Look what came in the mail…


Long awaited (at least by me) – Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963. 

It’s been edited  by the author’s daughter Katherine A. Powers, and an uncorrected proof copy was sent to me, unsolicited. They must think I’m some sort of Powers scholar – and given half a chance I would be…

Already dipped into the thing – and lots of gems in the introduction by Ms. Powers:

“Well before the publication of his first novel Morte D’Urban in 1962, my father…planed to write a novel about ‘family life,’ an intention that persisted for the rest of his life. … The man falls in love, gets married, has numerous children – but has neither money nor home. He finds no pleasant ease and little of the fellowship of like minds he associated with the literary life [he didn’t have Korrektiv] he had thought was to be his own. The novel would be called Flesh, a word infused with Jansenist distaste, conveying a bleak comedy and terrible bathos of high aesthetic and spiritual aspiration in hopeless contest with human needs and material necessity.”

“The letters that make up this story begin with Him at age twenty-five and the acceptance for publication of his first short story. They then leap forward to letters from prison [where Powers, a pacifist, served time as a conscientious objector during WWII] and on through those recording high hopes, great promise, and a passionate courtship and marriage to Betty Wahl. Then comes the black comedy of children, five all told, great poverty, bad luck, and balked creativity. Central to this progression is the matter of where and how to live. Jim’s married life was dominated by the search for ‘suitable accommodations,’ for a house that would reflect and foster the high calling of the artist. In the course of their married life… the couple moved more than twenty times.”

And one more:

“In his letters to his friends…He often adopted a tone of macabre relish for the hopelessness of his situation: the absence of a house, the presence of many children and a desperate wife, the amount of time he had spent on the mechanics of life, the piddling nature of his daily doings, and his longing for and lack of camaraderie.

“‘We have her no lasting home’ was his constant refrain, drawing, with feigned smugness, on Christian teaching… In any case, the phrase always had the torque of a joke, for the Powerses were forever on the move, leaving some houses out of the urge to quit the country (whichever one it happened to be at the time [America or Ireland]), laving other houses because they were taken by eminent domain or sold out from under them. But Jim also meant the statement as a summary of his essential belief: that life on earth doesn’t make sense and that when you understood that, you understood reality. Still, for a person who held that the world is an obstacle-strewn journey toward one’s proper home (heaven), he was more than ordinarily affronted by hardship and adversity, to say nothing of mediocrity and dullness. He was no stoic, and he took it all personally.”

Then Ms. powers quotes one of her father’s 1979 letter to her, who was “then thirty-one and living, as were his other children, far away: ‘You referred to [Powers’ son] Boz’s plan for me to make a lot of money so we can move back to Ireland. He may be right. I see it as idealism, but what else would work for our family? A big house not too far from Dublin, [daughter] Jane weaving and dyeing in one room, [son]Hugh philosophizing and botanizing in another, Boz and family in one wing, [daughter] Mary etching in one tower, Katherine reading in another, Mama in the garden, Daddy with The Irish Times and The Daily Telegraph in his study.’

“To which scheme I say to myself now, as I did then: Oh, dear.”



  1. Matthew Lickona says


    • Yes. come to think of it, I think someone’s birthday is coming up, isn’t it?


    • Been digging into Morte D’Urban after checking it out of the library. Engrossing read. How come I’ve never heard of this Powers fellow? Always find the best things here.

      • Paul,

        Yes, and if his novels (Morte D’Urban being the better of the two) are a good, finely balanced cocktail (why does it always come back to this trope, I wonder?) then his short stories are each a stiff belt of whiskey. I can’t decided which I recommend more – because MD’U is in its own way unlike anything else ever written – although you could perhaps make the case that it’s Diary of a Country Priest American Style….

        Once upon a time I even gave the story a voice – http://korrektivpress.com/2008/05/morte-durban-on-catholic-radio-international/.

        Happy reading.


        • Wow. I would never MD’U as Diary of a Country Priest. I think I must see Urban in an entirely different light than you do.

          Also, I really like Wheat That Springeth Green. The two are so different that I would have a hard time measuring one against the other.


          • Janet,

            No, you’re quite right – there is very little the two have in common. However, I suppose that’s what I was trying to say, sort of.

            To the extent, though, that a lonely, introverted pastor characterizes Gallic Catholicism, the extroverted, glad-handing celebrity priest is very much an American phenomenon. In the end, though, what Urban and the priest of Ambricourt have in common is the same inability to “win through” to the Cosgroves and Chantals in their lives. Maybe that’s not saying much, but I think it interesting that both are challenged not by the urban [sic] but by the rural people and settings with which they’re matched.

            At any rate, I don’t hold this assertion too tightly and will defer to you should the comparison seem to superficial.


            • Well, this is kind of amusing. After I wrote that comment, I wrote to the friend who originally introduced me to JFP and asked him about what you had said. He agreed with you, and when I asked why, he gave exactly the same reason that you did. I was thinking that he was looking at it from a completely different angle than I was because he is an Englishman living in Belgium, and so the “American” was what jumped out at him. He was thinking about their roles–American priest/French priest, while I was comparing their personalities. So, I see exactly what you mean now.

              I still see something in Urban that you haven’t mentioned, but I’m going to go read it before I saw anything more because it’s been a while and maybe it will seem different this time around.


  2. By the way, Morte D’Urban is only $2.83 in the Kindle store today for some reason.

    • Moving market trends with all the easy glide of groundskeepers at Yankee Stadium rolling the rain tarps on and off the field…That’s the power of the Korrektiv!


