Frederick Buechner

The American novelist Frederick Buechner (born 1926) was also a Presbyterian minister and theologian whose novels and essays after his conversion explored the grace and healing which "now and then" surprisingly and even comically penetrate the everyday darkness of human estrangement.

Carl Frederick Buechner was born on July 11, 1926, in New York City, the older of two sons of Carl Frederick and Katherine Kuhn Buechner. Although both of Buechner's parents' families were wealthly and connected with the upper-class, his immediate family was never more than modestly well situated. His father, a Princeton graduate and minor executive who moved from job to job and place to place on the East Coast during the Depression years, committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning when Buechner was ten. The event had a lasting impact on Frederick, who with his brother James saw the body on the driveway as their mother and grandmother tried frantically to revive their father. Relationships between parents and children are important in all of Buechner's novels, and the father-son relationship of which he was early deprived dominates several of them.

Buechner graduated from Lawrenceville School in New Jersey in 1943 and entered Princeton the same year. He interrupted his studies to serve with the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946, returning to Princeton in 1946 and completing the A.B. degree in 1948. Buechner taught English at Lawrenceville School from 1948 to 1953, during which time he also wrote his first two novels: A Long Day's Dying (1950), begun while he was still at Princeton; and The Seasons' Difference (1952). Most of the small groups of main characters in his first novels occupy a typically modern-affluent spiritual and moral vacuum, deeply isolated from one another beneath their genteel pleasantries and polite deceptions.

Upon its publication A Long Day's Dying was both a critical and a popular success. Some literary critics of the 1950s included Buechner among the most promising of the new generation of American writers, sometimes extravagantly comparing him to Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Elizabeth Bowen and pairing him with Truman Capote among his contemporaries.

After his initial success Buechner lived in New York City from 1953 to 1955, trying for awhile unsuccessfully to work as a fulltime writer. Having had an almost completely secular upbringing, Buechner had long experienced a kind of spiritual emptiness and restlessness. While living in New York he started attending regularly the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, whose pastor was the celebrated preacher George Buttrick. During one of Buttrick's sermons Buechner had a conversion experience. The following week he talked with Buttrick about attending seminary and entered Union Theological Seminary in New York in the fall of 1954. Among his distinguished teachers, he was particularly influenced by Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and James Muilenberg.

Buechner decided to take the 1955-1956 academic year off to work on another novel. During that period his New Yorker short story "The Tiger" won the O. Henry Prize (1955), and he courted and married Judith Friedrike Merck. Buechner returned to Union Seminary and graduated in 1958. His third novel, The Return of Ansel Gibbs, a story about a former statesman called out of retirement to be nominated for a Cabinet post, appeared in 1958 and received the Rosenthal award that year. In Ansel Gibbs and succeeding novels, Buechner's intense preoccupation in his earlier fiction with the hidden and labyrinthine complexities, the coincidences, and the might-have-beens of human behavior and relationships became increasingly enlarged and embraced within a wondering and finally comic vision of the elusive strangeness of both the self and the world.

Ordained to the ministry of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States, Buechner was invited to develop a department of religion at Phillips Exeter Academy. He chaired the department from 1959 to 1960 and served as school minister and teacher of religion from 1960 to 1967. The Buechners' three daughters—Katherine, Dinah, and Sharman—were all born during the Exeter years.

In 1965 Buechner's fourth novel, The Final Beast, appeared. It is about a young minister and widower in a small New England town and the woman the local newspaper editor tries to link together with him in a scandal. During this period Buechner also published his first theological work, a collection of school sermons entitled The Magnificent Defeat (1966).

After 1967 Buechner and his family lived in rural Vermont, and he devoted himself entirely to writing. In 1969 he published a second book of sermons, The Hungering Dark. That same year he was the William Belden Noble Lecturer at Harvard. His lectures were published in 1970 as The Alphabet of Grace, a kind of theological autobiography which examined a day in his life. All of Buechner's theological works are short, highly literary productions in most of which he draws explicit links with fiction writing generally and his own fiction in particular. He also published his fifth novel, The Entrance to Porlock in 1970, a retelling of The Wizard of Oz. The other Oz books played a large role in forming Buechner's early imagination. For example, his father, his uncle, and his grandfather set out for the same place but on very different personal quests during Buechner's childhood.

