Interesting article for the bookish among us....


....over at First Things On the Square. Joseph Bottum discusses Catholic writer J. F. Powers, and why, though he might have been one of the greatest Catholic writers of the 20th century, his moment is over.

Here are the last three paragraphs:

It wasn’t simply an ironic contrast, though in his weaker stories it sometimes devolved to that. It was rather a somewhat narrow, somewhat overspecialized, but extremely efficient device for the fiction writer’s task of showing human life as the intersection of the mundane and the divine. And the catastrophic collapse of religious vocations through the 1970s—together with the defections from the religious life and the failure of nerve with which the American clergy abandoned the clerical authority that had held together the parish system—stripped Powers of a major part of his specialist’s vocation.

Of course, the days of Victorian confidence in the Anglican hierarchy are even further gone than Powers’ subject, yet Anthony Trollope’s accounts of infighting among the wardens and archdeacons of Barchester cathedral and George Eliot’s Scenes of Clerical Life survive as great fiction nonetheless.

But Powers had narrowed his vision down to a point where it could not survive the passing of its moment. He had a prose that was unmatched by anyone in his time; the concluding lines of his stories are all so delicate and perfect that it sometimes seemed as though his stories were written just to provide an excuse for their closing sentences. In “Defection of a Favorite,” he pulls off with perfect humor and grace the almost technically impossible feat of a story narrated by the parish cat. In “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” he gives the most moving interior description of dying since Tolstoy. He really was the finest American Catholic writer of the twentieth century. And that century is over.

You know, I had not really thought it possible that you could be a "greatest writer" of any time or place, yet have that disappear. It's worth thinking through.

We read Powers' novel Morte d'Urban in my book club. I thought it was excellent. I have also read some of his short stories, but not many. Maybe, after my Autumn Reading Challenge, I will have to take them off the shelf and read again.

When J. F. Powers died, he had a very simple funeral, with a single hymn sung--Wheat That Springeth Green--the title of which he had used for his second novel. I will have the same hymn sung at my funeral one of these days:

Now the green blade rises from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many years has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

In the grave they laid Him, Love Whom we had slain,
Thinking that He’d never wake to life again,
Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Up He sprang at Easter, like the risen grain,
He that for three days in the grave had lain;
Up from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

When our hearts are wintry, grieving or in pain,
By Your touch You call us back to life again;
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springs up green.

Sung to the tune Noel Nouvelet.



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This page contains a single entry by MamaT published on September 8, 2006 6:41 AM.

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