Wheat That Springeth Green, p.1J.F. Powers
J.F. POWERS (1917–1999) was born in Jacksonville, Illinois and studied at Northwestern University while holding a variety of jobs in Chicago and working on his writing. He published his first stories in The Catholic Worker and, as a pacifist, spent thirteen months in prison during World War II. Powers was the author of three collections of short stories and two novels—Morte D’Urban, which won the National Book Award, and Wheat That Springeth Green—all of which have been reissued by New York Review Books. He lived in Ireland and the United States and taught for many years at St John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.
KATHERINE A. POWERS’s column on books and writers ran for many years in The Boston Globe and now appears in The Barnes & Noble Review under the title “A Reading Life.” She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life—The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963, forthcoming in 2013.
WHEAT THAT SPRINGETH GREEN
KATHERINE A. POWERS
NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS
This is a New York Review Book
Published by The New York Review of Books
435 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014
Copyright © J.F. Powers 1988
Introduction copyright © 2000 by Katherine A. Powers
All rights reserved.
Reprinted by arrangement with the Estate of J.F. Powers
First published by Alfred A. Knopf, 1988
Words from “Now the Green Blade Riseth”: John Macleod Campbell Crum (1872–1958).
From The Oxford Book of Carols © Oxford University Press.
Used by permission. All rights reserved
Cover image: Bill Owens, Untitled, from Suburbia. All rights reserved.
Cover design: Katy Homans
The Library of Congress has cataloged the earlier printing as follows:
Powers, J.F. (James Farl), 1917–
Wheat that springeth green / by J.F. Powers ; introduction by
ISBN 0-940322-24-2 (pbk.)
1. Catholic Church—Middle West—Clergy—Fiction. 2. Vietnamese
Conflict, 1961-1975—Middle West—Influence—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3566.O84 W4 2000
813'.54—dc 21 99-052324
For a complete list of books in the NYRB Classics series, visit www.nyrb.com or write to:
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Copyright and More Information
Wheat That Springeth Green
1. See Me
2. Carrying the Cross
3. Looking Up Skirts
4. At the Sem
6. Out in the World
7. Carrying On
8. The Rectory and Thereabout
9. In Jeopardy
10. Good News
16. Priestly Fellowship
17. Priestly Fellowship Continued
18. Priestly Fellowship Concluded
19. Bad News
20. The Mustache Job
21. The Crunch
22. Roomy Two-Hearted Rectory
23. Pastoral and Homiletic
24. An Inspector Calls
25. Another Inspector Calls
26. Another Inspector Calls
28. The Geek Act
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift . . .
ECCLESIASTES, IX, 11
THE ORIGINAL TITLE given by my father to this, his second and final novel—a work that took almost twenty-five years to finish—was The Sack Race. It was called that in the ancient contract he signed with Knopf and in notes and story lines and countless manuscript versions. Though dropped from the title, a sack race remains a pivotal event in the book and serves, too, as a metaphor for the priesthood. In the novel, as in Ecclesiastes, the race does not go to the swift, while much of the action does indeed take place “under the sun”—the sweat and heat of summer being synonymous with the human condition in my father’s mind.
It was in reference to The Sack Race that, year after year, this master of the art of tinkering and procrastination wrote a penitential letter of regret to Robert Gottlieb, his editor at Knopf. (He kept the folded drafts of these annual notes clipped together in his desk drawer as a scourge.) At some point, though, out of this great weight of paper, time, and inertia, the book was born again as Wheat That Springeth Green.
He found the phrase—the title and last line of a medieval carol—while paging through a hymnal and was struck by the rightness of the words. The hymn’s message, too, was a powerful antidote to despondency. In the years he was working on the novel, he passed from being a middle-aged man with bright prospects to one of threescore and ten; and while, perversely, he found it inconceivable that he himself would die, he marked the death of his mother and his father, and witnessed the dying torments of his wife. These events shocked him to the core.
Written over an increasingly dark time, Wheat That Springeth Green was shaped by my father’s growing conviction of the progressive and irredeemable absurdity of things. He was a connoisseur of the dull, the mediocre and the second-rate, and of the disingenuous and fraudulent, but now it seemed that their dominion was truly come. Stupidity, obliviousness, and credulousness had taken over. The quality of food, drink, tobacco, transportation, conversation, religious practice, and art was in sharp decline. And people die: they just check out, are gone, leaving a whole bunch of junk behind.
Yet, in spite of everything, he did not despair. He possessed what G.K. Chesterton called “Christian optimism,” a paradoxical optimism “based on the fact that we do not fit in the world,” that every awful thing, every dismal victory of the moronic and specious, is just another confirmation that what happens under the sun is not reality, that we have here, as he took satisfaction in saying, no lasting home. In a contrarian assertion of hope, he transformed the dreck of modern existence, in which we are all bogged down, into a medium out of which springs beauty and new life. This is the view projected in Wheat That Springeth Green: “As for feeling thwarted and useless,” Joe, the novel’s uncomfortable hero, reflects, “he knew what it meant. It meant that he was in touch with reality.”
