Minneapolis Star Tribune

Evelyn Waugh and J.F. Powers, 1949

Did you ever run into the group known as the Detachers…? There was an ascetic movement in the Church in the forties that held ideas such as “Don’t have an automobile,” “Don’t have a radio,” “Sleep on the floor.”

—Senator Eugene McCarthy

A hotbed of the Detachment movement—people detaching themselves from the commercialism of the modern world—was in Minnesota around World War II. Eugene and Abigail McCarthy were part of it. So were their good friends the writer J.F. (“Jim”) Powers and his wife Betty. So were their East Coast friends Robert (“Cal”) Lowell and his wife Jean Stafford. All had been part of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement. They were adherents of what was known, in mid-twentieth-century America, as the Catholic Renaissance.

A window into that distant world is opened by the letters of Jim Powers, published by his daughter, along with excerpts from his occasional journals and from his wife’s diary. The editor briefly adds memories of growing up in what Powers called “the Movement.” That movement had four main strands.

The Catholic Renaissance

  1. Neo-Medievalism. A principal source of the Renaissance was a heightened regard for Thomism, not only by seminarians and priests, but by laymen (like Jacques Maritain and Étienne Gilson), and even by non-Catholics (like Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler), as well as by art critics like Erwin Panofsky in Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951). The idea that Saint Thomas Aquinas represented a golden age of faith led to glorification of the Middle Ages. In the friably disorienting twentieth century, the Gothic culture seemed in retrospect to fuse religion, philosophy, art, and social structure in a great synthesis. Followers of the Catholic Renaissance loved Gregorian chant, medieval guilds, Gothic churches and vestments, arts and crafts. The encyclical Rerum Novarum was invoked to show that modern capitalism is an enemy of workers’ guilds.
  2. Ruralism. In England, neo-medievalism took the form of Distributism—G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc opposing both socialism (abolishing private property) and capitalism (concentrating private property), to promote the widest distribution of private property. One way to distribute property more widely, and to withdraw from modern industrialism, was to cultivate one’s own small farm. Distributists called people back to the land not only in England but even more effectively in America, where it showed up in the Rural Life Movement, and even in the Southern Agrarians. The repudiation of the machine age made one British Distributist, the Dominican Vincent McNabb, refuse to use any machine, even a typewriter. It was a compromise with modernity for him to write with a fountain pen instead of a quill.

The center of America’s Rural Life Movement was in Iowa, where the Distributist priest Luigi Ligutti revived the old Grange homesteads with the help of New Deal money in the 1930s. Ligutti’s influence was nationwide, but especially concentrated in the Midwest, where Gene and Abigail McCarthy felt its influence. Inspired by the movement, they tried to live simply on their own farm, which they called “St. Anne’s Farm,” after Gene’s mother’s patron saint. Abigail told Senator McCarthy’s biographer:

Gene believed in renewal through the rural life movement and I was ready to assent to whatever he thought right. We would live on a farm—but, of course, a farm like none either of us had ever known, a farm which would become the center of a community of writers and scholars.1

Jim Powers had the same dream, when he was in prison as a CO (conscientious objector) during World War II. With the help of fellow COs who had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright, he created the layout for a community of prayerful farmers, a kind of Catholic Oneida. Even as late as 1979, Powers wrote his daughter, the editor of these letters, that his ideal home would be a large house in Ireland, with one room for her and her books, one for another daughter “weaving,” one for another doing etchings, one for his son “philosophizing and botanizing,” and his wife in the garden—a little monastery, the last thing the daughter wanted to hear about.

  1. Liturgy. An even greater component of the Catholic Renaissance than the Rural Life Movement was the Liturgical Movement. The prophet of ruralism, Msg. Ligutti, was near the McCarthys’ home base, but the liturgy’s prophet, Dom Virgil Michel, was at its center, at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. There the Benedictine Dom Virgil led a nationwide liturgical movement that deeply affected not only the McCarthys but also the Powerses. Senator McCarthy’s biographer wrote in 2004: “McCarthy’s respect for Father Virgil [Michel] never waned, and the monk was probably the strongest single influence on his political thought.” Jim Powers’s closest circle of friends included local liturgical artists—a sculptor, a creator of sacred chalices, and a designer of stained-glass windows.

