Frederick Buechner: Literary Icon

(Photo Credit Frederick Buechner Center)

Carl Frederick Buechner is a significant figure in fiction with work spanning across six decades.  He was born in 1926 and realized his love for writing as a teenager at a boarding school, where he wrote poetry and befriended poet James Merrill.  He completed an English degree at Princeton, despite a two-year interruption while he served in World War II.  His first work was published in 1950, a novel titled A Long Day’s Dying that is considered one of his most successful.  The Frederick Buechner Center describes the novel as “foreshadow[ing] many of the themes in Mr. Buechner’s later writing—faith, trust, and the complex relations of family and friends.”  The acclaim the novel received helped Buechner realize his desire for a career in writing.  He moved to New York but realized he “could not write a word” (Wheaton College Archives).  His second novel The Season’s Difference was published in 1952 and failed to capture the praise of his first.  Influential sermons at the church he attended in New York led him to pursue a Divinity degree.  His studies were interrupted voluntarily when he took a year to travel, write The Return of Ansel Gibbs, and fall in love.  After completing his degree and achieving ordination, he balanced his responsibilities as a minister and religion program professor with his rejuvenated love for writing.  Both seemed to influence one another, but in 1967, he moved to Vermont to become a full-time writer and speaker.

The 1970’s brought more of Buechner’s exceptional published works.  His lectures at Harvard and Yale were published as The Alphabet of Grace and Telling the Truth, and more non-fiction works based on his lectures were published Wishful Thinking, The Faces of Jesus, and Peculiar Treasures.  His fiction novels Lion Country, Open Heart, Love Feast, and Treasure Hunt were part of a series later combined and released as The Book of Bebb, centered on a clergyman with a sinful past who seeks identity and meaning.  Although laced with humor, the story maintained Buechner’s overarching theme of flawed humanity.  It was described as “a lightness of touch here, a sensuousness, a feeling of celebration, that should make him accessible to a far larger circle of readers” (Frederick Buechner Center).  Godric was another of his notable works, a novel on the life of a Celtic saint, and was recognized as a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1981.

He has been labeled “a very good writer,” “major talent,” “one of our finest writers,” “one of our most original storytellers” and has received numerous literary awards (Frederick Buechner Center).  He wasn’t afraid to try new things in his work, despite the success of his first.  He never tried first person perspective until Godric in 1980, nor humor until the Bebb novels in the 70’s.  His work grew increasingly spiritual and reflective of the human condition, as his ministerial passion inspired his writing.  His success may have been for the simple fact that it was relatable, yet in a beautiful, empathetic way.  His characters were authentic, his writing detailed and engaging, and the worlds were understandable.

His uncanny ability of bringing beauty to the menial simplicity of life has cemented him as one of the most prolific writers in modern literary history, and will continue to inspire writers in future generations.


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