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Buechner, Frederick (1926-) | Archival Collections at Wheaton College

Name: Buechner, Frederick (1926-)
Variant Name: Buechner, Carl Frederick


Historical Note:

Frederick Buechner was born Carl Frederick Buechner on July 11, 1926, the oldest of two children of Katherine Kuhn and Carl Frederick Buechner, Sr. He was named after his father, who died when Frederick was 10. As a child, the younger Buechner was particularly fond of the Oz fantasies by L. Frank Baum; much later he would retell the journey to the Emerald City in his novel, Entrance to Porlock (1970).

In 1941, during their stay in North Carolina, Frederick attended boarding school in Lawrenceville, NJ, there deciding that he wanted to write professionally. Here, also, he met the poet James Merrill, with whom he established a lifelong friendship. "Together," writes Buechner, "we were a match for the world." After Lawrenceville, Buechner pursued studies at Princeton University until WW II interrupted. He served two years in the military (1944-46), then returned to Princeton where he received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1947.

A year later he returned to Lawrenceville as a teacher in the English Department. Two years later he published his first novel, A Long Day’s Dying, to great critical acclaim, and resigned from his teaching position in 1953. Secure in his new success, that same year he moved to New York City "…to be a full-time writer, only to discover that I could not write a word." He attended Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, pastored by George Buttrick, "…whose extraordinary sermons," recalls Buechner, "had played such a crucial part in my turning to Christianity…"

Following Buttrick’s suggestion, Buechner attended Union Theological Seminary where he studied under theologians Reinhold Neibuhr, Paul Tillich and James Muilenburg. Again his education was interrupted, this time willingly. He took a year sabbatical to travel, write The Return of Ansel Gibbs – and soon fell in love with Judith Fredericke Merck, whom he married.

He returned to Union Theological Seminary for the final two years to complete his Bachelor of Divinity Degree, which he received in 1958. After that, he was ordained as an evangelist in George Buttrick’s church. Although "evangelist" was his official designation, Buechner preferred the word apologist to describe his vocation, "My job…was to present the faith as appealingly, honestly, relevantly and skillfully as I could." And he would accomplish this through his writing.

Following ordination, Buechner accepted an offer to inaugurate a full-time religious program at Philips Exeter Academy of New Hampshire, the position expanding to duties as school minister. Several chapel sermons delivered at Exeter were published as The Magnificent Defeat and The Hungering Dark. Reading assigned on Buechner’s syllabus included Karl Barth and C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, Shakespeare’s King Lear, James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Former student John Irving, author of The Cider House Rules and The World According to Garp, acknowledges his debt to Buechner in the preface to A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Buechner taught nine years at Exeter (1958-1967). His family, now including three daughters, often took their vacations in Vermont. He wrote The Final Beast while on leave during the 1963-64 school year. Departing Exeter, he moved to a farm in Vermont where he commenced his career as a full-time writer and speaker.

The Nobel lectures delivered at Harvard in 1969 were published as The Alphabet of Grace, and his Lyman Beecher Lectures of Yale became Telling the Truth (1977). Later non-fiction titles based upon his talks include: Wishful Thinking (1973); The Faces of Jesus (1974); and Peculiar Treasures (1979).

The publication of The Book of Bebb, four novels featuring the con man evangelist, Leo Bebb, marked the beginning of a new phase in his writing, displaying a lighter touch and a deepening spirituality. Thereafter came Godric (1980), and Brendan (1987), both utilizing Christian saints and ancient Celtic backdrops.

In 1985, Buechner accepted an invitation to teach a semester of literature at Wheaton College, his first full-on exposure to Evangelicalism. There he attended nearby St. Barnabas, "an extraordinary church," he writes in his memoirs, "…full of shadows, full of secrets." During this time he offered his manuscripts to the college, now archived among his literary favorites, C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton.

Recognized by Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard as "one of our finest writers," Buechner received an O. Henry Award – Third Prize(1955) and the Critic’s Choice Books Award (1990). Additionally, he has received honorary doctorates from Virginia Theological Seminary (1982); Lehigh University (1987); Cornell College (1989); Yale University (1990); and Wake Forest University (2000). Godric, dedicated to his father, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

Recent titles include The Longing for Home (1996), a meditation on the meaning of home and memory; On the Road With the Archangel (1997), drawn from the apocryphal Book of Tobit; and The Storm (1998), echoing Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In Speak What We Feel (2001) Buechner discusses Shakespeare, Gerard Manly Hopkins, Mark Twain and G.K. Chesterton, examining how each "wrote in his own blood about the darkness of life as he found it, and about how—for better or worse—he managed somehow to survive it, even to embrace it." Other influences and inspirations include Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope, William Blake, Agnes Sanford, Charles Williams, Friedrich Schleirmacher, Leo Tolstoy, E. Nesbitt, Herman Melville, Joan of Arc, T.S. Eliot, Louis Armstrong, W.H. Auden, Thornton Wilder, Robert Frost, J.R.R. Tolkien, Wagner’s operas, John Milton and Gertrude Stein.

Thus far, Frederick Buechner has composed four memoirs: The Sacred Journey (1982); Now and Then (1983); Telling Secrets (1991); and Eyes of the Heart (1999). Still writing and occasionally lecturing, he and his wife divide their time between Vermont and Florida.

Sources:

Buechner, Frederick. The eyes of the heart: a memoir of the lost and found. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999.

Buechner, Frederick. Now and then. Hagerstown: Harper & Row, 1983.

Buechner, Frederick. The sacred journey. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982.

Buechner, Frederick. Telling secrets. San Francisco : HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.

McCoy, Marjorie Casebier. Frederick Buechner : novelist/theologian of the lost and found. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.

Note Author: Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections






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