Dom Virgil had been deeply affected by the liturgy in the Benedictine abbey of Solesmes, France. He made it his mission to educate people on the deeper meaning of the church’s year-long liturgical cycle of prayer, not only in the Mass but at the “hours” of the monastic day (explored in loving length in Dom Prosper Guéranger’s fifteen-volume The Liturgical Year). Priests were at that time required to recite a brief form of these hourly offices, in their daily reading of the Breviary. But Dom Virgil felt that priests had little understanding of what they rattled off to themselves in barely understood Latin. He wanted not only to revive clerical spirituality by close observance of every meaning in the cycle, but to introduce laymen into its mysteries.

For Detachers, this led to a monastic ideal in married life—with family prayers keyed to the seasons and hours of the church’s prayer year. Some men and women read the priests’ breviary, alone or as a family; and all became intimate with the seasonal prayers at Mass. They became known as “big Missal” people, carrying their own Latin texts to Mass, and responding to the priest in Latin (at the missa recitata). Abigail and Eugene began and ended each day at their Saint Anne’s Farm with prayers from the “hours” of the liturgy for that day.

St. John’s Abbey was central to the lives of both Gene McCarthy and Jim Powers. McCarthy attended the preparatory school and university connected with the abbey, then entered its seminary; and he went back as a layman to teach economics at the university from 1940 to 1943. Powers, who had grown up around Chicago, was drawn to Minnesota after he posed as a seminarian in order to attend a priests’ retreat at St. John’s, preached by a devout Detacher, Father John Hugo. He taught part-time at St. John’s University. Abigail McCarthy wrote that the abbey had a strong hold on the community formed by its alumni and friends. She fought that influence when her boyfriend, Gene, broke off their courtship to go into the seminary. She prayed that God would send him back to her. When her friend Jim Powers asked why she was so intent on Gene, she said, “I think I have a better chance of being a saint” with him.


  1. Catholic Workers. Jean Stafford, like Abigail McCarthy and Betty Powers, found herself making sacrifices for her religious husband. After Robert Lowell became a Catholic, he had Jean, who was a Catholic convert but had lapsed, get remarried with him in the church; and he sent her off to work with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker House, and with another Catholic activist, Baroness de Hueck, at Friendship House. Lowell himself was busy working as an editor at the publishing house of all the major Catholic Renaissance writers, Sheed and Ward, where the son of that house’s founders says he was treated as a shining religious star. Stafford, too, thought her husband was “a catch” for the publishers. Stafford also worked for them, taking dictation from the house’s cofounder, Frank Sheed, as he translated Augustine’s Confessions.

Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward were Distributists. Ward wrote the first major biography of Chesterton, who was godfather to their son, Wilfrid Sheed. The pair had dutifully tried farming, like good Distributists, and been as unsuccessful as most of their fellow believers. Frank Sheed was a lay theologian, a kind of mini-Maritain. He and his wife were also street evangelists, in the Catholic Evidence Guild, a group Lowell considered joining while he worked for them.

There was a split in the Catholic Worker movement during World War II. Dorothy Day and her principal coworkers, Peter Maurin and Ammon Hennacy, were pacifists. But Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward wanted the troops to fight for their British homelands (Australia, respectively, and England). Both Lowell and Powers went with the pacifist Workers, and ended up in wartime confinement as COs. It is not surprising that when Lowell and Powers met in 1947 at Yaddo, the writers’ retreat, they had much in common—Catholicism, Detachment, pacifism, prison. They had been part of the Catholic Renaissance at its peak of influence.

But that influence soon faded, even from Catholic memories. The Catholic Renaissance had not, after all, led to a new form of lay monasticism. Perhaps by encouraging lay people to think, to plan different lives, to demand more from their priests, it helped bring about the Second Vatican Council. But that event was no triumph for the Detachers. They had wanted Gregorian chant, and they got guitars. Their missa recitata used timeless Latin and exotic liturgical niceties. They got everyday vernaculars. They wanted Saint Thomas’s Middle Ages, and they got the youth culture of the Sixties (which, as his children learned to their cost, Powers despised). Powers hated the new Mass and other changes brought in by Vatican II. That did not matter to the other Detachers mentioned here. They found useful alternatives to their early idealism. McCarthy became a senator, Lowell a poet, Stafford a novelist, Wilfrid Sheed a brilliant critic. They detached themselves from the Detachment and entered a wider world. Powers never did.

