest authority in the land. I have already sought action from a prelate I imagined to be your superior (he lives up the street from me), but my letter has been returned, initialed it is true, but saying only, “No longer with us. Try the Methodists or Presbyterians. Sorry.” If you are, as His Excellency seems to believe, now with these other sects, the next threatening note or sign I have from you or any other practitioner of Detachismus will send me scurrying after protection, peace, and justice (else this war be mockery!), yes, I’ll not stop short of Harry27 himself. I have spoken. Take heed.

J.a.S.S.W.F.O.I.T.

Just a Simple Soul Who Found Out in Time.

P.S. To think I once thought butter sinful!

JOHN MARSHALL

150 Summit Avenue

(the home of happy feet)

September 13, 1945

Dear Marsh,

I am tearing this off in the wee hours of the morning. You came to mind as I entered the realm of X-ray, cystoscopy, diathermy. […] As for your private life, in some lamentable respects, it resembles my own, and I think I’ll just skip that. I can go to confession. I don’t know what you can do … wait it out, I suppose. I use that sometimes myself, instead of confession, as confession in some circumstances strikes me as the easy way out (a way to miss the meaning, destroy the chance of changing through experience); too much so. I do not believe I’ll get married, ever. If so, it will be like lightning. I do not expect to be hit by that either. And I will not even go so far as to say, on the other hand, you never know … I see too much too soon in women to get very far along.

Recently, I’ve had glimmers of what a challenge it would be honestly to try to be a saint; glimmers in all the darkness, one or two or three. I am not much tempted, in what I imagine to be the classical sense (St Anthony), but all it comes to is “something to do” instead of cheering or barking, a chance to wag my tail over something one degree more than nothing. Sometimes I enjoy music more (do you know Ravel, La Valse?), but music is a sometimes thing. Sex, on the other hand, always affords that minor lift—or the idea at bottom does, if not it itself. The small pleasure of pulling one’s fingers out of the dike; the sorrow soon after; the struggle to get the dike in shape again. Tick, tock, night, day, night … if the square root of death is one hour, you know it is not so long, life, and every hour in between is, if you could only let yourself see it, you would get up and leave this interminable double feature after the thousandth time you saw it. Write.

Jim

Elizabeth “Betty” Wahl had graduated that spring from the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, four miles from St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota. She had been Sister Mariella Gable’s prize student and was now living at home with her parents in nearby St. Cloud, working as a bookkeeper for her father Art Wahl’s construction company. She was also writing a novel under the tutelage of Sister Mariella, who eventually asked Jim to read the manuscript and come up to St. Benedict’s to discuss it. One cannot help seeing matchmaking on Gable’s part and starry-eyed aspiration on Betty’s. Twenty-one years old, romantic, and worshipful, Betty considered the ideal marriage to be union with the mind, body, and soul of a great artist. As for Jim, he was clearly in the mood to be hit by lightning.

MARIELLA GABLE

150 Summit Avenue

October 15, 1945

Dear Sister Mariella,

[…] I shall be pleased to read Miss Wahl’s book, only asking that you send it on and give me until, say, sometime in early November to get it read and up there to talk about it, as you suggest. […] I am conscious of the possible irony in my criticizing the work of someone who has turned out 70,000 words at 21, words which you must not think badly of. But we shall see. I guess I might have more to my credit if I’d been born a girl or as I am with money enough so I wouldn’t have to work at the nonsense I always have had to, or if the call to the colors hadn’t gone out when I was ripe for them, or, as Ted LeBerthon says, if my aunt had whiskers she’d be my uncle. I am amused that you found me a “stripling.” I wish I were five years younger at least. […] Ted LeBerthon, who now lives with me on the sixth floor of this old brownstone ghost of a building, is 53, and most of the time it seems to be the other way around. We can still lie awake at night (Sundays, when I don’t work, anyway) and talk. It is something I used to do as a child and again in high school (the chances of our team in the state tournament) and also when I graduated and hit Chicago (Pater, Huysmans, Baudelaire, Symons). But I don’t think I’ll want to talk in bed when I’m 53. […]

