Authors: J. F. Powers

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American short-story writer

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories, 1947

The Presence of Grace, 1956

Lions, Harts, Leaping Does, and Other Stories, 1963

Look How the Fish Live, 1975

The Old Bird: A Love Story, 1991 (a short story, originally pb. in Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories)

The Stories of J. F. Powers, 2000

Long Fiction:

Morte d’Urban, 1962

Wheat That Springeth Green, 1988


The literary output of James Farl Powers was small, but his wry, humorous, and highly original tales about the toils of Roman Catholic priests in the American Midwest ensured his niche in the history of American fiction. Powers attended Northwestern University and subsequently worked as a bookstore clerk and as an insurance salesman. In 1943 three of his stories appeared in The Catholic Worker. He was married in 1946 and had five children. After his first collection of short fiction, Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories, appeared in 1947, Powers supported his family by writing and occasional teaching; he also received Rockefeller and Guggenheim fellowships.{$I[AN]9810001004}{$I[A]Powers, J. F.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Powers, J. F.}{$I[tim]1917;Powers, J. F.}

J. F. Powers

(Hugh Powers)

Powers’s career cannot be said to have “developed” in any traditional sense. The themes of Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories are the same as the themes that run through his 1988 novel Wheat That Springeth Green: ecclesiastical politics and jealousies in Catholic midwestern communities; anxieties within the parish about finance, furniture, and church buildings; and the apparent incongruity between a rich Old World religion and its reincarnation amid the secular badlands of Illinois and Minnesota. That incongruity is only an apparent one for Powers, who expounds on the universality of Catholicism and the ways in which its traditions and teachings can reemerge in the most unlikely places.

There is a strong streak of theological orthodoxy in Powers’s work. “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” one of the stories in his first collection, movingly describes the death of Father Didymus, a contemplative priest whose pride in his own prowess with geometrical equations must give way before the final equation of death. Similarly, in the novel Morte d’Urban, which won the National Book Award, Father Urban Roche’s worldly interests (fast sports cars and persuading Chicago businessmen to share their profits with his own comfortable parish) receive a brusque comeuppance when his bishop banishes him to a remote monastery in Minnesota. There Roche’s excessive interest in material matters is corrected, and his worldly defeat is transformed into a spiritual triumph that he ultimately accepts and welcomes.

It is, however, as a comedian of social manners that Powers is best known to the general reader. Using bathos and irony to reveal how the everyday concerns of priests tend to be no nobler than those of anyone else, Powers makes his stories humanly sympathetic and widely accessible. The title story of Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories concerns Father Burner’s desperate but frustrated desire to secure his own parish. Similarly, two of the best stories in The Presence of Grace, “Death of a Favorite” and “Defection of a Favorite,” are narrated by a cunning cat, who comments upon the low political intrigues taking place in his native rectory and who eventually casts a deciding vote in this power struggle by choosing to rub himself up against Father Malt’s trouser leg.

The novel Wheat That Springeth Green also focuses on clashes of personality within the Catholic clergy. Here the novel’s leading character, Father Joe Hackett, finds himself having to confront tough-minded mercenary priests such as Father William Stock, otherwise known as Dollar Bill. Keen to ransack his congregation for money at every conceivable opportunity, Father Stock attempts to force the idealistic young Hackett to make a “special collection” while celebrating his first mass, an event that causes the traumatized Hackett to reexamine his relationship with ecclesiastical authority. Wheat That Springeth Green, like the earlier novel Morte d’Urban, is made up of a number of memorable scenes such as this, but the way such scenes are strung together in an episodic fashion suggests that Powers’s true strength lies in the short story rather than in the novel. Powers has a great gift for dialogue and for the comic particulars of any given situation, but he seems on less certain ground when trying to develop complex characters over a long stretch of narrative time.

