JF Powers’ Morte d’Urban: On the Priesthood of American Literary Writers

Most reviews of  J.F. Powers’ 1962 comic masterpiece Morte d’Urban (especially most reviews in elite venues) see the central story as that of a wheeler-dealer priest who dies to earthly life to achieve a greater sanctity. And that assessment is pretty hard to argue with—since the hero of the novel is a priest, and the writer himself was Catholic, the novel has to be about the importance of the spiritual life over worldly success, right?

Wrong. As always, it’s convenient for the elite to assure the poor and frustrated that they will find their reward in heaven, so they don’t have to be given a cut here on earth. But the problem with this take on the story of Father Urban is that this is not how it will feel to any non-elite reading it. The way it feels to me as I read most of it is hilarious and exhilarating; the way it felt as I finished it was heartbreaking. What makes it sad is that it’s the story of a great man who’s destroyed by the yahoos.

Catholic priests had a much better public image when this book was published fifty years ago. Most non-Catholic’s opinions of priests back then were shaped by idolized film actors—Spencer Tracy in Boys Town or Bing Crosby in The Bells of Saint Mary’s. J. F. Powers’ Father Urban may not be as saintly and benevolent as priests in the movies, though Urban is a practical, intelligent man, and truly wants to accomplish good in the world.

But what really sets Morte d’Urban apart from the Hollywood vision of priests as saintly heroes is that Father Urban ultimately fails. And he fails because the Church fails him—its bureaucracy, its incompetence, its lack of vision, its lack of any place for a man of his dedication, intelligence, and talents. In scene after scene of this novel, Urban is in battle with the nitpickers, boobs and sheer brutes that make up the Church and its congregation. It’s an indictment of the Church’s “system,” or any big modern organization, and as such, was a revolutionary novel for its time.

Father Urban, “fifty-four, tall and handsome but a trifle loose in the jowls and red of eye,” is the star preacher of the Order of St. Clement, a worldly man who enjoys traveling first-class and dining at the Pump Room in Chicago as the guest of BCL (Big Catholic Laymen). It’s pre-Vatican II, but Urban has a vision of the Clementines—and the Church as a whole—as a greater force for good on the American scene. He’s got his flaws, like any man—he’s a sexist pig, for example, which probably dooms this book to obscurity forever—but he’s a preacher who moves people, a man who can get money out of rich people for good works, and he’s a good leader and model for young priests.

Unfortunately for Father Urban’s vision, his Order’s college is on the verge of bankruptcy, their high schools are breakeven at best, and “their parishes, except for a few, were in unsettled parts of Texas and New Mexico where no order in its right mind would go.”

Powers writes (and this is a favorite quote of reviewers):

It seemed to him that the Order of St Clement labored under the curse of mediocrity, and had done so almost from the beginning. In Europe, the Clementines hadn’t (it was always said) recovered from the French Revolution. It was certain that they hadn’t ever really got going in the New World. Their history revealed little to brag about—-one saint (the Holy Founder) 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.

When Father Urban gets Billy Cosgrove, a businessman and one of the biggest of the Big Catholic Laymen, to donate an office building in a prestigious neighborhood near Lake Michigan (on the near North Side of Chicago) for the use of the Order, Urban’s idea is that the front offices should be staffed with the Order’s best men, and made appealing (a kind of club) for the type of people living and working in the area–executives, “neurotic artists,” politicians, and “retired crooks.”

But Father Boniface, the Provincial (head man of the Midwestern branch of the Clementines), thinks Urban’s vision sounds like “a job for the Jesuits”, and orders the front offices to be furnished “with junk hauled in from the Novitiate” that looks like it belongs in a turn-of-the century nun’s parlor. The furnishings include “large, pious oils (copies of Renaissance masterpieces, executed by a now departed Clementine) in which everybody seemed to be going blind,” and “poisonous pamphlets (‘Who, Me? A Heretic?’)” that Father Urban’s target audience seems unlikely to appreciate.