In 1971 Buechner published Lion Country, the first of what was to become a tetralogy of novels whose main character is a remarkable Southern evangelist named Leo Bebb. Lion Country was nominated for the National Book Award, and the succeeding novels in the tetralogy followed rapidly: Open Heart (1972), Love Feast (1974), and Treasure Hunt (1977). It is in the Bebb novels that Buechner comes the closest to a fully balanced artistic portrayal of that inseparable mix of the ridiculous and the sublime, the absurd and the gracious, the accidental and the providential, which he sees as the human condition in the light of Christianity. In an interview in The Christian Century, he said that with the Bebb series he was able to find his true voice, "And the other great loosening up of my life, besides writing in my own voice, was to allow myself to be funny. That was for other times, not for literary work. But with the Bebb books, I had such tremendous fun. I still remember the pure joy of writing those books."

During the 1970s and 1980s Buechner continued to write theological books. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC and The Faces of Jesus, a book of pictures with text by Buechner, both appeared in 1974. In 1977 he was the Lyman Beecher Lecturer at Yale, and his lectures were published the same year as Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale. In 1979 Buechner published Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who, with illustrations by his daughter Katherine. Godric, a historical novel about the 11th century English hermit-saint who may have been England's first lyric poet, appeared in 1980. In 1982 Buechner published the first volume of an autobiography, The Sacred Journey; the second volume, Now and Then, followed in 1983. Later, he continued his autobiographical work with Telling Secrets (1991) and The Longing For Home (1996). Each of these books delved into aspects of Buechner's life in an honest way. The Sacred Journey dealt with his relationship with his father, who committed suicide. Writing in The Christian Century, Buechner commented on the book, "Much of the insight of the book came out of therapy, and as I told some of these things I was moved to the very foundation of my being." Similarly, he wrote about his mother after her death, in Telling Secrets. Of his autobiographical forays, Buechner said, "My work became spiritual autobiography because that was the only part of my life I was interested in talking about. I also had a sense of my life as a plot, not just incident following incident, as in a newspaper. It was trying to take me somewhere."

Other works during the 1980s and 1990s consisted of several novels, including Brendan (1987), Wizard's Tide (1990), and The Son of Laughter (1996). The latter met with mixed reviews, some feeling that his retelling of the Biblical story of Jacob was a bit thin. On the whole, however, Buechner's fiction was lauded by critics. In America, Alan Davis wrote that Wizard's Tide," … is not merely inspirational, which suggests an unacceptable sentimentality, but is part of a dialogue with the mythic unknown that fiction at its best always pursues."

Buechner's mature religious vision was characterized by what has been called the "higher naivete" because his lifelong love of fantasy was allowed free play in his fiction and his artist's sense of reality revealed in the narrative and metaphorical character of the biblical literature. Theologically, his writings after his conversion came more and more to sound the theme that beneath the dark and ambivalent appearances, human life and the cosmos are actors in a divine comedy; that at the heart of reality is a wild, ineffable joy, that faith in its self-transcendence is very close to humor, and our fumbling efforts at living lives of faith are repeatedly startled by the comic incongruities of the "crazy, holy grace" which against all expectation wells up to sustain, challenge, and renew human life.

Further Reading on Frederick Buechner

The most complete biographical information about Frederick Buechner is to be found in his four volumes of autobiography, The Sacred Journey (1982), Now and Then (1983), Telling Secrets (1991), and The Longing For Home. The only published book-length study of Buechner's writings is Marie-Helene Davies, Laughter in a Genevan Gown: The Works of Frederick Buechner 1970-1980 (1983). A brief introduction to Buechner's life and writings is James Woelfel, "Frederick Buechner: The Novelist as Theologian," in Theology Today (1983). An excellent interview with Buechner can be found in The Christian Century, October 14, 1992.