Commentary Magazine


Topic: Catholic fiction

“Morte D’Urban” at Fifty

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.”

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.”

Read Less

The New Catholic Fiction

As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction. True, I once ventured the guess that Richard Russo is — “after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995 — perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today.” I remain convinced that Empire Falls, which I continue to admire, is a deeply Catholic novel. These are, however, the stabs of an outsider. An ignoramus too.

My knowledge of Catholicism is confined to desultory unsystematic reading, warmed by feelings of closeness toward the Church of Rome after the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Add that Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism share the fate of being dismissed as “legalistic and moralistic.” (The epithets are William James’s from The Varieties of Religious Experience.) Yet religious sympathy only makes it easier to misinterpret religious experience by converting it into a more familiar religious vocabulary. And after teaching a course on American Jewish fiction this past term to a class that was overwhelmingly Christian, I know from firsthand experience just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.

Fair warning, then. Treat everything that follows with the skepticism of an unbeliever.

William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha are two of the most impressive young novelists around. Both published their debut novels within the past year. Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was issued by Norton last August. (I reviewed it here.) Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder came out from Tin House earlier this week. (My review is here.) Both novels are Catholic, at the most obvious level, in being about characters who are openly Catholic — although in opposite directions. Charles Homar, the narrator of Giraldi’s joyous romp, is a renegade Catholic. “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all,” he insists; “you have to experience this virus yourself really to get my gist, though in the meantime trust me.” (A good example of Giraldi’s prose style, by the way.) Beha’s Sophie Wilder is a convert. “From the Latin, to turn,” Sophie understands. “As in Eliot: Because I do not hope to turn again.”

Despite this difference, Charles and Sophie have something profound in common. They are what James calls sick souls. They are, in Othello’s language, “Unreconcil’d as yet to Heaven, and Grace.” They are intimates of evil and the failure of love. They are afflicted by man’s fallen nature — their own sin and other people’s — and find no peace in the knowledge that man, created in the image of God, reflects his glory. As Charles puts it, “Our species swam laps in a cesspool,” which leaves him with “the pressing need to get monastic, take a vow, wear a robe.” His language is comic, but his need is not. Both he and Sophie are in need of redemption, and both Busy Monsters and What Happened to Sophie Wilder are odysseys of a soul in search of redemption.

Between them, in short, Giraldi and Beha may have begun to redefine Catholic fiction. As a Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor emphasized God’s mystery — what she called, in a famous article, the “added dimension.” “A dimension taken away is one thing,” she wrote; “a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.” The Catholic writer must strike the right balance between nature and grace, and this for O’Connor entailed seeing life “in its concrete reality.” An older generation of Catholic novelists was distinguished, in other words, by what George Weigel calls a sacramental vision. Paul Horgan (“whom almost no one remembers today”) was motivated by a similar vision, Weigel says, which he describes as a way of “seeing ‘things as they are’ [the title of Horgan’s most-Catholic novel], because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary.” Such a way of seeing, Weigel concludes, is “a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”

But this way of seeing is not Giraldi’s and Beha’s way of seeing. They see the torments of the soul that thirsts for God; they see that, unreconciled to heaven and grace, the sick soul must go on searching for reconciliation. Their emphasis is not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil. Giraldi and Beha will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists. If I am right, though, they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers. To say nothing of a new generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.

But then again, I may be all wet.

Update: In a message to him, I suggested to Christopher Beha that his Sophie Wilder was a saint. “You wrote a saint’s life,” I said. Wisely, he did not reply.

As an Orthodox Jew, I have no qualifications whatever to speak of Roman Catholic fiction. True, I once ventured the guess that Richard Russo is — “after the deaths of Walker Percy in 1990 and Paul Horgan in 1995 — perhaps the leading Catholic novelist in America today.” I remain convinced that Empire Falls, which I continue to admire, is a deeply Catholic novel. These are, however, the stabs of an outsider. An ignoramus too.

My knowledge of Catholicism is confined to desultory unsystematic reading, warmed by feelings of closeness toward the Church of Rome after the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Add that Catholicism and Orthodox Judaism share the fate of being dismissed as “legalistic and moralistic.” (The epithets are William James’s from The Varieties of Religious Experience.) Yet religious sympathy only makes it easier to misinterpret religious experience by converting it into a more familiar religious vocabulary. And after teaching a course on American Jewish fiction this past term to a class that was overwhelmingly Christian, I know from firsthand experience just how easy it is to miss the emphasis, the tone, the undercurrent, in fiction that is written from a religious perspective that is not your own.

Fair warning, then. Treat everything that follows with the skepticism of an unbeliever.

William Giraldi and Christopher R. Beha are two of the most impressive young novelists around. Both published their debut novels within the past year. Giraldi’s Busy Monsters was issued by Norton last August. (I reviewed it here.) Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder came out from Tin House earlier this week. (My review is here.) Both novels are Catholic, at the most obvious level, in being about characters who are openly Catholic — although in opposite directions. Charles Homar, the narrator of Giraldi’s joyous romp, is a renegade Catholic. “A lapsed Catholic is the most devout Catholic of all,” he insists; “you have to experience this virus yourself really to get my gist, though in the meantime trust me.” (A good example of Giraldi’s prose style, by the way.) Beha’s Sophie Wilder is a convert. “From the Latin, to turn,” Sophie understands. “As in Eliot: Because I do not hope to turn again.”

Despite this difference, Charles and Sophie have something profound in common. They are what James calls sick souls. They are, in Othello’s language, “Unreconcil’d as yet to Heaven, and Grace.” They are intimates of evil and the failure of love. They are afflicted by man’s fallen nature — their own sin and other people’s — and find no peace in the knowledge that man, created in the image of God, reflects his glory. As Charles puts it, “Our species swam laps in a cesspool,” which leaves him with “the pressing need to get monastic, take a vow, wear a robe.” His language is comic, but his need is not. Both he and Sophie are in need of redemption, and both Busy Monsters and What Happened to Sophie Wilder are odysseys of a soul in search of redemption.

Between them, in short, Giraldi and Beha may have begun to redefine Catholic fiction. As a Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor emphasized God’s mystery — what she called, in a famous article, the “added dimension.” “A dimension taken away is one thing,” she wrote; “a dimension added is another, and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the literal level of the natural events presented.” The Catholic writer must strike the right balance between nature and grace, and this for O’Connor entailed seeing life “in its concrete reality.” An older generation of Catholic novelists was distinguished, in other words, by what George Weigel calls a sacramental vision. Paul Horgan (“whom almost no one remembers today”) was motivated by a similar vision, Weigel says, which he describes as a way of “seeing ‘things as they are’ [the title of Horgan’s most-Catholic novel], because that is the only way to see the extraordinary things that lie just on the far side of the ordinary.” Such a way of seeing, Weigel concludes, is “a sacramental sensibility convinced that the ordinary things of this world are the vehicles of grace and the materials of a divinely scripted drama.”

But this way of seeing is not Giraldi’s and Beha’s way of seeing. They see the torments of the soul that thirsts for God; they see that, unreconciled to heaven and grace, the sick soul must go on searching for reconciliation. Their emphasis is not on the mystery and beauty of God’s creation, but on the difficulty of the skirmish with ordinary evil. Giraldi and Beha will not welcome being identified as Catholic novelists. If I am right, though, they may speak to a new generation of Catholic readers. To say nothing of a new generation of readers who never would have thought that Catholic novelists might be a serious force in literature again.

But then again, I may be all wet.

Update: In a message to him, I suggested to Christopher Beha that his Sophie Wilder was a saint. “You wrote a saint’s life,” I said. Wisely, he did not reply.

Read Less




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