The Caprices of Fame: J.F. Powers

I’m just now reading a book published in 2013, Suitable Accommodations, edited by Katherine A. Powers, with the subtitle: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers 1942-1963.

J.F. Powers was an interesting writer (“charming” and “thorny,” a blurb on the back cover reads and that seems about right). He’s known primarily for his novels, Morte D’Urban (1963) and one he wrote 25 years later, Wheat that Springeth Green, both of which received a great deal of praise from the critics, back in the day when you had actual book critics who took their jobs seriously.  Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award, beating out work by Nabokov and Katherine Anne Porter. And Powers was, I think, the last of the great Catholic fiction writers—I was going to say from the pre-Vatican II era, but now that I think about it, maybe ever. In the 1950’s and ‘60s, it was hip and cool to be Catholic writer, and one did not get the ice-cold shoulder from agents and publishers and critics just because you chose to explore the mysteries of your faith in a work of fiction. Unlike today…

But back to Mr. Powers. I had read both of his novels, and some of his short stories, but knew very little about him or his life. I bumped up against him in Thomas Merton’s 4th published journal—it turns out they knew each other, and Merton had even visited with him at his home in Minnesota on a rare venture away from Gethsemani. And they liked each other, it seems, which made me happy to hear. What I was really struck by is Power’s early, woefully bad luck in publishing—the poor man could just not catch a break, it seems. If any person needed to be a best-selling author—and if any writer truly deserved it—it was Powers. He was devoted to his writing but had a wife and family of five children to support and the title of the book, Suitable Accommodations, refers to the number of rental houses the family had to keep moving to in order to stay afloat. Morte d’Urban was a stellar novel, but plagued with bad luck from the beginning. His publisher Doubleday kept messing up, first on the formatting of the book, then on the print run, so there were not enough copies available in the bookstores. Then he had the bad luck to win the National Book Award in the midst of a newspaper strike, so there was no  resulting publicity from that.  His first national appearance on The Today Show was cancelled. There were other complications as well, and in the end, the book only sold about 25,000 copies, far fewer than it rightfully should have. Little wonder the second novel didn’t come out until 25 years later. He must have been incredibly discouraged.

The other thing that impressed me in this book was the fact that his wife, Betty Wahl, was a writer, too, and perhaps just as good as he, if not better. But she had to raise five kids, and, I’m sure, look after Mr. Powers! And all that moving… I hunted down her only published novel, Rafferty & Co., and ordered it from one of Amazon’s used booksellers. Can’t wait to read it. But I was truly dismayed by some of Power’s dismissive comments about her in his letters to friends and colleagues. It amazes me that she managed to write at all…and stayed with him, all those years.

Katherine A. Powers has done a masterful job of sorting and editing her father’s letters, and her own commentary on the family situation is enlightening. I felt some kinship with her, as the oldest myself of six children in a family where money was always tight. But this book was helpful to me, and something of a comfort, reinforcing the point that sales and money and fame don’t always naturally flow to the best writers, or artists.

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