Frederick Buechner Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Carl Frederick Buechner (BEEK-nur) was born to Carl Frederick and Katherine Buechner, who moved the family many times during his childhood. When Buechner was ten years old, his father committed suicide, an event that contributed to making him a rather bookish, brooding, even clinical observer of human life. Buechner completed his secondary education at the exclusive Lawrenceville School in New Jersey in 1943, and after three years in the military he completed his B.A. in English at Princeton University. During his senior year at Princeton, Buechner conceived and wrote his first novel, A Long Day’s Dying. Directly after graduation he returned to the Lawrenceville School to teach and occasionally to conduct writing seminars in New York City.

When A Long Day’s Dying appeared in 1950, it was highly praised by most critics, who focused on its labored, Jamesian narrative voice and its sophisticated treatment of the fragmented relationships on a college campus in postwar America. One critic, however, characterized it ruefully as “writing for a teacher,” implying that it was constructed to conform to the dominant critical mode of the time, the so-called New Criticism, which prized such qualities as ambiguity and ambivalence. With the publication of Buechner’s second novel, The Season’s Difference, it began to seem as if he were destined to take his place among those despairing voices in American fiction (including William Styron, Norman Mailer, and Truman Capote) who looked bleakly heavenward and could see only an empty sky bereft of divine comfort or direction.

In 1953, Buechner decided to become a full-time writer and moved to New York. There his conversion to Christianity and his subsequent education at the Union Theological Seminary from 1954 to 1958 irrevocably altered his course. After his ordination as a Presbyterian minister in 1958, Buechner served as school chaplain and chairman of the department of religion at Phillips Exeter Academy until 1967. During this time, he produced two novels whose characters clearly reflect a humanness and humor uncharacteristic of the somber, tortured protagonists of his two earlier novels. Both The Return of Ansel Gibbs and The Final Beast focus on the exigencies of modern life. The characters see their Christian faith as a daily affirmation, not a once-for-all declaration, and they are charged with fighting off the temptation of “cheap grace.” After leaving Exeter in 1967, Buechner became a full-time writer and lecturer, living with his wife, Judith, and his family in Vermont.

In the late 1960’s, Buechner published two collections of sermons, The Magnificent Defeat and The Hungering Dark, consisting of addresses he had composed for chapel devotions at Exeter and guest sermons at local congregations. Five theological...

(The entire section is 1169 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Anderson, Chris. “The Very Style of Faith: Frederick Buechner as Homilist and Essayist.” Christianity and Literature 38 (Winter, 1989): 7-21. Focuses on Buechner’s nonfiction, but with many insights that make the full purpose and interest of his fiction more accessible.

Brown, W. Dale. “A Faith to Live and Die With.” Sojourners 27 (May/June, 1998): 52-55. Brown surveys some of Buechner’s works, showing how they reflect the position of faith in modern life. He also shows how Buechner has reaffirmed the value of Christianity by constantly questioning its relevance.

Davies, Marie-Hélène. Laughter in a Genevan Gown: The Works of Frederick Buechner, 1970-1980. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1983. The most comprehensive introduction to the life and work of Buechner, locating both author and works in the context of their religious background.

Nelson, Rudolph L.“‘ The Doors of Perception’: Mystical Experience in Buechner’s Fiction.” Southwest Review 68 (Summer, 1983): 266-273. Stresses the visionary element in Buechner’s work and how it assists in the articulation of his fiction’s overall point of view.

O’Faolain, Julia. “St. Patrick Monkeys Around.” The New York Times Book Review 92 (August 9, 1987): 15. A sympathetic review of Brendan, informative and appreciative of the novel’s excursion into the world of Celtic Christianity.

Yancey, Philip. “Crazy, Holy Grace.” Christianity Today 41 (June 16, 1997): 33. Yancey recounts Buechner’s conversion at the age of twenty-seven, when a sermon by George Buttrick changed his life. Buechner’s view of God as a humorous, friendly presence whose grace appears in unexpected ways is reflected throughout his writing.