A sad scandal of American literature is the obscurity of one of its great novels, Morte d’Urban, by J. F. Powers. This magnificent story is no secret to Saul Bellow, Katherine Anne Porter, John Updike, Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh and many other writers. It was awarded the National Book Award for fiction in 1963 over works by Porter, Nabokov and Updike. Critics then and now continue largely to praise the novel. The New York Review of Books has seen to it that Powers’s novel remains in print today by publishing Morte d’Urban as a New York Review Book.
Yet Morte d’Urban sold under twenty-five thousand copies for Doubleday back in the 1960s; Doubleday botched some of the format, editing and print-runs of the novel; Powers made little money on the book; and you must suspect that Powers, who wrote some splendid short stories (some published in The New Yorker) and one other novel, Wheat That Springeth Green (1988), before he passed in 1999, must have been among the poorest of great writers in his day.
Powers is usually called a “Catholic writer,” and certainly at the least he often must have thought of himself as such. Much of his work primarily dramatizes the lives of priests and nuns in the American Catholic church in the 1940s and 1950s. Though Powers writes mainly about what might be called “moderate-minded” clergy, he himself, a jailed conscientious objector during World War Two, was aligned with Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker and the Detachers Movement. But as Powers’s wife said, Powers was so aligned only on his own terms as a writer. He was no breathless follower.
The hero of Morte d’Urban, Father Urban (Harvey Roche before ordination), “fifty-four, tall and handsome but a trifle loose in the jowls and red of eye,” is one of the great literary heroes in American novels and for me the finest portrayal of a priest in literature, including the fiction of Bernanos and Greene. But Father Urban is an American Catholic priest in the post World War Two United States. He is of the Midwest, of Chicago, of the Minnesota hinterlands to which he is banished by the Father Provincial of his sad sack order, the “Clementines,” and his is an American version of old problems in the church of Rome: God versus Caesar; worldly gain versus the loss of one’s soul; Francis of Assisi versus The Holy Roman Empire.
Here is Powers at his savagely satirical and yet compassionate best–the Human Condition is to Powers as to many of the rest of us something (as they say) of a mystery and in which the Right Way can become a quandry, a dilemma–with Father Urban, Urban having accepted an invitation to speak to the Great Plains Commercial Club at its annual Poinsettia Smorgasbord “held in the Greenwich Village Room of the General Diggles Hotel” in an outpost in the outlands of rural Minnesota, Urban having been taken off his high-flying life of travel in the Midwest on the great trains of the day as the road man of the Clementines and banished to an impoverished decaying estate donated to the failing order as a tax write-off by a despicable old millionairess and which the Clementines are trying to turn into a successful retreat house, Urban in his speech hoping somehow to curry local favor in a community angry at his superiors for trying “to put Christ in Christmas” and a community decidedly not a Catholic stronghold:
“In the course of Father Urban’s talk, which he called ‘Christmas down through the ages, a travelogue in time,’ he not only related stories from history and legend but sang snatches of carols from far-off lands. Never once did he strike a partisan note. Jews could have heard him, and perhaps a few did, without taking offense. He closed with a rousing recitation of ‘The Night Before Christmas.’
“Unfortunately, the members of the club were in the habit of hearing from atomic scientists and foreign-policy experts, and so there was a question period. Right away some fool wanted to know what the speaker thought of ‘this here campaign to put Christ in Christmas.’
“‘I’m glad you asked that,’ Father Urban said. ‘For my part I find Christmas as it’s celebrated nowadays still pretty much to my liking. I will say, though, that I like my Christmas trees green.’ He was applauded for his stand. He wanted to leave it at that, but could see that more was expected of him. Obviously the crusade had roused feelings of animosity in many present. He went on–as though he’d meant to go on. ‘As I see it, merchants–to mention only one group–are paying homage in the way best suited to them and their real talents.’ This was better, he could see, but it still wasn’t good enough. He tried again, citing the example, from literature, of the mute tumbler whose prayer took the form of acrobatics before the altar of Our Lady. This was an example he’d used many times, but never before in that connection. Pressed for details, he told the whole story, adding a few touches of his own–and, if anything, improved the story. They loved it.
“…’So, if any of you good people should happen to be in Rome, and you hear the Holy Father say he believes it’s going to rain, you don’t have to believe it–no, not even if you’re a Catholic.’
“This, coming from a priest, was pretty strong stuff.
“The Toastmaster called for order.”
You can’t possibly want to miss this novel, can you? It is one that you will never forget, that you will carry with you in your memory and whose scenes and people you will delight in recalling. It is finally very moving and one of those masterpieces that balances opposing tendencies in living and which is to be valued because it dramatizes ambiguity as well as any story. I’d urge you to go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and order it. If you are a Catholic–I am not but, as Father Urban says, I don’t make a religion out of that–light a candle for the good editors of The New York Review.
Otherwise, and as a curious cultural note: In the superb movie, In the Bedroom (2001), Matt Fowler (Tom Wilkinson), is seen reading a hard copy of Morte d’Urban (1962).
Well, it’s bad enough that Powers has been neglected, but now we get an odd collection of his letters, edited by one of his daughters, which I believe is of little consequence when it comes to his art and possibly mischievous. But at least it raises his name. Hopefully, it will bring more readers to Powers’s fiction.
Powers evidently wrote hundreds of letters, most of them revelatory of a difficult personality bent on writing even though it might mean starving, a man with an often forbidding if comedic spirit, and certainly an honest man, who quite appropriately talked little about his actual writing. The book, Suitable Accomodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942 — 1963, does not, I think, give any real insight into Powers’s fiction and probably entraps those who believe that somehow knowledge of a fiction writer’s life story leads to special insight into his or her writing. It’s been out of date in much of the Academy for decades, though not among writers, but for me a common sense idea of literature–that it is what is between the covers that counts–conveys the most reliable way to read literature. Writers fall in love with characters with whom they believe they shouldn’t, and they contradict their public selves in their stories. As one of Powers’s strongest admirers, Saul Bellow, once said in effect: When I want to know what I’ve really said in a novel, I’ll ask some readers. I may not be that reliable!