Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1169
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 works followed in the 1970’s, culminating with Telling the Truth, a reinterpretation of the life of Christ from a storyteller’s point of view that reveals Buechner’s own narrative strategies.
During this period, the prolific Buechner also completed five novels: The Entrance to Porlock, a retelling of the Oz stories as modern myth, and the celebrated Bebb tetralogy (Lion Country, Open Heart, Love Feast, and Treasure Hunt—later published in one volume as The Book of Bebb). This bawdy chronicle of the rogue preacher Leo Bebb and his spiritually reticent son-in-law, Antonio Parr, at once satirizes and celebrates the improbable joy and disreputable shenanigans of those who profess belief in the gospel of Christ.
In the 1980’s, Buechner became more introspective and turned to history, writing two terse autobiographical volumes and two historical novels focusing on obscure Christian saints of the Middle Ages. The Sacred Journey, Buechner’s first volume of autobiography, details key events of his childhood and adolescence and recalls the formative influences he encountered during his undergraduate years at Princeton. It concludes with Buechner’s recounting of the composition and unexpected critical acclaim of his first two novels and his eventual, and seemingly coincidental, conversion to Christianity. Now and Then, published a year later, continued his autobiographical reflections, beginning with his seminary days in New York City and moving on to an account of Buechner’s unlikely development of three different vocations after his graduation and ordination: chaplain/teacher, religious novelist, and popular theologian. Godric and Brendan, feigned biographies of two prominent, ancient believers, represented a new narrative focus for him, as Buechner successfully re-created and then meshed the language and culture of older times and themes reflective of the challenges of contemporary Christians in the Western world.
During the 1990’s, Buechner wrote The Son of Laughter, a novel based on the biblical Jacob, in which he strives to re-create a world long gone, when faith was worked out amid confusion and doubt. His novella The Wizard’s Tide is a strongly autobiographical account of a young boy who must deal with his father’s suicide. This attempt at confronting family problems also appears in Buechner’s third autobiographical work, Telling Secrets. Throughout this time, Buechner also continued to preach and lecture. The collection The Clown in the Belfry draws on this material, whereas Listening to Your Life draws on material that had been published earlier but is here given a new context. The Longing for Home, a book of reflection and recollection, appeared in 1996.
Buechner’s next novel, On the Road with the Archangel, was based on the Book of Tobit, one of the “Apocryphal Books” in Protestantism and the only extended first-person narrative in the Old Testament. The Storm, a magical tale of love, betrayal, and redemption inspired by William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611), followed a year later. Another powerfully honest memoir, The Eyes of the Heart, was published in 1999. In Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say), Buechner discusses the four authors who were his greatest influences: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton, and Shakespeare.
The principal audience for Buechner’s work comprises two groups of readers: those for whom his Christian experience is both instructive and illuminating of their own faith and those who, with little regard for his religious conviction, admire his effortless prose and skillful depiction of the tensions and anxieties of modern life. Buechner often said that his books are too religious for secular readers and too secular for religious readers. Throughout his literary career, however, Buechner gathered a consistently enthusiastic, though sometimes modest, readership among both kinds of readers. As memoirist, theologian, or storyteller, Buechner refuses to explain away the tensions of faith or paint a simplistic picture of the spiritual dimensions of life. He believes that even the most crushing defeats can be overcome by the irresistible grace of God, a force that operates both with and without human assistance. It is not the logician’s syllogism but the narrative of the graceful storyteller that sheds light on this profound discovery. Few religious writers contemporary with Buechner are his equal in communicating the meaning of Christianity in a time when the Christian vocabulary and worldview are considered defunct and impotent. He is thus rightly ranked with Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy as one of the preeminent Christian fiction writers of the late twentieth century.
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