Presenter of the National Book Awards

National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

J. F. Powers, Winner of the 1963 FICTION AWARD for MORTE D'URBAN

Among my several children there is a little girl, Jane, age four. The other day she came to me with a piece of paper, a manuscript, her own, and I pretended to see words and sentences in her mock handwriting -- with which she takes great pains. "Once upon a time," I began. "Long, long ago." After that, there was a moment when I didn't know where I was, but I was relaxed about it, and soon I was reading along, going on about a bear and a dragon who had got into a hell of an argument over which one should be the one to step aside and let the other pass. Jane was absolutely hooked. And why not? A good, strong story line, dialogue, description, and characterization -- all excellent. But I was beginning to wonder, as the story got better and better, how it would all end. To wonder, yes, and to worry. "And the bear opened his big red mouth," I read, "and the dragon opened his big red mouth" -- and right there I came to the bottom of the page, I looked to see if the story was continued on the other side, but it wasn't. Silently I returned the manuscript to the author. She had a stunned look. "Wait," she said, and pulling herself together, rushed off to write some more.

There, in that little scene, I can see the power and the glory of the storyteller -- and the responsibility evaded. "The man of letters," Allen Tate has said, "must recreate for his age the image of man, and he must propagate standards by which other men may test that image, and distinguish the false from the true." This, of course, is easier said than done, but this should be the writer's work, always the end in view. Even the ignorant man, if he is an artist, can reach beyond himself. He has the power, in Henry James' words, "to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implications of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it." This is the writer's power and glory. But not without responsibility, and this, for the writer, as writer, artist, means responsibility to his craft and therefore to his readers.

When Jane returned with her manuscript, I said, "Oh, yes. Well, the bear opened his big red mouth, yes, again, and the dragon opened his big read mouth, again, and -- and they ate each other up!"

Jane, I could see, didn't care for this at all, and didn't properly understand it. "That was a dumb story," she said, but not so much to me as to herself. She was blaming herself.

"No, Jane. That was a very good story," I said, and that, in fact, was how I felt about the story.

And that is how I feel about my novel Morte D'Urban, too, but I want to thank the judges, Elizabeth Hardwick, Harry Levin, and Gore Vidal for honoring the book and me as they have.