The Sacred and the Mundane
A Catholic novelist's letters detail the rituals of daily life
An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942-1963
by J. F. Powers
$35.00 List Price
In 1942, the literary quarterly Accent accepted James Farl Powers’s short story “He Don’t Plant Cotton,” his first published fiction. Powers was working then for a wholesale book company in Chicago, having dropped out of Northwestern because he couldn’t afford tuition. He wrote his editor that he hoped to quit his job, to “get away and, yes, you guessed it, Write.”
By the time Accent published his second story—the classic “Lions, Harts, Leaping Does,” an astonishing achievement for a twenty-five-year-old author—Powers was behind bars. Having fallen in with a group of Catholic pacifists, he was sentenced to three years in a Minnesota penitentiary after failing to appear for induction into the army. (Catholics weren’t eligible for conscientious-objector status.) Powers accepted this development with a good-natured fatalism that seems as ingrained a characteristic as his moral stubbornness. “There is justice, hardly poetic,” he wrote to his sister and her husband, “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.” Like many lovers of humanity, he didn’t always like run-of-the-mill humans that much, and being surrounded by them was his main complaint about prison. As his release approached, he looked forward to “not waking up in the morning in the midst of a multitude.” He was still hoping to get away and Write.
It wasn’t to be. Paroled after thirteen months, Powers was assigned grueling work as a hospital orderly until the end of the war. “I have letters from editors wanting things, and I can’t get