    • Well, thank you for this. I’ve been wanting to read it again and my copy disintegrated page by page the last time I read it.


  3. Hey! Hey! I’m some kind of Powers scholar. Well, ummm, I’ve read a lot of his stuff.

    I’m so jealous.


    • That’s pretty much where I am – except for an all-too-short piece in OSV (which I can’t link to because it’s link is subscription-only) on Powers.


      • I first became consciously aware of Mr. Powers when a friend noted sadly on a message board that Powers had died. Since Paul is the sort of friend whose recommendations are almost always good, I started reading all the Powers that I could get my hands on. I realized after a bit that I had read (as I imagine many, many people have) a short story by Powers, called The Old Bird, in an HBJ high school textbook. I had remembered the story, but not the author’s name. Thus, when my 63 year old husband informed me that he had gotten a job in a mail room, my first thought was, “Oh crap, now we are doomed.” It’s turned out all right, though.


  4. Interesting, I didn’t know all that about Powers. Like many, until recently I thought he was a priest.

    Thanks so much.

  5. I just started reading this book last night. Anyone else read it?


    • I finished it soon after the above edition came to my desk. Any insights?

      I thought after reading it that I got a better picture of the man – and it was more clear than ever that only J. F. Powers could write a J.F. Powers story, if that makes sense. Put another way, his unique personality shone through his letters in a way that made it clearer – if not perfectly so – from whence he had derived his unique voice in fiction.

      As others – reviewers and such – have pointed out, his recklessness with and yet love for his family was an interesting tension. He was devoted to his wife – unless he was devoted to his craft for which his wife and family suffered seemingly interminable insults. And yet, in all other ways, you could see that he loved his wife, his faith, his children, etc.

      Also, some harsh words for Archbishop Sheen, which I suspect he infused somewhat into his portrait of Father Urban.

      I wish there were more letters between him and Robert Lowell. There is the faint trace of – what? – sorrow, balefulness? – in their correspondence, as if Powers knew Lowell wasn’t long for the Catholic faith.


  6. My Kindle informs me that I have only read 14% of the book thus far, so I not even reached Jim and Betty’s wedding. So far, my main thought is that based on his letters I would not have married Jim, but then I don’t think you get any kind of an idea of what it was that attracted them to one another.

    Aside from that, what really strikes me is the way it reminds me of other things. First and foremost is that I keep contrasting him to Tolkien, whose situation was so similar, and yet, seemed to bear it in a different way–although it’s been several years since I read T’s letters.

    Then it reminds me of Jim and Betty (Elizabeth) Elliot–because of the names, but also because of some of their pre-nuptial correspondence which I read long ago.

    And lastly, it reminds me of all my old Caelum et Terra friends and correspondents.


    • Caelum et Terra! O pioneers!

    • I was particularly amused in the letters by the passing references Powers made to the “Family Life” movement (I don’t think he ever fully embraced it, but I could be wrong on that) – Amused, I say, in part because of the tone of familarity to it – as my own in-laws were in on a similar sort of thing in my diocese (also Upper Midwest) – in fact, they were instrumental in getting NFP noticed (if not accepted) by the Church American in general.

      That said, the family life stuff is fun mostly because it dances a bit with the tensions of the so-called laity movement which would explode during and in the wake of V2. I wonder if Powers didn’t see or least get an inkling of where it was all heading – south and fast.


      • If Waugh was bitter, would you say Powers was sour?

      • He seems so interested in the Family Movement and yet so antipathetic to the family. It was rather strange to me. After I read the letters that he wrote to his wife after her miscarriage, I thought I might have to quit reading the book because I wanted so badly to smack the tar out of him, and knew that I couldn’t.

        It got better after that.


        • Matthew Lickona says

          From “J.F. Powers, RIP” by Jon Hassler:

          I recalled a conversation about the church’s teaching on children some years earlier. “Betty and I weren’t meant to have children,” I was told by Jim, father of five. “Our mistake was getting mixed up in that Catholic business called Family Life years ago. That was for farmers, not for us, but we didn’t know any better.”

          Betty chuckled, listening to this. I asked her, “Do you agree with him?” She merely chuckled some more.

          Jim said, “She knows it’s true but she won’t admit it. She tells herself it was good for us to have children, but it really wasn’t her calling. It’s like trying to run the hurdles all your life and discovering too late your talent was for the breaststroke.”

          • But this warms the cockles of my incense-befogged and fiddlebacked heart:

            “Filing outside after Mass, we stood around in the June sunshine shaking hands, which, out of respect for Jim’s disdain for the practice, we’d been asked to refrain from doing before Communion. It occurred to me that with the death of J. F. Powers, St. John’s, the center of liturgical renewal, may have lost its last holdout against change.”



            • Yes, JOB, there quite a few things in the book like that that made me happy. And while he talks about his family in that negative way, you can also see in the some of the letters that while he’s not too thrilled to have to give them his time, he IS giving them his time and playing with them, etc.


              • Actually, that was from the Hassler – but there WERE similar things in the book, weren’t there? If nothing else, it made clear that even a “radical” as Gopnik calls him is attached to the liturgy in a way that forms the soul beyond the “smells and bells.”

                The Catholic author is more often interested in sacrifice than he is a shared meal, an altar rather than a dinner table, a vertical hoisting rather than a horizontal schmoozing…

                Not that the latter can’t be transformed into the former, but there’s a reason Walt Whitman isn’t in the same league as Dante.


  7. There is no shortage of good reviews out there now on the book, but I thought I would pass along the URL to my review from the October American Spectator:


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