Fifty years ago this week J. F. Powers published his first novel and masterpiece Morte D’Urban, a satirical study of a Catholic priest who, tempted by the worldly rewards of popular preaching, nevertheless remains “true to his vow of poverty — to the spirit, though, rather than the letter.”

Powers (1917–1999) wrote about parish priests, wrote about them almost exclusively, from the first publication of his first story in a little magazine in 1944. His priests are now familiar types in popular culture, but Powers was the first to dramatize the man of God whose spiritual vocation has disappeared into fundraising and “pastoral” work, which is a fancy name for social visits with aging congregants. “What gave his fiction its force,” Joseph Bottum wrote in calling Powers the greatest Catholic writer of the 20th century, “was the contrast between those little foibles of priestly life and the constantly looming reality of what a priest actually does in the sacraments.”

Nowhere does Power display the contrast more powerfully than in Morte D’Urban. The main character, “fifty-four, tall and handsome but a trifle loose in the jowls and red of eye,” belongs to the Order of St. Clement (a religious order founded by J. F. Powers):

In Europe, the Clementines hadn’t (it was always said) recovered from the French Revolution. It was certain that they hadn’t even really got going in the New World. Their history revealed little to brag about — one saint (the Holy Founder [Powers’s private joke]) and a few bishops of missionary sees, no theologians worthy of the name, no original thinkers, not even a scientist. The Clementines were unique in that they were noted for nothing at all. They were in bad shape all over the world.

Father Urban’s job is to improve their shape, if only financially: He “stumped the country, preaching retreats and parish missions, and did the work of a dozen men.”

The novel begins, appropriately enough, with a fundraising appeal. “For nineteen cents a day, my friends, you can clothe, feed, and educate a young man for the priesthood,” Father Urban says. “For nineteen cents a day, my friends. Tax deductible. By the way, should you want them later, you’ll find pledge cards and pencils in the pew beside you.” He is afraid that Rome is about to begin a “re-evaluation of religious orders, a culling of the herd.” (Powers was prescient in anticipating Pope Paul VI’s and 1965 decree on religious orders, which directed them to “promote among their members an adequate knowledge of the social conditions of the times they live in and of the needs of the Church,” so that “they may be able to assist men more effectively.”) The Clementines exert little influence. Without a “new approach,” Father Urban fears they will be among the first to go. The rest of the novel is the chronicle of his attempts, increasingly hilarious, increasingly baffled, to prod his order closer to “the fast-changing world of today.”

Powers’s subject is usually described as a uniquely Catholic subject, although elsewhere I have called it the basic problem of being religious. Brian Fallon, a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Saint Louis, gives a good Catholic wording to it: “why would God entrust His Church to a bunch of fishermen and tax collectors?” The problem is not a uniquely Catholic problem, but Powers catches the uniquely Catholic angle on it and in a uniquely Catholic idiom. Perhaps this explains why, after struggling against the designation “Catholic writer,” Powers eventually acquiesced to it. [Editor’s note: But see below.]

Morte D’Urban is not a novel for Catholics only, however. It is a personal favorite of mine, and always will be, because I read it while sickest from chemotherapy. Afraid of death, I was diverted by Father Urban’s.

The novel won the National Book Award for fiction in 1963, although Robert Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times said the year half a century ago was “an arid year for fiction” (Powers beat out Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools, Dawn Powell’s The Golden Spur, Clancy Sigal’s Going Away, and John Updike’s Pigeon Feathers). In his acceptance speech Powers told an anecdote about his daughter Jane, who brought a story she had written for her father’s reaction. “A good, strong story line, dialogue, description, and characterization,” he recalled — “all excellent. But I was beginning to wonder, as the story got better and better, how it would all end. To wonder, yes, and to worry.” Jane’s story stopped in the middle of a sentence. “There, in that little scene,” Powers continued, “I can see the power and the glory of the storyteller — and the responsibility evaded. ‘The man of letters,’ Allen Tate has said, ‘must recreate for his age the image of man, and he must propagate standards by which other men may test that image, and distinguish the false from the true.’ ”

A profound truth, profoundly understated: the novelist carries out his responsibility, recreates his image of man, in how it all ends. By the end of the novel, Father Urban has become Father Provincial (a Jesuit term, which Powers borrows for rather different purposes), the head of the Clementines’ Midwest territory. Debilitated by headaches that leave him disoriented and mute, he takes to opening his breviary and closing his eyes between the waves of the attacks. “Thus he tried to disguise his condition from others,” Powers says, “and thus, without wishing to, he gained a reputation for piety he hadn’t had before, which, however, was not entirely unwarranted now.” This sentence, with its most important content tucked away in an afterthought, is characteristic of his style — as is Powers’s disinclination to say anything more about Father Urban’s newfound piety. The message is pretty clear, though. In the end, Father Urban abandons “the fast-changing world of today” for the presence of grace (that’s the title of Powers’s second collection of stories, published seven years after Morte D’Urban). The mysteries of the sacraments prove to be his vocation, and the Church’s true reality.

Mary Gordon predicts sadly that Powers will not be remembered. He belongs, after all, to the Glossy Age of American fiction when more writers than ever before were adept at perfecting a verbal surface. Powers’s prose is not loud and insistent: his mode is irony, and if Bottum is to be believed, the tenor of his irony, the social institution of the American priesthood in the second half of the 20th century, is gone for good. Yet readers still manage to stumble across Morte D’Urban, 50 years after its publication (thanks to NYRB Classics, it remains in print). And I wouldn’t bet against readers continuing to stumble across copies of it in another 50 years.

Update: J. F. Powers’s daughter Katherine A. Powers, who is editing a collection of her father’s letters to be called Suitable Accommodations: An Unwritten Story of Family Life (and herself a distinguished literary critic who writes a book column for the Barnes & Noble Review known as “A Reading Life”), wrote to correct one thing I say above. J. F. Powers, she writes, “never did reconcile himself to the label of ‘Catholic writer,’ but only occasionally rejected it publicly as such rejections were certain to be construed (he believed) as rejecting the Church — which he did not, though her embrace of mediocrity and banality, especially in the liturgy, and dereliction of duty in the matter of predatory priests was an increasingly difficult thing to bear.”

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