The sense that the world is an alien place of arbitrary arrangements is far more pronounced in Wheat That Springeth Green than in my father’s earlier novel, Morte D’Urban. The author of that book, unlike the man who finally finished Wheat, believed that while the world was not the last stop in the journey, it did have something to offer. The via delicata traveled by Urban before he is cast into the wilderness is an enchanted arena of aged steaks and vintage wines, sleek cars, expense accounts, and manly bonhomie. It’s a dangerous place, certainly, for just as the priest must be particular in his dress and demeanor, so must he not connive at the sins of those who pay his way. But the prudent man can avoid the devil’s snares; for him the real trap is the schemes sprung from second-rate minds. This, at least, is the view taken by the unredeemed Urban, a view that my father appreciated not only for its competence and discrimi
In Wheat That Springeth Green, we see things through Joe Hackett’s eyes, first as a child and later as the priest he becomes. Unlike Urban, Joe is seldom at ease, always a bit out of place, and forever trying to figure out what’s going on—really going on—as if with the aid of a manual. “What’s wrong with this picture?” Joe asks himself after a little gathering he has planned at his rectory fizzles out and he has been abandoned to watch the baseball game on TV alone. “Nothing really, he told himself. The curate was entertaining in his room so as not to interfere with the game, the visiting priest was a fair-weather fan, if that, and so, really, nothing was wrong—it meant nothing, nothing personal that the pastor sat alone. He didn’t like it though.”
If Morte D’Urban presents the world as temptation, Wheat That Springeth Green presents rejection of the world as pretty tempting too. Urban is worldly; Joe wants to be otherworldly. As a seminarian and young priest, he affects the life of a contemplative. He’s a bit of a fanatic, in fact. But he cannot ignore the conditions around him. Cleanliness matters a little more to him than godliness, while heat—an almost constant presence—exacerbates the problem of dealing with other people. Heat, people; heat and people: Joe resorts to drink as a way of bearing up under both.
The set-up at the rectory at Joe’s first assignment is emblematic of the state of the world. There life is lived under the sway of Mrs Cox, the last in my father’s line of formidable housekeepers. Her dog attacks the priests’ ankles; her TV, running loud and long, is an obnoxious presence. Why is it so? Joe’s epiphany comes when he spots the horny, prayer-scarred knees and dog-bitten ankles of the pastor, Fr Van Slaag. He realizes that the old man is using Mrs Cox and her dog as crosses, “as a means of sanctification and salvation—making life make sense, which it otherwise wouldn’t.”
My father was drawn to priests as a subject because their lives are rich in anomaly, in the tensions and contradictions between earthly and spiritual goals that make moral scrutiny interesting. Time-serving, empire-building, reforming, all take on further moral complexity in the context of the priesthood. Beyond that, though, the predicament of the priest had a gruesome and particular fascination for him. To many young men of his generation, the problem of a religious vocation boiled down to what one would have to give up in order to assume what was, after all, a good place in this world—not to mention excellent chances for a better one in the next. But to a man like my father, the real problem seemed less giving things up than taking them on: taking on people, specifically.
So he trembled at the priest’s lot: here one is, having dedicated one’s life to God, and yet here one is, because of it, lumbered with one’s fellow man. Joe spends a good deal of time pondering this situation: “Running a parish, any parish, was like riding in a cattle car in the wintertime—you could appreciate the warmth of your dear dumb friends, but you never knew when you’d be stepped on, or worse.” I have no doubt that my father’s leeriness of people kept him fixed on this particular aspect of the priesthood. In 1944, in Sandstone, Minnesota, where he served thirteen months in prison instead of going to war, he wrote to his sister: “There is a justice, hardly poetic, in the way I find myself tied up in destiny with millions of people when what I want most is to be separated from them.”
For him, art was as much a spiritual vocation as the priesthood—a more exalted one even. “You, God-like,” he once said, “make a character who lives, who didn’t exist before you made him out of the slime of your dictionary.” But art, by contrast to the priesthood, allowed no compromise. In the novel, Joe’s failure to achieve an immediate relationship with God is ultimately a triumph: a parish priest’s job demands engagement with the world. My father, however, felt that daily life could only be a distraction from his calling. Tragically, in the years that he struggled to write Wheat, he was often lost in a wilderness of petty detail and procrastination, wasting hours repairing and polishing his shoes, rubbing emollients into his leather-bound books, battling bats, mice, and squirrels in the house, and gophers under the sun; caulking windows, spackling cracks and holes, gluing, taping, and tapping in tacks.
In the end, though, in Wheat That Springeth Green, as in Morte D’Urban and his many stories, he achieved something of what he wanted: work that reflects and distills what he called God’s sense of humor; work which so deftly makes language one with event and character that you need not be Catholic to understand it, have religious faith to believe it, or possess anything, but a sense of humor yourself, to laugh and know it is true.