Father Urban knew (none better) that the Order wasn’t up to the job of being an effective influence for good on the near North Side, or anywhere else in the fast-changing world of today, and it never would be, he knew, with men of Father Boniface’s stamp calling the shots…  it was only a matter of time before the Order died on its feet. Possibly the end would be sudden, by decree—a coup de grace from Rome—for it was rumored that there might be a re-evaluation of religious orders, a culling out of the herd. If this ever happened, it was Father Urban’s fear that the Clementines would be among the first to go.

Father Urban sees what’s happening—the impending death of the Clementine Order (a Monsignor has called them the Rinky Dinks)—and he wants to turn it around. And he’s not doing it for entirely selfish reasons. To quote from the one critic who really got Morte d’Urban right, the late David Castronovo, in his book Beyond the Gray Flannel Suit: Books from the 1950s that Made American Culture:

A man of moral and intellectual sensitivity, standards, and decency, Urban casts a cold eye on some of the features of the Church of his time: the McCarthyism of the small-time Catholic press, the preciousness of the Catholic intelligentsia, the relentlessness of clergy who would want a religious component in a children’s cartoon program, the hole-in-corner defensiveness and isolationism of priests who should know better.

Father Urban was a politically radical priest at that time, and he knew it. Anti-communist fanatics ruled the Church in the 1950s when this story takes place, and anyone who was not worshiping at the feet of Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover was considered suspicious by the fanatical anticommunists. Urban has a number of encounters with these types and he always resists them. In one hilarious scene, he counters the anti-commie ramblings of a BCL with instruction on the parable of the Unjust Steward, who, knowing he’s about to need a job, cuts deals for all his master’s debtors without his employer’s knowledge, only to win the master’s praise in the end.

I was six years old and in first grade at St. Jude’s Elementary School in Detroit when the McCarthy hearings were taking place. For the kids in the audience, Joe McCarthy was a Republican Senator who gained tremendous power by accusing people of being part of a communist conspiracy to take over the world. Essentially, he was putting anyone with liberal or socialist sympathies out of work, making it impossible for them to do much of anything at all, as other people didn’t want to be near any “known” communists, for fear of being found guilty by association.

Joe was going after politicians, actors, writers, TV producers, artists, anybody famous at all in addition to a lot of nobodies. The guy was a raving lunatic. Finally, the other Senators voted to censure him—even they couldn’t take his paranoia anymore and he was scaring the shit out of people. (He died a couple years later of hepatitis, at the age of 48, due to alcoholism.)

But McCarthy was all but canonized by the Dominican nuns at my school. It was the official Catholic position. The nuns gave us all kinds of anti-communist literature to take home and show our parents. They told us that if we ever heard about anybody being a communist, we should report them, no matter who it was. Communists were atheists, according to the nuns. They were trying to take over the whole world and they would put you in prison if you prayed. By focusing on Communists, the Church could avoid looking at its own role in the world.

After the conflict over Billy Cosgrove’s offices, Father Boniface gets rid of Father Urban by assigning him to the Order’s “latest white elephant… an abandoned sanitarium in rural Minnesota” renamed St. Clement’s Hill.  When Father Urban gets out to the sanitarium, which is to be rehabilitated as a retreat for lay people, his new superior, Father Wilfrid, makes the Order’s most gifted preacher spend all of his time painting and plastering. But in the end, the need for Father Urban’s talents at fundraising and attracting retreatants is so great that he is put back on the road to preach, and he immediately sets out to turn St. Clement’s Hill into the most popular retreat in the diocese, complete with a world-class nine-hole golf course furnished with a “shrine of Our Lady below No. 5 green.”

Unfortunately, as St. Clement’s Hill begins to grow in popularity, word reaches Father Urban that the Bishop is considering booting the Clementines and taking it over for use as a diocesan seminary. When the Bishop shows up for an inspection of the property, Father Urban winds up in an “ordeal by combat” on the golf course, aware that the Clementines can’t win the duel whether he wins or loses. The duel begins the process of Father Urban’s destruction.

As a writer, it’s hard not to think about what was going on in Powers’ life as he wrote Morte d’Urban and his other few works.