Powers also wrote a few stories set outside church institutions. One of the best of these is “Tinkers,” from Look How the Fish Live, which shows an American family traveling to Ireland to trace their ancestral roots; eventually the family experiences nostalgia for their American home, along with a sense of alienation and displacement. Displacement in its more general form is, in fact, another important theme in Powers’s work. His characters never seem quite at home, never quite fully integrated within the landscapes into which they have been inserted. This displacement reflects the Christian paradox of human beings caught between two modes of being, the secular and the sacred.

Powers wrote from within the Church, and he had much to say about the different philosophical positions and internal tensions within American Catholicism during the second half of the twentieth century. Some readers enjoy Powers simply as a satirical humorist, and it is certainly true that he was more than simply a “Catholic writer.” In his assiduously realistic depiction of life in the American Midwest, and in his analysis of the perennial dialogue between human idealism and worldly frustrations, Powers created his own unique and memorable fictional world.

BibliographyEvans, Fallon, ed. J. F. Powers. St. Louis: Herder, 1968. A collection of essays and appreciations emphasizing the Catholic context of Powers’s fiction. Among the contributors are Hayden Carruth, W. H. Gass (whose essay “Bingo Game at the Foot of the Cross” is a classic), Thomas Merton, and John Sisk. Also includes an interview with Powers and a bibliography.Gussow, Mel. “J. F. Powers, 81, Dies.” The New York Times, June 17, 1999, p. C23. In this tribute to Powers, Gussow traces his literary career, commenting on his first important story, “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” and his best-known collection, Prince of Darkness and Other Stories, noting his frequent focus on priests.Hagopian, John V. J. F. Powers. New York: Twayne, 1968. The first book-length study of Powers, this overview comprises a biographical sketch and a survey of Powers’s work through Morte d’Urban. Gives extensive attention to Powers’s stories. Includes a useful bibliography.Long, J. V. “Clerical Character(s).” Commonweal, May 8, 1998, 11-14. Long offers a retrospective analysis of the leading characters in Morte d’Urban and Wheat That Springeth Green and the sacred-versus-secular issues confronting them. It is an interesting look back in the light of changes in American Catholicism since the 1950’s.McCarthy, Colman. “The Craft of J. F. Powers.” The Washington Post, June 12, 1993, p. A21. A brief tribute to Powers, commenting on his teaching and fiction, and recounting an interview, in which Powers laments the fact that college students do not read any more.Meyers, Jeffrey. “J. F. Powers: Uncollected Stories, Essays and Interviews, 1943-1979.” Bulletin of Bibliography 44 (March, 1987): 38-39. Because Powers has published relatively little in his long career, it is particularly useful to have a list of his uncollected stories. The essays and interviews listed here provide valuable background.Powers, J. F. “The Alphabet God Uses.” Interview by Anthony Schmitz. Minnesota Monthly 22 (December, 1988): 34-39. At the time of this interview, occasioned by the publication of Powers’s novel Wheat That Springeth Green, Schmitz himself had just published his first novel, which also deals with the Catholic clergy. He makes an ideal interviewer, and his conversation with Powers provides an excellent introduction to the man and his works.Powers, Katherine A. “Reflections of J. F. Powers: Author, Father, Clear-Eyed Observer.” The Boston Globe, July 18, 1999, p. K4. A reminiscence of Powers by his daughter; discusses the writers that most influenced Powers, particularly his admiration for Evelyn Waugh, and comments on his writing and reading habits.Preston, Thomas R. “Christian Folly in the Fiction of J. F. Powers.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 16, no. 2 (1974): 91-107. The theme of the “fool for Christ,” whose actions confound the wisdom of this world, has a long tradition. Focusing on the stories “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does” and “The Forks” and the novel Morte d’ Urban, Preston explores Powers’s handling of this theme, showing how Powers uses priests as protagonists, not to dwell on concerns peculiar to the priesthood but rather to illumine the nature of the Christian life. See also Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 2 (Fall, 1958), a special issue devoted to Powers and Flannery O’Connor.Votteler, Thomas, ed. Short Story Criticism: Excerpts from Criticism of the Works of Short Fiction Writers. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990. Contains a chapter on Powers with a good selection of criticism on his short fiction.
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