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Morte D’Urban

by J.F. Powers

Original Publisher: Doubleday
Current Publisher:
New York Review of Books

Joshua Ferris writes:

You'd be wise in a novel about Catholicism to be on the lookout for a symbol or two. So when you first encounter Father Urban (formerly Harvey Roche), there's a little key to his character embedded in the name: he is liberal, worldly, enterprising. But when internal politics cast him out, to a backwater retreat in Minnesota, the newly rural Urban looks around in search of God's plan, but finds only the conservatism that makes the Catholic Church ("second only to Standard Oil in efficiency") a lumbering and ineffectual beast.

Somewhere between a comedy-of-manners and a decidedly low-key if ambiguous tragedy, Morte D'Urban (the title is at once highly ironic and deadly genuine) tells the story of Urban's fall and rise in the church hierarchy, cataloging along the way the variegated personalities found in the clergy, and all manner of confusion among the laity. Urban makes the most of his situation in Minnesota through compromise, capitulation, and finally the old calculating spirit that defined his missionary work in and around Chicago (and that led to his ouster). He makes a name for himself through preaching and socializing, arranges for the construction of a golf course that attracts not only wealthy parishioners but the Bishop himself, and puts the backwater on the map. But his success exacts a price: entanglements with those who would bankroll his enterprises turn a little messy, in all-too-terrestrial ways, and Father Urban learns too late that "the moral ... is stay away from people."

And right in time for the shifting political winds to place him back in power, when he's promoted to Father Provincial of Chicago. But a position that once would have presented the self-aggrandizing Urban with an opportunity to effect real change and turn the Order into a living, relevant organization is now, by way of his bad health, disillusionment, and treacherous past, but a sad sinecure. He has become the very thing he so loathed, the sluggish cog of a moribund system. What distinguishes the book today, aside from Powers's humor and his clear-eyed look at his all-too-human men of God, is how well the characters delineate the rapacity of capitalism (Billy Cosgrove) that might help explain the recent banking fiasco, as well as the self-satisfied conservatism (afflicting every father but Urban) that did Detroit in. The symbols, as it turns out, hold up.


Joshua Ferris was a National Book Award Finalist in Fiction in 2007 for his first novel, Then We Came to the End.

Fiona Maazel writes:

Well, there’s the stupid inefficiency of it all. A tacit struggle for ascendancy in an Institution that purports a higher calling but which trucks in the banal. There’s our hero, who means well enough, but too bad, and a sequence of mishaps that questions the Institution’s relevance to the lives of people in an increasingly troubled time. Sound like your typical story about a law firm, NGO, insurance company, bank? Nope, it’s the Catholic Church circa 1956 in J.F. Powers’s NBA-winning satire, Morte D’Urban. You get the feeling, reading this thing, that there’s no love lost between Powers (who was himself a Roman Catholic) and the Church, here a Clementine order with an outpost in nowhere, Minnesota, where most of the action of the novel takes place. And what action it is! A handful of Roman Catholic priests moored in a drafty house that needs renovation. The priests renovating in a DIY explosion of penury and what the title character, Father D’Urban, likens to “eating the stale bread because the fresh would keep.” The folly of their labors is ballast for much of the novel’s fun, even as it gets increasingly grim because where, after all, is God in all this? Where is religion? In this novel, God is a parenthetical, literally and otherwise—“If Father Urban wasn’t the one most responsible (after God, of course) for Phil’s decision to build, then who was?”—and so the point is made throughout that the Church belongs to the operators and players, the movers and shakers, and that spiritual fulfillment is some other group’s province, maybe Standard Oil.

Here is the author’s 1999 New York Times obit: “J.F. Powers, 81, Dies; Wrote About Priests.” I guess that’s one hell of a bailiwick, and his for Morte D’Urban and several short stories that do not villanize so much as humanize men of the cloth whose bind is to commodify religion without selling it out. Good luck with that, then as now.


Fiona Maazel was selected by Jim Shepard as one of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 in 2008 for her first novel, Last Last Chance.


ISBN: 9780940322233

Fiction Finalists that Year:

  • Vladimir Nabokov for Pale Fire
  • Katherine Anne Porter for Ship of Fools
  • Dawn Powell for The Golden Spur
  • Clancy Sigal for Going Away
  • John Updike for Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories

Fiction Judges that Year: Elizabeth Hardwick, Harry Levin, Gore Vidal

The Year in Literature:  

  • The Reivers by William Faulkner won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
  • Giorgos Seferis won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

More Information:

  • When J.F. Powers died in 1999, all of his books were out of print, including Morte D’Urban and Wheat that Springeth Green, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1988.
  • The New York Review of Books reissued Morte D’Urban in 2000.

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Reader Comments (1)

Still one of my favorite novels ever; so funny and true in its depiction of the cloistered life of midwest priests (and pastors as well, I might add) is so right on.

Not to toot my own horn or anything but, if anyone is interested they are more than welcome to read my tale on J.F. Powers on my blog. I am a librarian at the Greenwich Library and they so kindly offer me space to pontificate.


August 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterStephen Schmidt
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