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‘Suitable Accommodations: The Letters of J.F. Powers’

“He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune: for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.” Francis Bacon’s words serve as epigraph to Katharine Powers’s fascinating autobiographical story, “Suitable Accommodations,’’ told through 20 years of her father’s correspondence. J.F. Powers had more than once proposed to write a book about “family life”; this he failed to do, but his daughter suggests that these letters may serve as a substitute. Indeed they do, with “wit and drollery and festive turns of phrase,” as she puts it in an afterword, and also with large lashings of acidulous complaint. A few days after his marriage in 1946, Powers wrote the editor of Accent magazine, where his first story had recently been published, to inform another editor “in case he wants to offer up a litany or two for my wife and me. It will be rough and tough on both of us, no doubt.”

There is no doubt that the prophecy was fulfilled. As a Roman Catholic connected to various radical Catholic groups in the Midwest advocating detachment from material things (“detachers” they were called), Powers had already declined military service in World War II, had spent 13 months in prison, then served the rest of his term as a hospital orderly. “Working isn’t what it’s cracked up to be by people who don’t do it and by those who do but haven’t desire or imagination enough to know the difference.” This typically complicated explanation of why he was not about to work in a bookstore in his wife’s hometown of St. Cloud, Minn., is vintage Powers in its intransigent refusal to engage in anything that would impede his life as a writer. Occasionally and reluctantly he did some teaching, but looked upon it as a waste of time: “The truth about me is that I just don’t qualify as the ideal husband,” he informed his wife, something she must have known already. One of the things Powers attempted to exercise “detacher” control over was his own marriage, even as, beginning with the editor of this volume, the children piled up (five in all).

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