Powers was born in 1917, a Catholic on the wrong side of the tracks in Jacksonville in southern Illinois, a place Powers described in Morte D’Urban as:

…that part of Illinois which more and more identifies itself with Abraham Lincoln but has its taproot in the South. Protestants were very sure of themselves there. If you were a Catholic boy… you felt that it was their country, handed down to them by the Pilgrims, George Washington, and others, and that they were taking a risk in letting you live in it… He knew, too, that Catholics were mostly Irish and Portuguese, and that their religion, poverty, and appearance…were all against them.

Powers took English and Philosophy courses at a junior college and Northwestern University but never earned a diploma. He served a prison sentence as a conscientious objector in World War II. In 1947 he lived at Yaddo, the artists’ retreat, while finishing his first book, a collection of short stories titled Prince of Darkness.

He got some good reviews and an O. Henry citation, and began to be able to sell stories to mags like Collier’s and the New Yorker. But in 1949, with a growing family to support (he fathered five children), Powers reluctantly returned to teaching. He spent the rest of his life struggling to find time to write in between part-time, ill-paying teaching gigs at small Catholic colleges, and moving back and forth from Minnesota to Ireland, returning to the U.S. to take teaching jobs when his money ran out, returning to Ireland to save money and try to write while living off his meager savings.

“When things get really tough I take a job,” he said. “Usually teaching. But when I’m teaching, I don’t write much. I usually teach creative writing courses, and I read the damned things, the stories, and I sometimes wish that I had that story, because I could do something with it. As a result, I don’t do my own work. But teaching is better than a lot of things.” (Powers also worked jobs as an insurance salesman and sales clerk.)

When Powers was able to support his family off his savings and story sales, he wrote long hours, six days a week, but could seldom finish more than one of his deceptively-simple, perfectly-crafted pages a day. “Some days I have a miserable time,” he said to a Minneapolis reporter who wrote about him. “I seldom do more than a page in one day… In fact, if I had enough income, I don’t think I’d write. It’s a sweaty, dirty job.”

After Morte d’Urban was published in 1962, it got good reviews and won awards, but his moronic publisher (Doubleday) let the book go out of print right after it won the National Book Award. It was a severe blow to Powers that sales did not enable him to buy a house for his family. He took what dough he had made and returned to Ireland once more to work on his next novel. But he couldn’t make the money stretch even two years. So he accepted a one-year writer-in-residence gig from Smith College. After that it was a teaching job at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and 26 years until he published his second—and last—novel, Wheat that Springeth Green.

The elite critics, of course, express complete befuddlement over why this terrific writer produced so little work. When a New York Times reporter put the question to Powers in the late 1980s, he said:

“My wife was sick for a long time before she died [Powers’ wife, Betty, died of cancer in May 1988.] That was part of it. And basically I’m lazy. But I was somewhat despairing after Morte d’Urban, which sold only 25,000 copies in seven printings. I could not get the publisher to print enough. A couple of months after Morte d’Urban won the National Book Award, it went out of print. They let it run out.”

He published “The Old Bird—A Love Story” (his last short story) in 1991, and it’s a sad story about sacrifice without reward.

So, to recap: Forced to earn a meager living teaching at two-bit Catholic colleges in rural Minnesota, trying desperately to escape, through great works, to a setting where he would be able to write, then getting flattened by a skin-flint publisher that sold only 25,000 copies of his masterwork and let the novel go out of print right after it had won the National Book Award, it becomes clear to Powers that he’s stuck in small-time academe forever, and will never have the time or freedom to create the body of work he’s capable of.

The central conflict in Morte d’Urban, like the central conflict in J.F. Powers’ life, is not the struggle between a worldly man and the worldly man’s soul. It’s the struggle between a highly intelligent and visionary man with a lot to give and the morons he’s up against in his organization and the modern world at large. As Powers put it in a poignant line from when Urban is imprisoned as a workman at St. Clement’s Hill: “Why had he been cast into outer darkness, thrown among fools and failures? What star had led him to this?”

The world that brought down Father Urban is, of course, still in full force in 2012–the oppressive and mediocrity-enforcing gigantic institutions, the overwhelming propaganda might of the media, the self-satisfaction and indifference to good of the booboisie.

Naturally, Powers’ work was brought back into print (with a ridiculous cover) after his death in 1999, when it was too late to do him any good.

 Morte d’Urban   

 

 

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