PHOTO COURTESY OF SJU ALUMNI MAGAZINE, 1985 • Cartoon of J.K. Powers, alumnus and Catholic-based author.

PHOTO COURTESY OF GREG BECKER • Jon Hassler worked with Powers and is known for his Catholic works.

By Steph Haeg
[email protected]

It’s November, which means it’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, as it’s also known). To celebrate the season, I thought it might be time to look into some of the authors that CSB and SJU have produced over the years.

We have a rich literary tradition; writing magazines such as Studio One, and its predecessors Lower Stumpf Lake Review and Sketchbook, go back to 1949.

Their pages are full of poems, short stories and artwork belonging to the students of the time, just as Studio One is now. Plenty of alumni and professors are published; odds are that one of your professors have been. But today I will focus on writers who were renowned for their works in fiction.

A part of that literary tradition involves the post of writer-in-residence. The position was in many ways similar to the artists-in-residence and scholars-in-residence whom we still have on campus (We still have writers-in-residence, but they tend to have shorter tenures now). The people who held the position were renowned for their work, and often lectured, taught classes or hosted seminars and often worked on their own projects.

J.F. Powers held a position at SJU from 1975 until his retirement as Regents Professor Emeritus in 1993. He was considered to be one of the “great Catholic Writers” (a title he despised, as he believed his religion to be not as relevant as his status as a writer, and indicated that only Catholic readers would enjoy his work). He won the National Book Award in 1963, despite having steep competition from many famous writers such as Katherine Anne Porter, John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov. His office at SJU was in the attic studio in Simons Hall, and students who found it often compared it to Narnia. His wife, Betty Wahl, was a CSB alumna and a writer in her own right.

Powers wasn’t much for teaching, and he took his time writing. He only wrote two novels and three collections of short stories over his career, but those who knew him considered him an influential figure.

Powers did not hold the position of writer-in-residence alone; in 1980, SJU invited another alumnus Jon Hassler to the position. He was later appointed Regents Professor and became Regents Professor Emeritus of Fiction after his retirement in 1997. Like Powers, Hassler wrote widely about Catholic themes, but he also wrote about small-town rural life. He received the Colman J. Barry Award for Distinguished Contributions to Religion and Society from SJU in 2003.

America magazine mourned his death, declaring him “the Last Catholic Novelist” in his obituary in 2008. Hassler kept writing right up until his death of progressive supra-nuclear palsy (a disease similar to Parkinson’s) at the age of 74, with finishing a novel “Jay O’Malley” only weeks before his death. He wrote 19 books.
Like those of us who will be attempting to complete NaNoWriMo this month (the goal of the challenge is to write 50,000 words in a month, or 1,667 words per day), Hassler also strove to write constantly and be disciplined. His MPR obituary reported that he strove to write 400 good words a day.