J.F. Powers: Letters

The Powers revealed in this collection of his letters is a man dispirited and dispiriting. He lived in a closed enclave of Detachers long after the Detachment was over. His closest friends were two Detacher priests who settled into the mediocre rectories described in Powers’s stories. One of them, Father Harvey Egan, gave Powers money during his many destitute periods. The other, George Garrelts, tried to prevent his marriage and then sabotaged it for years. When Betty tried to ease their life away from Garrelts, Jim said, in effect, she would have to choose between having the priest stay and having him go.

Powers was unhappy with his marriage and his children, and regularly broke away from them at holidays to go elsewhere with his priest friends. Gloomily following the church’s ban on contraceptives, he used the unpredictable “rhythm” form of birth control, with expectable results. Trying to avoid having ten or twelve children, he ended up with five, and dreaded each new pregnancy. Of these serial threats he wrote things like “her pregnancy. That, as you might guess, was the last straw,” and “we’re appalled by the prospect.” He was relieved when he could write at one point “no new children.” His wife felt the same way. She wrote in her diary after one child’s delivery: “No pregnancy had felt so tedious, so completely unjust.” (The McCarthys had the same experience with the rhythm method and had four children, as well as another, stillborn. I had a Catholic friend at the time who said that he and his wife prayed for an early menopause as their only relief.)

Powers led a very provincial life, staying in Minnesota except for the four times he moved his cumbrous family to Ireland, seeking simpler and more affordable circumstances, plunging them each time into greater problems. Betty, a writer herself, described one such Irish venture in her novel Rafferty & Co. Her daughter says this was a “far too gentle” picture of the ordeal, which gives some idea of the real horror of it. The novel’s trials are grim enough—a father pursuing an unremunerative art (weaving), unsuccessfully wooing a college president and his snooty wife for a badly needed job, wrestling with primitive living conditions (one house the Powers family lived in had no indoor plumbing).

Powers turned down most short-term teaching offers, as distractions from his art. He repeatedly rented a separate office to write in, when the family was living in houses primitively furnished. Yet in that writer’s cell he produced only a small stream of stories, along with two novels labored at for decades. Doubleday had given him allowances to work on his first novel, tried to get him grants, and gave him an advance on a multibook contract. But when he was reminded through the years of his lack of production, he turned venomously on the generous and humane editor Ken McCormick, adding him to a long list of grievances against his editors, his agent, and all the other people—including his wife and children—who were preventing him from producing the literary masterpiece he kept promising himself. He expected sacrifices from people as contributions to this masterwork, sponging on his parents, his in-laws, and others. He resented his wife’s efforts to find him work and, in the words of his daughter, was “disgusted by the failure of those who had the wherewithal to support him to come through with the goods.”


His daughter tells us he worked for years on a novel about their family life, to be called “Flesh, a word infused with Jansenist distaste.” His journal shows that the book would have gone from initial high spirits to misery: “My theory is that marriage kills.” He gave a short version of the tale in his story “Tinkers,” where the husband turns angrily on his wife for castigating his wastefulness (he spends money they do not have on auctions, as Powers often did).

A sister of this book’s editor was surprised to read their father’s early love letters to Betty. The man she knew growing up is better found in Powers’s journal in 1959: “Betty and I never so out of harmony.” Or, in the same year: “the morning the worst ever so far as the children are concerned.” Under these family conditions, he told Father Egan, “I’d join the Clementine fathers”—the sorry order he describes as so dreary in his fiction. He advised an aspiring author not to have children if she wanted to succeed.

