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Book Report: Doing a father, and a graceful writer, proud

“Suitable Accommodations—An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.” Katherine A. Powers, editor. 450 pages. Farrar, Straus & Giroux; $35. (Frank Scherschel/Time Life Pictures via Getty)

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, Jon Hassler and Tim O’Brien.

Seldom, in my experience, has the name J.F. Powers popped up in this or that pantheon of gopher 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. Evelyn Waugh, the great British novelist even paid Powers and his wife, the St. Cloud, Minn., writer Betty Wahl, a visit in St. Paul when he toured the U.S. in the 1950s.

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, as usual, were laudatory but because Powers new young editor had little knowledge of its author, he ordered a small first printing that sold immediately and while readers waited for another printing, enthusiasm cooled off.

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, Minn.

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.”

Did he take too much time on each sentence, or what?

His St. John’s colleague Jon Hassler told me that he had invited Powers to Hassler’s writing class one day. A student asked him what he had been doing.

Powers replied, “I’ve been pondering whether to have my protagonist call his friend ‘buddy’ or ‘pal.’”

The student asked him what he had decided and Powers replied, “I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

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. (Too much trouble?)    

A few weeks later, I lunched with George Plimpton and told him about Powers, and he asked me if I would interview him for Plimpton’s prestigious “Paris Review.”

I agreed and excitedly called Powers, who said “I’ll pass on that. It’s more trouble than it’s worth.”

And so that was that. 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 letters 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 letters are hilarious, others depressive, many of them touching as was his love letters to Betty Wahl, all of them written with Powers’ sure hand and backed up with his daughters well written and wryly insightful knowledge, 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.

I think it’s instructive that these letters were saved by the recipients and handed over to the daughter. Very few letters to Powers are included, probably because he didn’t save them (“More trouble than they were worth”?)

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.

I believe that Katharine Powers has done her father proud. And also the readers who admiredhim so much and want one more shot at him.


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