Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life, p.1J.F. Powers
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To the memory of my sister Mary Farl Powers and my parents
There was an extraordinary mixture of comedy and tragedy in the situation which is here described, and those who are affected by the pathos of it will not need to have it explained to them that the comedy was superficial and the tragedy essential.
—Edmund Gosse, introduction to Father and Son
He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune; for they are impediments to great enterprises, either of virtue or mischief.
We are pilgrims only, but since the trip’s quite long, I tend to look around for suitable accommodations.
—J. F. Powers, June 3, 1952
Introduction by Katherine A. Powers
A Note on the Text
1. Fortunately, I am under no obligation to earn a living wage
September 8, 1942–November 6, 1945
2. With you it will be like being ten years old again
November 12, 1945–November 29, 1945
3. Should a giraffe have to dig dandelions?
December 4, 1945–January 26, 1946
4. It would seem you have the well-known business sense
January 29, 1946–February 14, 1946
5. I am like Daniel Boone cutting my way through that bourgeois wilderness
February 14, 1946–April 26, 1946
6. Something seems to be missing, and you say it’s me
Memorial Day 1946–April 3, 1947
July 9, 1947–October 14, 1947
8. I’ve a few stipulations to read into the rural-life-family-life jive
November 6, 1947–April 5, 1948
9. The truth about me is that I just don’t qualify as the ideal husband
July 1948–Christmas 1948
10. If you can’t win with me, stop playing the horses!
January 18, 1949–September 6, 1949
11. I’m beyond the point where I think the world is waiting for me as for the sunrise
September 19, 1949–October 7, 1951
12. The water, the green, the vines, stone walls, the pace, all to my taste
November 7, 1951–November 3, 1952
13. In Ireland, I am an American. Here, I’m nothing
Christmas 1952–June 3, 1953
14. A place too good to believe we live in
October 5, 1953–April 14, 1954
15. I had a very fine time—laughing as I hadn’t in years
April 23, 1954–July 14, 1954
16. There have been times, though not recently, when it has seemed to me that I might escape the doom of man
September 2, 1954–January 10, 1956
17. Four children now, Jack. And this year, the man said, bock beer is not available in this area
February 29, 1956–August 24, 1956
18. The Man Downstairs is entertaining tonight. Pansy and Dwight are quiet
September 25, 1956–January 12, 1957
19. This room is like a dirty bottle, but inside is vintage solitude
January 23, 1957–August 1, 1957
20. Scabrous Georgian, noble views of the sea, turf in the fireplaces
October 14, 1957–February 13, 1958
21. The office is in Dublin, on Westland Row
February 26, 1958–July 23, 1958
22. About Don, I haven’t been the same since I read your letter
July 26, 1958–November 29, 1958
23. Back and wondering why
December 22, 1958–August 25, 1959
24. The J. F. Powers Company: “The Old Cum Permissu Superiorum Line”
September 19, 1959–June 14, 1960
25. No money is the story of my life
July 6, 1960–April 3, 1962
26. The day was like other days, with the author napping on the floor in the middle of the afternoon
April 12, 1962–September 1962
27. As a winner, let me say you can’t win, not on this course
October 23, 1962–August 29, 1963
28. Ireland grey and grey and grey, then seen closer, green, green, green
September 23, 1963–Christmas 1963
Afterword: Growing Up in This Story
Appendix: Cast of Characters
Katherine A. Powers
Jim and George Garrelts, 1952
Well before the publication of his first novel, Morte D’Urban, in 1962, my father, J. F. Powers, henceforth called Jim, planned to write a novel about “family life,” an intention that persisted for the rest of his life. It was to be, in some fashion, the story of a writer, an artist, with bright prospects, a taste for the good things in life, and an expectation of camaraderie as he made his way in the world. The man falls in love, gets married, has numerous children—but has neither money nor home. He finds no pleasant ease and little of the fellowship of like minds he associated with the literary life he had thought was to be his own. The novel would be called Flesh, a word infused with Jansenist distaste, conveying the bleak comedy and terrible bathos of high aesthetic and spiritual aspiration in hopeless contest with human needs and material necessity.
The proposed book took on other names and fused itself with other themes, most notably with the triumph of consumerism in American life: at times it was The Sack Race; at other times, NAB (Nationally Advertised Brands); and, at yet others, Nobody Home. (The last two also served as provisional titles for another unwritten novel, while The Sack Race became the working title for Jim’s second—and final—novel, Wheat That Springeth Green, the image serving admirably for both priests and artists.) In one version of the novel—drawn very much from life—the narrator, a “one-book author” who is unable to complete a second novel, has been reduced to living with his populous family in his wife’s parents’ middle-American home.
In any event, the family-life novel never got beyond a few notes, jottings, and false starts. Or so it seemed. Jim was, in fact, not only living it but creating and embellishing it in his correspondence, a body of writing whose size and extent go some way toward explaining the small number of his published books.
