"Powers is among the greatest of living storytellers," said Frank O'Connor---and his modest production has been chiefly in the medium of the short story. He has contributed to the New Yorker and other magazines. Early in his career he wrote with anger at the plight of the African American as well as his own humiliation during the Depression at being forced to accept jobs as salesclerk and insurance sales agent. Later, although "neither a determined and conscious apologist for the church of Rome, nor blindly revolting against her" (SR), he found his subjects in the lives of priests and their parishes, which he has treated with gentle irony. The New Yorker called Prince of Darkness (1947), his first collection, "varied and fresh stories, written in delightfully firm and straightforward prose, in which Mr. Powers proves that he has few rivals at creating characters with more than superficial reality." The N.Y. Times said of Presence of Grace (1956), "J. F. Powers is a largely endowed, careful and important short-story writer, one of the best in America. Some of the nine stories in his new collection are distinguished by a high astringent hilarity, and some are filled with terror and pity." His first novel, Morte d'Urban (1962), won him the 1963 National Book Award. Its "prose is clear, lean, and supple: it is the work of a master who has achieved virtuosity. . . . The gaiety of his wit . . . is pertinent here because Morte d'Urban could have been bitter, even savage, in its ridicule of a certain kind of priest" (Commonweal).
Denis Donoghue is University Professor and Henry James Professor of English and American Letters at New York University.