J.F. Powers: Fiction

Since Powers is so dissatisfied with his family and his church, it is surprising that he never seems to consider leaving either of them. He measures them harshly against Detacher ideals without ever thinking he could find something better. Robert Lowell shrewdly saw the resemblance between Powers’s own life and the trapped priests of his fiction. Though he was meticulous in his craft—seeing little details, inching out believable dialogue—he had a very narrow range. Both his completed novels, and twenty-five of his short stories, are about priests, and all priests of a stalled middling condition. I did not see, as a Catholic high-schooler, what his non-Catholic admirers made of them. We were supposed to find there the message that God works even in ordinary circumstances.

He was the Catholics’ American author, to be read with the French Bernanos and Bloy, the English Waugh and Greene—Walker Percy came too late for my classes, and Flannery O’Connor was too knottily Gothic and Southern for the nuns to press her on us. But Powers was not in the same league as the European authors. Bernanos made a deep holiness in his country priest convincing, Greene brought faith to showdown battles with sin, and Waugh traced an airy providence hovering somewhere over the story. (Wilfrid Sheed on Waugh: “His religion was unwaveringly important to him, and it must have hurt him deeply that he explained it so badly.”)

The Powers priests, by contrast, are not saints, and not sinners, and not historical forces—indeed, they seem to have no spiritual experience at all. The sacraments mean things like resenting a priest for dawdling in the way he hears confession, leaving his fellow priests to service his long lines. The priests, when not talking “shop”—things like printers for their devotional brochures—mainly talk about sports. In all this, they are like Powers himself, who shared banter with his priest friends on baseball, horse races, and boxing. The fictional priests are as little interested in great art or poetry, music or philosophy, as their creator.

For Catholics, there was a certain pleasure in the knowingness of these tales—how priests can be bullied by their housekeepers, or how curates chafe at their pastors, pastors at their bishops. Since Powers hung around with priests all his life, he knew their mediocre rectories well. The main interest in his first novel, Morte D’Urban, is the courting of a demanding layman donor who turns out to be a sadist—a tale told through long dinners at posh restaurants, long negotiation for a golf course at a retreat house, and the dismay at having to turn off this flow of cash from a cad. The story line of his second, Wheat That Springeth Green, moves in a long inexorable slide from a seminarian’s austerity to a priest’s alcoholism. Each tale is more a series of vignettes than a novel—both Waugh and Denis Donoghue rightly said that Powers is more a short-story writer than a novelist.2

Even as a short-story writer, he moves on a very short leash. Why tread this little round over and over? He eventually reworked his material into a thinness that made him resort to telling two stories through the observing mind of a rectory cat—combining his basic stuff with another personal interest of his, small animals. Powers did not have to work in so confining a space. He early showed that he could move out to other territory. His story “He Don’t Plant Cotton” is a taut and resonant tale of black jazz musicians in a nightclub. But he seems not to have wanted or dared to take on new things. He was impervious to influence, and exerted none on other writers. In fact, his connections with a broader literary world were exiguous.

The only American writers addressed in these letters were two he met through his stay at Yaddo. He was grateful to Katherine Anne Porter, who recommended him to Yaddo—and after whom the editor of Suitable Accommodations was named. And he exchanged some letters with Lowell after their brief time together there. The only other writer he knew even casually was Sean O’Faolain, who invited him to dinner when he was in Ireland. Otherwise he worked his miniature plot, turning out literary bonsai.

I know that some fine critics have found the half-men priests of these well-trimmed tales humorous and/or touching. Even more have considered them satires. But satirical of what? Is the tale of his family’s dreariness (“Tinkers”) a satire of marriage? Then are his letters, which give us the same picture, to be read as satire? They are not satire, just description. His clerics are like small-town managers of an extended chain of department stores. What is being satirized—the extended chain? Or was it satirizing American commercial culture, a kind of ecclesiastical Babbitt? But his priests neither exuberantly embrace nor markedly reject that culture, of which they are not widely significant indicators. The satire would simply miss such a target, if it can be considered satire at all.

Like Abigail McCarthy, Powers started out with the conviction that the Detachment would make him a saint. When it failed to do that, he did not know what to do with himself except keep rehearsing various aspects of his deadened condition. His stunted priests are surrogates for his own stalled life, as Lowell realized and these letters confirm. No one ever so doggedly persevered in a nonvocation.