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J.F. Powers and the Catholic Subculture

December 2, 2013 2:23 pm | 6 Comments

Writing in Catholic World Report, Russell Shaw has a lament for the now largely vanished Catholic subculture that once permeated most American cities. He says that the demise of this culture has brought about the demise of a certain type of Catholic writer, using the novelist and short story writer J.F. Powers as an example:

There are still talented American Catholics who write, but there is no recognizable body of writers drawing upon a Catholic culture to produce work comparable in cultural density to that of Powers and the rest.

I repeat: literature and art are products of culture, and culture is a product of literature and art. Separate the two things, and the art is in trouble—as is the culture itself. And that in a nutshell is the cultural crisis in American Catholicism as we are experiencing it today.

Shaw also links to a review by Joseph Epstein of a volume of J.F. Powers’ letters in the Wall Street Journal. I’ve read a number of books by Powers but never knew much about the man himself, so the article is fascinating to me: a man who mostly wrote about the fairly humdrum experiences of suburban American priests, but who himself was mixing with artists and living a penniless existence as a writer, trying to balance this with being a devoted husband and father of five children.

What I’ve read of J.F. Powers shows an eye that picks up and gently criticizes many aspects of that Catholic subculture. An example quoted in Epstein’s article: “If an American is ever made pope, [Powers] writes to a friend, he should take the name Bingo.” Powers sees how some American values collide with Catholic values, and how some Catholic traditions become can artificial when uprooted and transplanted into an American setting. In the story “Keystone” from the collection Look How the Fish Live, a bishop is assured by the modern architectural team hired by an up-and-coming monsignor to construct a new cathedral for his diocese that the new building will “be good for fifty, seventy-five—maybe a hundred—years.” The bishop is also persuaded to set up ostensibly traditional wayside shrines along the road: “They weren’t as close to the road as he would have liked them, but Minnesota wasn’t Austria, and the highway department had to have its clearance. The figurines in the shrines were perhaps too much alike, as if from the same hand or mold, and the crosses had been cut from plywood. But, garnished with the honest flowers of the field, as they were in May, these shrines—the outward manifestations of the simple faith of a simple people in a wide and wicked world—were a very pretty sight to the Bishop.”

Are some writers continuing along these lines, or have they gone missing as Shaw says? I think he may have overstated things a little. We may have a smaller subculture, if that’s what you want to call it, but there are still writers exploring it—though many of them aren’t American. For example, Piers Paul Read’s take on Catholicism in The Death of a Pope is quite perceptive about trends within Catholicism, offering both satirical and serious depictions of differing views therein. Dorothy Cummings McLean’s Ceremony of Innocence had some depictions of the Catholic world so dead-on they made me wince even as I chuckled. The recently deceased Ralph McInerny included doses of this in his mystery novels, as well as in his satirical novel The Red Hat. American writer Andrew McNabb is also following in this tradition with his collection of stories The Body of This. And more Catholic writers, including Matthew Lickona, Fiorella de Maria, Andrew McNabb, as well as many others, have contributed contemporary fiction to the journal Dappled Things.

A quality that runs through the work all of these writers is a healthy critical look at the cultures surrounding Catholicism itself. Orthodox Catholic writers can’t just critique secular culture or progressive currents in Catholicism if they want to produce effective fiction. Self examination has to be part of the palette—without it, the art turns in on itself and becomes sterile and safe.

One of the other problems is the sort of backward-looking view described by Dorothy Cummings McLean in this previous post here at Novel Thoughts. Many Catholics seem to be suspicious about seeking out or supporting new art unless it’s consciously imitating established forms. Art and culture is a two-way street, as Russell Shaw says. We need good writers challenging themselves to create art informed by their faith, and we need Catholics willing to support them.

John Herreid

John Herreid

John Herreid is catalog manager at Ignatius Press. In addition to catalogs and ads, he has also worked on the cover design for many Ignatius Press books and DVDs. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and four children. You can also find his writing on his personal site at herreid.org.

Tags: Catholic culture Catholic literature J.F. Powers Russell Shaw writing

6 Comments

  1. December 2, 2013 at 6:04 pm

    I think it’s partly due to the seeping in of Evangelical Protestant culture among us American traditional Catholics. For example, I’m pretty sure a lot of my contemporaries might be uneasy with a protagonist who, like the one in Cummings, lives in an extramarital relationship. Everything for a lot of them has to be sanitized, like in much of Evangelical fiction. It’s easier for Catholic writers who don’t have to contend with that cultural baggage.

  2. John Herreid

    December 2, 2013 at 6:39 pm

    I suppose that may be part of it. Additionally, I’ve noticed a bifurcation of how media is consumed by some Catholics. For example, I once lent a copy of one of our Ignatius Press novels to a fellow Catholic who returned it to me saying they disliked it because it wasn’t inspirational enough. The same person had recommended another book to me, one with scads of violence and sex–overlooked by the reader because it was from a secular writer.

    It sometimes seems as if some Catholics/Christians expect to have challenging fare given to them by mainstream culture, but would like to have the Catholic subculture remain a safe, less challenging place to withdraw to. I’m all for the safe haven of escapist media—sometimes I just want to reread my classic mystery and science fiction novels or watch a dumb action adventure flick—but the world of Catholic literature shouldn’t be the equivalent of a popcorn flick plus religion. Granted, there’s no reason “inspirational” fiction should not be part of the picture, but hopefully not the entirety of it.

  3. December 3, 2013 at 1:07 am

    Part of it may be an expectation that the struggles in the world outside are bad enough that they want a literary Fortress Catholicism, where being a good Catholic is easy and will lead to good consequences in this world. Not true, of course (just ask the Saints) but we cannot help but be influencedby the wider culture, which in the English speaking world, is predominantly Protestant, particularly in the United States.

  4. December 3, 2013 at 8:27 am

    Hello John,

    I so agree. Literature based on Catholic culture has been in decline as Catholic culture has. The two are linked. I do believe though that all is not lost. Resurgence has begun! A small band of Catholic writers formed what has come to be known as The Catholic Writers Guild to support and encourage each other in the creation of good Catholic literature. Some detail about the group can be found at http://www.catholicwritersguild.com/. I hope you find it encouraging and that you might write a few words about the effort.

    God bless,
    Greg Ostrand

    P.S. – Thank you for the article. It was well thought out and I very much enjoyed it.

  5. John Herreid

    December 3, 2013 at 9:30 am

    Cojuanco: There also seems to be a cinematic fortress mentality as well as an artistic fortress mentality. I think it’s fine and healthy to create forms of art that are primarily for believers, but if that is all that is being done, it’s not going to help shape culture in any significant way.

    Greg: Thanks! I’ve heard of the Guild before and will check it out again.

  6. […] fiction not propaganda. I think a lot of Catholic authors and commentators realise this. I read somewhere on the IP Novels website a warning about writing becoming ‘sterile’ and ‘safe’ if there is no self-examination and […]

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