JFP

MARIELLA GABLE

150 Summit Avenue

October 23, 1945

Dear Sister Mariella,

A line to let you know I rec’d your letter and the MS today. I have just finished the first chapter and without going any further would be willing to bet on the book and with more certainty on future books from Miss Wahl. The title, I think, is very bad: the first paragraph likewise. But after that it rides right along. […] There is a very rare honesty, it seems to me, about the first chapter. I am even a little awestruck by it. […] I like especially the ease with which Miss Wahl writes. Shattuck (of Accent) would love it. I have a private opinion ease comes easier with women. […] A woman I know, the mother of a close friend, works as a saleslady in a department store. She used to run out and rub the back of a hunchback, calling him “old huncher,” for good luck. I was fascinated with the idea of it, or not only the idea (the cruelty of it lurking at several removes) but this particular woman involved in it, but the more I said it in various ways to myself the further I got away from the art of the thing. […]

Best,

Jim

MARIELLA GABLE

150 Summit Avenue

November 1, 1945

Dear Sister Mariella,

I think I ought to tell you the weekend of the 11th looks likely. […] I will say I think the book ought and—which is more—will be published. I would offer the services of my agents28 if Miss Wahl would care to have them. […] But we can talk about that too. I should want (if my criticism is to be abided by, and I am not sure I wish it so) to go through every chapter. Such things as the candle making, the Sister who presides there, should be the case more often in this book. I feel something about the place (St Benedict’s) is very wonderful and unique and deserves more going into than it gets. But, as before, more anon.

Best. Pax.

MARIELLA GABLE

150 Summit Avenue

November 6, 1945

Dear Sister Mariella,

[…] I have been negotiating with buses and trains and nuns. […] It might be easier for all of us for you to leave the convent and for Miss Wahl to run away from home. […]

Pax.

Jim finally met Betty Wahl on Saturday, November 10, 1945, and proposed marriage to her two days later. She accepted.

 

Copyright © 2013 by Powers Family Literary Property Trust

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Interviews & Essays

Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Katherine A. 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.

My conversation with Katherine A. Powers took place at Matt Murphy's Pub in Brookline, Massachusetts, in August 2013. Four pints of Guinness — two each — were consumed. —James Parker

The Barnes & Noble Review: 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...

BNR: 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...

BNR: He was made.

KAP: Absolutely made, yes.

BNR: 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."

BNR: 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.

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

KAP: Is that so?

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

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

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

BNR: 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.

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

KAP: Indeed.

BNR: 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...

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: It's so horrible, though — moving. Such a horrible experience.

KAP: It's awful, awful.

BNR: I've only moved twice in my life. I hated it!

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

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

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

KAP: Absolutely committed.

BNR: 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?

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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?

BNR: 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.

BNR: He did his time, wasn't traumatized or anything...

KAP: Well, it was a pretty decent prison.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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 —

BNR: 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!

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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...

BNR: 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 wnted her to look more "county." Tweed skirts and so on.

BNR: 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.

BNR: Like Evelyn Waugh. Killed by Vatican II!

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

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

BNR: 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.

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

KAP: Right.

BNR: 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?

— August 16, 2013

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  • Posted September 13, 2013

    His letters are as good as his stories.

    For full disclosure, J.F. Powers was my brother in law. I was there the evening when Thomas (Father Louis) Merton visited the Powerses, July 27, 1956. Most of the conversation before dinner was about Jazz and Baseball. When Merton's monastic confrere started trying to convince Powers to develop a more disciplined life of daily prayer, Merton broke in to say, "Knock it off, John Eudes; if Jim is going to get to heaven it will not be for the prayers he's said, but for studying God's world deeply and writing about it as it really is." Through the judicious editing of these letters, daughter Katherine Powers has turned them into the novel that Powers should have written about the family's funny, passionate, frustrating quest for suitable accommodations.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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