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An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers, 1942-1963

by J.F. Powers edited by Katherine A. Powers

Pub Date: Aug. 20th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-374-26806-0
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

His daughter’s selection of correspondence reveals the American Catholic writer as immature, irresponsible and hard to live with.

Not that his wife and children got much time with J.F. Powers (1917–1999), who preferred solitude or the company of male friends to family life. He told his wife before they married that he wasn’t the domestic type and she should not look for him to maintain a steady income. Powers always avoided Thanksgiving and Christmas with his wife’s relatives, choosing instead to spend the holidays with old schoolmates or other friends. Many of these were priests, and Powers drew heavily upon their careers and experiences for his first novel, the 1963 National Book Award–winning Morte d’Urban, the story of a priest banished to the backwoods. Catholic writing flourished in the mid-20th century, and Powers contributed to the many magazines of the religious left and right. Nonetheless, he was constantly low on money and often took short-term teaching jobs that enabled him to relocate and leave his loved ones behind. At the same time, he was obsessed with the artist's relationship to his house and fixated on finding just the right place to live. The family moved constantly, three times to Ireland, and Powers insisted on his own space in each building. Even with that, he rented separate quarters so he would have a private place to work and write letters. His correspondence constantly references his work but mostly to say conditions were just too difficult for him to create. This volume would be more interesting if it included letters from others, particularly his long-suffering wife, but perhaps these would have only made it more distasteful by further exposing a character who comes across as completely self-absorbed and selfish.

Thoroughly disenchanting: Powers' admirers would do better to reread his stories or novels.