Perfection of the Life or of the Work: J.F. Powers

This book jacket is from J. F. Powers 1963 National Book Award winning novel, "Morte D’Urban," which was reissued by the New York review of Books in 2000

After living in at least 11 Illinois residences in the first 23 years of his life, including 1658 1/2 Jersey St. and 730 N. 24th St. in Quincy, short story writer and novelist J.F. Powers was always to experience this residential instability even as a husband and father of five who received prestigious grants and awards. Although deeply respected by more famous authors such as Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, and Mary Gordon, for his eminence as a short-story writer, Powers never achieved commercial success. Was the unceasing financial stress on his wife and children, as well as on Powers himself, inherent in his stubborn devotion to writing as his God-given vocation, or were his personal characteristics at fault as he chose the perfection of his work over the perfection of his life? Was Powers’ subject matter the obstacle?

Powers’ stories and two novels mostly portray American Roman Catholic priests and their relationships with one another. For Powers, this is a humorous subject. He portrayed irritation, boredom, fear and other assorted human behaviors as men interact with other men they do not like who may be in the same profession. The Library of Congress subject headings for his Collected Stories denote Powers’ recurrent topics: Middle West—Religious life and customs—Fiction; Middle West—Social life and customs—Fiction; Catholics—Fiction; Clergy—Fiction.

James Farl Powers, known as J. F. Powers, was born in Jacksonville, Ill., in 1917. His father James worked for Swift and Company, which had offices in Jacksonville, Quincy and Rockford. The Powers boy showed his artistic aptitude early on, appearing in junior high school plays. From 1931 to 1935, J. F. attended Quincy College Academy, a Catholic high school taught by Franciscans in Quincy, where he was a member of the football and basketball teams. Quincy College Academy ceased to exist when it merged with Notre Dame Academy in 1940.

Powers’ time in Quincy was short as the family moved frequently due to his father’s job with Swift and Company. After a move to Chicago, he worked at Marshall Field’s department store and attended classes at Northwestern University. Powers was influenced by the activist Dorothy Day and wrote for her publication, The Catholic Worker. During World War II, he became a pacifist. He did not appear for his induction into the Army and was arrested and jailed in 1943.

Powers’ won the National Book Award in 1963 for "Morte d' Urban," his comic novel about a charming priest. Winning that award did not improve his financial situation. Powers was often unproductive and time-wasting. His perfectionism seems to have seeded his persistent procrastination, which tried his long-suffering wife's patience. Betty Powers stabilized the family's finances during their long marriage (1946–1988) while maintaining a belief in his genius. "Are we to make him into just another man who will die, his body rot, his possessions be dispersed, and his immortality all in heaven?" Betty asked in her journal. "God does intend there to be man-made beauty on earth. We are to make order of it all.” Powers eldest child, Katherine has revealed that in his last conversation with his dying wife, "he spent that time telling her how sorry he was for giving her such a hard life and no home. He never really recovered from her death…."

Powers’ intermittent industry, his habits of procrastinating, may have resulted in part from a perfectionism born of the very motive that impelled him: his sense of vocation. As Katherine remembered in her book, "Suitable Accommodations," "For him, art was as much a spiritual vocation as the priesthood — a more exalted one even … But art, by contrast to the priesthood, allowed no compromise … My father, however, felt that daily life could only be a distraction from his calling. Tragically, … he was often lost in a wilderness of petty detail and procrastination, wasting hours repairing and polishing his shoes, rubbing emollients into his leather-bound books, battling bats, mice, and squirrels in the house, and gophers under the sun; caulking windows, spackling cracks and holes, gluing, taping, and tapping in tacks."

This could seem like laziness but was often self-paralysis worsened by recurrent financial failure. A 1959 diary entry by Powers notes, "I now see our whole married life as a search for a home, and every child making the need more pressing and the prospects less likely ... I hope this will be the last harvest I will reap of the failure of Betty to educate her parents and others in the meaning of her calling and mine (as writers, artists) and the few prerogatives attending same." Powers had warned his future bride in 1945, "The jobs I had, in bookstores and the rest, were never honest. Not for me. Should a giraffe have to dig dandelions, or a worm fly a kite?"

Often refusing to turn from his writing to more remunerative work, Powers also refused to write. Thus, his and Betty belief in his vocation entwined to create what Katherine called "the black comedy of children, five all told, great poverty, bad luck, and balked creativity." Her other comments plainly set out the human cost of living with his genius: "Growing up in this family is not something I would care to do again. There was so much uncertainty, so much desperation about money, and so very little restraint on my parents' part in letting their children know how precarious our existence was."

Powers frequent rejection of offers of paid work left his family to subsist on the generosity of others. Powers choose perfection in his work over perfection in his life. Only his wife and five children have the right to forgive or excuse that choice. At the same time, as a minor American writer with great gifts, Powers became a major practitioner in the genre of the short story in such brilliant pieces as "The Forks," "The Valiant Woman," and "Prince of Darkness.” Powers died in 1999.

Sources

“25 Members of Academy Grid Squad Honored.” Quincy Herald Whig, December 13, 1933, 3.

“Critics Praise James Powers” Short Stories.” Quincy Herald Whig, June 5, 1947, 20.

“Former Quincyans Plan Reunion in Washington.” Quincy Herald Whig, November 11, 1962, C2.

“Notre Dame Academy Is To House High School For Both Boys and Girls.” Quincy Herald Whig, May 5, 1940, 18.

Powers, Kathrine a. (ed). Suitable Accommodations, An Autobiographical Story of Family Life:

The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2013.

“St. Peter Grade Graduates Are Given Diplomas.” Quincy Herald Whig, June 14, 1931, 14.

“St. Peter School Children Appear in Clever Plays.” Quincy Herald Whig, January 22, 1931, 4.

Kathleen Spaltro is the author of The Great Lie: The Creation of Mary Astor. Spaltro has written biographical articles about such notables as Welles, Preston Sturges, and Frank Capra, as well as more than 40 biographical profiles in “Royals of England: A Guide for Readers, Travelers, and Genealogists.” She also writes for Illinois Heritage and lives in Woodstock, Ill.

The Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County is preserving the Governor John Wood Mansion, the History Museum on the Square, the 1835 Log Cabin, the Livery, the Lincoln Gallery displays, and a collection of artifacts and documents that tell the story of who we are. This award-winning column is written by members of the Society. For more information visit hsqac.org or email info@hsqac.org.

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