During my many, mostly unsuccessful years of shopping for John Cowper Powys novels in American used bookstores, I’ve been confronted by at least ten different editions of Morte d’Urban by J. F. Powers. I probably know as much about the various cover designs of that book as Powers’ most ardent bibliophiles do. There was usually a copy on the shelves where I’d vainly hoped to come across absolutely anything at all written by J. C Powys.
At best I might find a battered paperback copy of Weymouth Sands; possibly an ancient Wolf Solent hardcover, falling apart at the binding with brittle and freckled yellow endpapers. And you couldn’t even trust all the pages were still extant, never mind the dust cover. But there was the very nice copy of Morte d’Urban by J. F. Powers, a book holding no interest for me despite its National Book Award appeal, although the title did sound vaguely Powysian, which eventually only added insult to injury when I came across it for the umpteenth time.
America in the late nineteen-eighties, when I discovered John Cowper Powys, was not a good time for it. There were a couple of paperbacks of Weymouth Sands and Wolf Solent floating around, published by Harper Colophon in matching covers, but finding anything else required extensive archaeological digging in used bookstores. I was desperate to read A Glastonbury Romance after finishing those other two novels. Buying the novel, however, was much harder than I thought. I saw a copy that was so dusty, decrepit and apparently diseased that I decided it would require hazmat gauntlets and protective goggles to read the wretched thing. There was another one, pristine and gleaming in mylar wrap like the Holy Grail, for sale in a forbiddingly highbrow “bookseller” in Harvard Square. Being an optimist I asked how much it cost. “Oh,” I said when the owner named an absolutely exorbitant sum, pretended to examine a few other books, then quickly departed.
Of course, if ye seek ye will find eventually. By stubbornly returning to the P section of Boston’s many used bookstores time and time again, I managed to track down quite a few of Powys’ novels and other writings, including a copy of The Inmates in a plain green cover that I must admit still has my bookmark wedged only about a quarter of the way through. As you might expect, most of those bookstores have disappeared now, replaced by banks, mobile phone shacks, and in one especially sad case, a parking garage. So who knows where young American Powys converts would find those novels these days. They are certainly not available for Kindle in the US, only Powys’ early novels have been accorded that modern privilege so far. J. F. Powers’ Morte d’Urban, however, can be downloaded in a matter of seconds and no doubt Amazon’s remorseless shopping algorithms will be recommending it to me before too long.