The letters that make up this story begin with Jim at age twenty-five and the acceptance for publication of his first short story. They then leap forward to letters from prison and on through those recording high hopes, great promise, and a passionate courtship of and marriage to Betty Wahl. Then comes the black comedy of children, five all told, great poverty, bad luck, and balked creativity. Central to this progression is the matter of where and how to live. Jim’s married life was dominated by the search for “suitable accommodations,” for a house that would reflect and foster the high calling of the artist. In the course of their married life, which lasted from 1946 until Betty’s death in 1988, the couple moved more than twenty times. This included eight times across the Atlantic: four tenures in Ireland and four returns. “I vacillate,” Jim wrote to a friend, “between wishing I had the wings of an angel—one whose wings would
Jim—James Farl Powers—was born in Jacksonville, Illinois, on July 8, 1917. His father, James (1883–1985), was the son of a man, also called James, who came from county Waterford, Ireland, and worked at a gasworks. He died when James, his son, was around seventeen. This James, which is to say Jim’s father, aspired to be a pianist, was called a prodigy, and was offered a chance to study in Paris—or so Jim maintained. Instead, the young man sacrificed that future in order to provide for his sisters and widowed mother. “She was the woman who ruined my father’s life, I hold,” Jim wrote in describing his background to Betty, his wife-to-be, two weeks after they had met. It is a glimpse of his view of family obligations that should, perhaps, have given her pause. Stuck in southern Illinois, James ran dance bands, played sheet music for customers in a music shop, and operated an unsuccessful butter-and-egg store before finally becoming a middle manager for Swift and Company. He was laid off during the Depression and was out of work for some years until he was hired back by Swift as an accountant, a lower position. Jim considered both jobs demeaning and sad, all the more so as his father did not see them that way and was a conscientious worker and devoted provider.
Jim’s mother, Zella (1892–1973), was the daughter of Matilda née Zilberstorff by her first husband, Farl Routzong, a farmer, painter and “grainer,” balloonist, and semiprofessional baseball player who died of TB before he was thirty. Matilda’s second husband (of at least three) was a rich and kindly farmer who put Zella through college, a rare thing for a woman in the early part of the twentieth century.
Jim grew up in Illinois, in Rockford and, later, Quincy, where he made lifelong friends, among them George Garrelts, later a priest. Gregarious, ambitious, high-handed, and adept in Church politics, Garrelts was Jim’s closest friend for years and exercised a formidable influence over him. Both eventually attended high school at the Franciscan-run Quincy College Academy. After graduating in 1935, Jim moved to Chicago, taking various jobs, his first at Marshall Field’s selling books. Later he found a position as chauffeur or, as he put it, driving “a big Packard for a bastard through the South and Southwest.”
Eventually, he found work on the WPA Illinois Historical Records Survey in Chicago, where he met a number of writers from the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project, among them Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Jack Conroy, and Arna Bontemps. After that he sold books again, this time at Brentano’s, from which job he was fired for refusing to buy war bonds. He spent a couple of semesters at Northwestern, where he took at least one writing seminar with Bergen Evans (afterward best known as the master of ceremonies on the TV quiz show The $64,000 Question). Meanwhile, Jim began to write stories, had a couple of love affairs, became a committed pacifist, and contributed pieces to Dorothy Day’s newspaper, The Catholic Worker.
In the early 1940s, Jim became acquainted with Father Harvey Egan, a fellow assistant of George Garrelts’s at St. Olaf’s in Minneapolis. Within a few years, Egan had taken on the role of Jim’s literary patron, bailing him out with loans and gifts over the decades. Possessed of a humorous, sardonic streak, Egan was also one of Jim’s most important correspondents and a thoroughly appreciative foil for his dry wit and self-deprecating fancy.
When Jim met him, Egan was a rigorous “Detacher,” as, indeed, was Garrelts at the time. Detachment is possibly the most forgotten strain in the nearly forgotten American Catholic countercultural religious and social ferment of the mid-twentieth century. (This also included Catholic Action, the Catholic Worker movement, the Catholic rural life movement, the liturgical movement, the Christian Family Movement, and the retreat movement.) The Detachment movement was inaugurated by the Canadian Jesuit Onesimus Lacouture with the aim of shaking the clergy out of its “comfortable paganism” and waking in it “heroic holiness.”1 It held as its first principle that a single-minded devotion to God is the true Christian goal and, further, that this state cannot be achieved without detaching oneself from unnecessary material things and earthly desire. “Take pleasure in nothing,” Garrelts advised Jim in a letter, “and you find pleasure in all things is the rule.”
The American Church hierarchy viewed Detachment’s rejection of the world as dangerous, as verging on heresy (Jansenism, in fact), and also opposed its insistence on pacifism. Nonetheless—and in part as a consequence—the movement had a powerful appeal to the contrarian Jim, not on its terms altogether, but on his own. He approved of its nay-saying, its criticism of American materialism and militarism, and its rebuke to complacent middle-class Catholics, who, for all their manifest religiosity, put “business sense” first.