—KATHERINE A. POWERS
WHEAT THAT SPRINGETH GREEN
GGG and HFX for helping
OSB for providing
RAG for waiting
BWP for being
1. SEE ME
“SEE ME,” JOE said, in his pajamas and slippers now, coming into the living room to say good night to the party people again. “Oh, look who’s here!” they said, glad to see him again. But Ivy came in from the kitchen and got him. “Good night,” he said. “Good night, good night,” they said, sad to see him go. In the kitchen Ivy said, “Roscoe,” but Roscoe was just a cat, “whut I tell this boy?” (Ivy had told him what she always told him, “Don’t do no bad stuff, boy.”) She shooed him up the back stairs. He got into bed again. Then he came down the front stairs again, but stayed behind the portieres, peeking out. He wanted the pretty black-haired lady in the pretty orange dress to see him. “Oh oh,” she said, “See Me’s back again.” He came out from behind the portieres, saying to her (he didn’t know why), “I eat cheese.” She and the other party people, and even Mama and Daddy, laughed. It was a joke! “I eat cheese! I eat cheese!” Uncle Bobby, Mama’s brother, picked him up and carried him around the room, pinching his bottom, but not hard. “I eat cheese! I eat cheese!” But Uncle Bobby fooled him and carried him out of the room, up the front stairs. Uncle Bobby stood a silver dollar up on the table by Joe’s bed. “Keep an eye on it, Sport, or it might run away.” Joe didn’t think it would. It didn’t. So he came down the front stairs and stayed behind the portieres, not peeking out. “Last Sunday we took the boy to church,” Daddy was telling the party people. “The new man was going on about the Dollar-a-Sunday Club, and I was going to sleep, when the boy, in that clear voice, says, ‘Daddy, what does she want?’” The party people laughed, and Joe came smiling out from behind the portieres, and then didn’t know what to say. But the pretty black-haired lady said, “And now you go to church, Joe?” “I go to church,” he said. The party people laughed. It was a joke! “I go to church! I go to church!” The party people laughed, but not as much as before. “I eat cheese! I eat cheese!” The party people laughed, but not as much as before. “Good night, good night,” they said, and Daddy said, “Good night.” Mama took Joe up the front stairs. She told him to stay in bed. He told her he would. “Promise?” she said. “Promise,” he said. Mama gave him a kiss. He gave Mama one. Mama liked him. Daddy did. Uncle Bobby did. The party people did. Ivy did. Roscoe didn’t, but was just a cat. Frances, next door, didn’t, but she didn’t like boys or jokes. At her birthday party—no boys—when Frances and her friends were playing a game in the yard and Joe was sitting on the stone wall watching them, the birthday pony went poopy on the grass. “Poopy!” Joe yelled. Frances’s friends and the maid laughed. It was a joke! But Frances yelled, “Shut up! You little squirt!” Frances didn’t like jokes. Her friends did. The maid did. The party people did. They were sad Joe had to go to bed. No, if he went downstairs he’d break his promise, and that would be bad stuff. Stepping on ants was bad stuff. So was giving Roscoe a little kick. But Roscoe did bad stuff. He caught birds and ate them up, but not all the feathers. Joe had told on him, but Ivy had said, “Yeah, we
2. CARRYING THE CROSS
THE LITTLE TOWER that bulged out of the attic was where Joe went when he didn’t know what to do, where he’d gone to pray before and after Ivy died, where nowadays he went to smoke Daddy’s Herbert Tareytons and Uncle Bobby’s Camels and sometimes to be what he might be when he grew up—seeing one of Daddy’s trucks (HACKETT’S COAL IS HOT STUFF) go by in the street below, he might call long distance, his fist the phone, his cigarette a cigar, and order a million short; hearing church bells, he might turn his baseball cap around, back to front, and show himself in the window (no balcony) and smile down upon the multitude below, his right hand busily blessing it, his left idly smoking behind him.
If he decided to be a businessman, he wanted to be one like Uncle Bobby and get a lot of fun out of life. (It was too bad, since he was Daddy’s son, he didn’t want to be one like Daddy, but he didn’t.) The trouble wouldn’t be, as it was now in sports and in crowds, that he was short for his age (nine)—so was Uncle Bobby (thirty-one). The trouble would be that he would be like Daddy and not like Uncle Bobby.
Uncle Bobby went to the barbershop in the basement of the First National Bank Building (eight chairs) and had his sideburns shaved down to points like check marks; Daddy went to the little neighborhood shop (two chairs) and had his shaved off. Uncle Bobby had a modern kitchen in his apartment, but ate out; Daddy drove home for lunch. Uncle Bobby was younger than Daddy (and Mama), but there was more to it than that. Uncle Bobby was a live wire and could come up with bright ideas; Daddy wasn’t and couldn’t. It was Uncle Bobby’s idea to have HACKETT’S COAL IS HOT STUFF on the trucks and on the left-field fence at the ball park, and also HIT THIS SIGN AND WIN A TON (HOME TEAM ONLY)—the last part was Daddy’s idea.
Wheat That Springeth Green by J.F. Powers / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes