Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Suitable Accommodations

In reading through Suitable Accommodations, a collection of  letters and some journal entries of J.F. Powers, I found myself thinking of Jasper McIlvaine's remark in New Grub Street :
'Ten years hence,' he said, 'if Reardon is still alive, I shall be lending him five-pound notes.'
Powers's letters acknowledge many small loans and outright gifts, some from his wife's family, some from Fr. Harvey Egan ("the HFXE payroll"). There is a steady discontent with his economic condition; he was not a fast writer, and did much of his work in short stories, which pay only so well. One wonders at times in reading the book whether a semester here or there grading student work would have been worse for him than sitting in an office not writing.

The book is not unrelentingly grim as New Grub Street is. In the years since 1882 many resources had appeared for writers: magazines that paid well, the Ford and Guggenheim Foundations, universities pleased to have a writer in residence to teach their students, retreats such as Yaddo. And Powers did not marry "the kind of person to grumble". Betty Wahl Powers did grumble, but she managed a household eventually including five children, cooked, sewed, and wrote on her own account.

The letters lack the consistent finish of Powers's fiction, being presumably written in one draft and mailed without revision. Still, every now and then there are sentences that recall the fiction
This room is like a dirty bottle, but inside is the vintage solitude which hardly anybody can afford nowadays, and I am sipping it slowly, hoping to straighten out my life as a writer.
(Letter to Harvey Egan, February 27, 1957) and there is the humor
You will not send me a copy of The Disinherited, Jack. I'll buy one--and that is that. If you send me one, I'll return it to you autographed. That is the form failure has taken in my case, Jack. I autograph every book I can lay hands on, this to compensate for the great success I might have had, and am now watched when I enter the public library here. All the textbooks my daughters bring home from school I've autographed. Ever hear of a case like this, Jack? ...
 J.F. Powers
 J.F. Powers
 J.F. Powers
(Letter to Jack Conroy, December 8, 1962)

I would be interested to see his correspondence with Evelyn Waugh, here represented just by one letter from Powers acknowledging Waugh's blurb for Morte D'Urban. Waugh dined with the Powers family in Minnesota in the spring of 1949, and  J.F. and Betty Powers dined with Waugh at Piers Court in the summer of 1952. The two men had in common their Catholicism and their devotion to the craft of fiction; but in background and generally in outlook they were radically different. The index to The Letters of Evelyn Waugh has no listing for Powers, and Waugh's diary seems to have lapsed for a period covering those years.

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