I had never read J.F. Powers when a collection of his short stories was published by New York Review of Books Classics in 2000. Ten years later I’m still wrapping copies of the book on birthdays and holidays. And to the recipients of this most generous gift, the man is always a stranger. He’s buried not far from Minneapolis in a cemetery at St. John’s University, where he taught. John Rosengren, a former student of Powers, has written a delightful appreciation of the life and work of Mr. Powers for Portland:
Quite simply, J.F. Powers was a literary giant. His first novel … won the 1963 National Book Award, for which Vladimir Nabokov, John Updike, and Katherine Anne Porter were also nominated … Powers’ pen pal Flannery O’Connor sought his comments on her work and wrote him that “I admire your stories better than any others I know.”
Not bad. Rosengren swallows some pride and shares some of Powers’ scribblings from the margins of the young student’s short fiction. “Where I’d written ‘A twinge of anxiety shot into his gut,'” Rosengren writes, “he’s penciled THIS IS A GOOD EXAMPLE OF A BAD SENTENCE. STUDY IT.” During a meeting in Powers’ pristine office, he remarked to Rosengren, “God doesn’t like crap in art.”
There was a brilliant absurdity to the way Powers talked and wrote about his theology. Rosengren gives us a taste. “I figure you have to make a bet,” Powers told him once. “You can’t go to the horse races and not make a bet. You can’t go through this life and just be a spectator without ever laying it on the line. I’m betting on God to win, not to show.” And here’s Powers in an interview with the St. John’s literary magazine:
There is a common quality in all art; in a sense that really good paintings, sculpture, music, writing have. I can’t name it. It has something to do with God-given spirit, going beyond oneself. I think it’s possible to write something, for me to write something, that even God might like. It’s possible for me to hit a note, to get in a mood, to write something that is worthy even of God’s attention. Not as a soul seeking salvation, but just as entertainment for God. This may be blasphemous to say, but I believe it. I don’t think God is there and we’re here, and there are no connections. I think there are connections, and I think art is certainly one.
Source: Portland (article not yet available online)
Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.