Saturday, August 05, 2017

J.F. Powers and cloaks of invisibility

Betty Powers, with J.F. Powers and their daughter
There is an interesting piece in Commonweal ("His Bleak Materials")by Jeffrey Meyers on Catholic novelist J.F. Powers. I've read Morte D'Urban and several other of Powers' stories, and found Meyers' perspective on his priest characters intriguing, casting them as ordinary men with no special talents trying to negotiate their way through the thickets of the world and the church, despite the seemingly (and perhaps truly) irreconcilable differences between these spheres.  I can relate.

I was more intrigued by Meyers' lead into the article, which sketches a monastic version of Powers' life (he lived near St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, a place I've spent time writing and retreating).  He describes Powers' doing his laundry on his knees in a rusty bathtub, and his "hairshirt house" — drab, shabby and cold.  It's a sharply unromantic view of a writer's hermitage.

But where is Mrs. Powers in this sketch?  Powers was married and had five children. Were they perhaps living elsewhere?  No, they were not.  At least one other person lived in that hairshirt house, but somehow she has been rubbed out of this particular picture of Powers. It made me think about The Astronauts Wives which I recently read, and how many of them had been majoring in STEM fields, but dropped out when they married, their other selves tucked into a drawer or a footnote.

Betty Powers née Wahl is not neglected in John Rosengren's memories of Powers ("The Gospel according to J. F. Powers").  Next time I'm in Collegeville's cemetery, I will look for her grave.  She was a promising fiction writer when Powers was introduced to her by one of her professors at St. Ben's and continued to write and to publish after she was married.

Powers died while folding his own laundry.  An ordinary task.

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