Book Report: J.F. Powers a great Minnesota writer

It’s commonplace for Minnesota readers to get together and talk about the state’s greatest novelists. Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald are generally recalled in one breath. Younger folks will, of course, remember Louise Erdrich and Jon Hassler and Tim O’Brien.

Seldom, in my experience, has the name J.F. Powers popped up this or that pantheon of state novelists.

And that’s a shame because Powers most certainly belongs right up there. I first read Powers in 1956, when I was assigned “The Valiant Woman,” a short story that appeared in Robert Penn Warren’s anthology of “Best American Short Stories,” a bible in the business.

Fellow writers lauded the young Powers. John Berryman called him “the best prose writer in America” and Jonathan Raban wrote that he was one of the funniest, most socially exact, most heartrending, and most thoroughly enjoyable writers alive.”

In 1963, Powers published “Morte d’Urban,” which won the National Book Award. It’s a book about a Roman Catholic priest at odds with his church. (A typical subject for Powers, who described his attraction to the topic, “box office poison.)

And then, almost nothing, but a few short stories. A quarter century later, he finally published his second fine novel, “Wheat that Springeth Green,” which came within a vote or two of receiving the National Book Critics Circle Award for the year’s best novel.

The reviews were laudatory and it was then that I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Powers at his modest little cottage on the campus of St. John’s University, in Collegeville. I had heard stories that he was difficult, but we hit it off from the start. I asked him why so little production after all these years? He smiled and said “If I were a dog they would whip me.”

When “Wheat that Springeth Green” appeared, he asked me to introduce him to a St. Paul audience at the University Club. He said he hadn’t made the long trip from St. Cloud to the Twin Cities for several years. Powers died in 1999.

But there’s more. A few weeks ago I received a phone call from Powers’ daughter Katherine A. Powers, a prominent Boston reviewer.

She told me she had just finished editing her father’s letter up to 1963 and that her father had told her to get in touch with me if she ever edited them. And that’s how I became the proud owner of “Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life” edited by Katharine A. Powers (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $35).

It’s a fabulous book full of letters to big shot writers like Robert Lowell, politicians like Gene McCarthy and priests like the progressive Harvey Eagan. Some of the letters are hilarious, others depressive, mainly of them touching as with his love letters to Betty Wall, all of them written with Powers’ sure hand and backed up with his daughters well written and wryly insightful filling-in-the-blanks about the writer, his wife  and their five children, living out in the woods in Stearns County or at a country place in Ireland.

This wonderful collection reads like a novel, a novel that Powers had always meant to write, but never did, because he couldn’t because the topic was too sensitive.

The novel he planned was to be a novel of family life, not the typical “box office poison” of the parish priest, but a family like the Powers clan, struggling to survive, struggling to get along with two writers in the same bed, struggling with doubt and certainty.

Editor’s note: Dave Wood is a past vice-president of the National Book Critic Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.  Phone him at 715-426-9554.

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