A Brief Biographical Sketch excerpted and adapted, with the author's permission, from Understanding Richard Powers by Joseph Dewey.
Powers's characters themselves shift between the impulse to connect and its inevitable crash and burn; between the Emersonian urge to embrace the difficult ad-lib of the world and the Dickinsonesque need to recoil from its evident bruising into the supple sanctuary of the aesthetic enterprise, to withdraw into the secured refuge of a novel, a piece of music, a movie house, a museum, even cyberspace. Although long reluctant to encourage the distraction of biography, Powers has lived--like his characters--sustained within a curiously similar geography; never quite at home, never quite comfortable with belonging, shifting between engagement and escape. Powers was born 18 June 1957 in Evanston, Illinois, the fourth of five children, two older sisters and a brother and one younger brother. Early on, in the mid-1960s, his father, a high school principal with a working-class background, moved the family to the north Chicago suburb of Lincolnwood, an older neighborhood, Powers recalls, that was heavily Jewish. "My sisters and brothers and I would be just about the only kids in school for the high holy days."
He continues, "I always had a sense that
we weren't quite native, a self-image compounded when we moved to Bangkok
right before my eleventh birthday." Powers then spent what he has
frequently described as five "eye-opening" years in Thailand when his
father accepted an appointment with the International School of Bangkok
during the height of the American military presence in Southeast Asia.
Amid such dramatic relocations, the young Powers discovered the aesthetic
sanctuary: he tapped into both a sustaining love of music (an accomplished
student of vocal music, he trained in the cello but also plays guitar,
clarinet, and saxophone) and a restless curiosity fed by voracious
reading. He recounts the impact of both the Iliad and the
Odyssey (testimony again to a position between, on the one hand, the
realist's impulse to record the world with the historian's eye and, on the
other, the poet's privilege to invent with the license of the unleashed
imagination). His earliest reading passion, however, was for nonfiction,
specifically biographies and science (he has cited particularly the impact
of Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle--which he read, amazingly enough,
in fourth grade). He recalls, in part because of the panicked surge of
interest in science following the Sputnik launch, the notion that he was
somehow "destined to be a scientist." Thus, as a teenager, he explored
careers in paleontology, oceanography, and archaeology before ultimately
Powers moved to Boston in January 1980 and worked as a computer programmer and freelance data processor, skills he had developed ruing his off-hours learning the massive computer network systems at Illinois. Computer programmer by day, he continued his eclectic reading program, ingesting volumes of history, sociology, political science, aesthetics, and hard science theory, as well as a wide range of novels and poetry--"random pleasures, all over the map." He lived near the Museum of Fine Arts, where he would spend Saturdays (admission was free before noon), and where, one week, he chanced upon an exhibit that included August Sander's 1914 black-and-white photograph of three Westerwald farm boys heading, according to the title, to a dance. The image haunted Powers. "All of my previous year's random reading just consolidated and converged on this one moment, this image, which seemed to me to [be] the birth photograph of the twentieth century."
Within forty-eight hours he quit his job
to devote himself to producing his first novel,
Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance,
a project that took more than two years. "I thought: I'm going to put
everything that I know in this book, because I'm never going to get
another shot at this...Afterwards, I figured, I'd have to go back and do
jobs that people are willing to pay for." That novel, which explores the
tectonic impact of artistic images, met with significant critical success,
much to Powers's surprise. Encouraged by the realization that he could
make a living from writing, Powers moved to southern Holland--in part to
withdraw from the distractions of his initial success in the United States
but more to immerse himself in that region's fascinating play of multiple
languages and dialects and to secure the distance necessary to finish the
draft of his second novel,
Prisoner's Dilemma, an unsettling work that audaciously juxtaposed
Disney and the logic of nuclear warfare, a novel that Powers has described
as his most American work.
© 2002 by Joseph Dewey
Copyright 1997-2008 David Dodd.
Last updated: 8/28/2008