At the prompting of the recently ordained Garrelts, Jim attended a retreat in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, led by Father Louis Farina, a pacifist and Detacher, that affected him deeply and strengthened his resolve to refuse military service. His chief concern was the effect this decision would have on his parents, whose friends and neighbors were sure to pillory them for their son’s anti-Americanism and supposed cowardice. As a Catholic, Jim was denied the status of conscientious objector on the grounds that the teachings of the Church permit killing in a “just war.” He was arrested after failing to appear for induction into the army in April 1943 and spent three days in the Cook County Jail before being released on a thousand-dollar bond. He was later indicted by a grand jury and sentenced to three years in prison.
Before beginning his sentence, Jim attended another retreat, this for priests (where he passed as a seminarian), at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. It was led by the powerful preacher Father John Hugo, another influential Detacher, pacifist, and pioneer in reforming the liturgy and religious practices. Thus began the association with St. John’s Abbey and University that influenced the rest of his life.
Jim served thirteen months in the federal penitentiary at Sandstone, Minnesota, before being paroled. In years to come, he covered up his prison sentence because of the pain it had caused his parents and his wife’s relatives. Indeed, we, his children, only learned about it in 1959 when my sister Mary was mocked by a schoolmate for having a “jailbird” as a father.
While he was inside, Jim’s first story, “He Don’t Plant Cotton,” was published in Accent, a literary magazine of high standing. It was also in prison that Jim’s obsession with the relationship between the artist and his house appears to have begun, for among his fellow prisoners were two of Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprentices, both incarcerated for refusing military service. One of them, Jack Howe, drew up a plan for a farm that Jim seemed to consider the answer to life on earth. His letter to his sister extolling it makes curious reading to one who knew him in later life. The farm would not only be a communal endeavor but also involve animal husbandry and a good deal of manual labor, none of which were much in Jim’s line. It never advanced beyond drawings and talk.
After his parole in late 1944, and as a condition of his release from prison, Jim was assigned a job as a hospital orderly in St. Paul, Minnesota, living first at the hospital itself and later in a St. Paul residential hotel, the Marlborough, “an old red stone dump creaking with age and old women.” Some months later, in November 1945, he met Betty Wahl, whose manuscript of a novel had been sent to him for his views by her teacher, a nun who considered Betty her star student. Jim and Betty became engaged within two days and were married less than six months later, having visited each other only five times after the first meeting. Instead, they corresponded almost every day before they were married.
Jim’s letters to Betty touch on many things, though above all on his love for her and on how and where they will live. They are filled with optimism for the most part—and foreshadow doom, especially on the housing front, the matter of making a living, and Jim’s denunciation of “business sense.” Though there is already talk of Ireland, the couple decided they would live in rural Minnesota near St. John’s. To that end, Betty’s father gave them money to buy land in Avon, a
The region was a hotbed of Catholic reform movements, of people returning to the land and speaking ecstatically about big families, community, liturgical reform, and Catholic art. Thus, in a bantering way, Jim called the circle of friends who lived in the geographical and spiritual environs of St. John’s “the Movement” and, on occasion, “the rural lifers,” and the area itself, “Big Missal Country.” Later, when the Powerses went away (only to return again and again), these friends became key correspondents. Confident that they would appreciate his subtle, undermining wit, Jim wrote some of his funniest letters to them, much of the humor drawing on how the lofty ideals of the Movement were so flattened by reality. His appetite for storytelling is everywhere evident, and as he wrote these letters, the members of the Movement became not only correspondents but literary creations—as did Jim himself and his family. That family was, in the end, Jim and Betty and their children: Katherine (myself), Mary, then yet another James, whom we called Boz, Hugh, and Jane.
In his letters to his friends, Jim dwelled on the failure of his own life to pan out as he thought it would and should. He presented himself as a man struggling—though not always terribly hard—in a world that didn’t understand or appreciate him. His disappointment and discontent are notes that sound throughout the correspondence, often enough with a comic timbre, as he worked up the theme of life mowing him down. He often adopted a tone of macabre relish for the hopelessness of his situation: the absence of a house, the presence of many children and a desperate wife, the amount of time he had to spend on the mechanics of life, the piddling nature of his daily doings, and his longing for and lack of camaraderie.
“We have here no lasting home” was his constant refrain, drawing, with feigned smugness, on Christian teaching and, perhaps with irony, on the title of the first novel of his onetime friend the Catholic writer Joe Dever (No Lasting Home, 1947). In any case, the phrase always had the torque of a joke, for the Powerses were forever on the move, leaving some houses out of the urge to quit the country (whichever one it happened to be at the time), leaving other houses because they were taken by eminent domain or sold out from under them. But Jim also meant the statement as a summary of his essential belief: that life on earth doesn’t make sense and that when you understood that, you understood reality. Still, for a person who held that the world is an obstacle-strewn journey toward one’s proper home (heaven), he was more than ordinarily affronted by hardship and adversity, to say nothing of mediocrity and dullness. He was no stoic, and he took it all personally.
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