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

In “Suitable Accommodations,’’ the private life of writer J.F. Powers is revealed through 20 years of his correspondence.

Russell Roe

In “Suitable Accommodations,’’ the private life of writer J.F. Powers is revealed through 20 years of his correspondence.

“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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Powers’s novels and stories are notable for their deadpan humor — dry wit with all the wet squeezed out of it. Robert Frost once called such humor the “most engaging cowardice,” a way of self-protection evident only when one listened closely. Notable as well are sequences of discomfort, like Father Urban’s exile to the Clementine order in rural Minnesota, as presided over by the hopeless Father Wilfrid in “Morte D’Urban;” or Father Joe Hackett’s attempt, in “Wheat That Springeth Green,” to reform his new curate’s informal sartorial habits, such as a T-shirt with “What’s up” on the front, jeans, and sandals: “I see somebody in a suit wearing sandals and I don’t mean a priest, I mean anybody, I want to throw up.” Katharine Powers remarks that as the children grew older and became exposed to American popular culture, her father viewed their corruption “with appalled incredulity.”

Although Powers may have realized that his fiction was caviare to the crowd, he was not content to be admired only by fellow artists like Katharine Anne Porter (after whom his daughter was named), Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell, and others. When his first novel, “Morte D’Urban” was finally published in 1962 and won the National Book Award, he was dispirited by its sales, and wrote fellow writer and admirer Evelyn Waugh that he guessed he was a short-story writer rather than a novelist. For all the many attractive parts of “Morte D’Urban” and “Wheat That Springeth Green,” he may have been right, since the books feel episodic, cobbled together, with previously published stories like “Bill” and “Priestly Fellowship” bulking large in “Wheat That Springeth Green.” In retrospect, it seems reasonable to conclude that his oblique, inevitably playful passages couldn’t possibly result in the “good story” that would bring readers by the thousands.

One of his letters quotes a couplet from Samuel Johnson’s poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes” — “Yet hope not life from pain or danger free,/ Nor think the doom of man revers’d for thee” — and opines that there were times when he thought he could escape that doom. But it was not to be; over the course of the marriage there were more than 20 moves in search of the suitable accommodations that never materialized. In later years Powers was to survive his wife’s death and to publish little. Despite the “inalterable sadness” of these letters, Katharine Powers feels she has brought “order to a situation where there was little,” resulting for her in “a certain amounts of peace.” The qualified care of this declaration seems appropriate to the remarkable and remarkably inconsolable man who was her father.

William H. Pritchard teaches English at Amherst College.
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