Buechner, Frederick 1926–
Buechner, Frederick 1926–
(Carl Frederick Buechner)
PERSONAL: Born July 11, 1926, in New York, NY; son of Carl Frederick and Katherine (Kuhn) Buechner; married Judith Friedrike Merck, April 7, 1956; children: Katherine, Dinah, Sharman. Education: Lawrenceville School, graduated 1943; Princeton University, A.B., 1948; Union Theological Seminary, B.D., 1958.
ADDRESSES: Home—3572 State Route 315, Pawlet, VT 05761-9753. Office—P.O. Box 1145, Pawlet, VT 05761. Agent—Lucy Kroll Agency, 390 West End Ave., New York, NY 10024 (drama); Harriet Wasserman, 137 East 36th St., New York, NY 10016.
CAREER: Lawrenceville School, Lawrenceville, NJ, teacher of English, 1948–53; instructor in creative writing, New York University, summers, 1953, 1954; East Harlem Protestant Parish, New York, NY, head of employment clinic, 1954–58; ordained minister of the United Presbyterian Church, 1958; Phillips Exeter Academy, Exeter, NH, chair of department of religion, 1958–60, school minister, 1960–67; writer, 1967–. William Belden Noble Lecturer, Harvard University, 1969; Russell Lecturer, Tufts University, 1971; Lyman Beecher Lecturer, Divinity School, Yale University, 1976; Harris Lecturer, Bangor Seminary, 1979; Smyth Lecturer, Columbia Seminary, 1981; Zabriskie Lecturer, Virginia Theological Seminary, 1982; Trinity Institute, lecturer, 1990. Guest preacher and lecturer. Trustee, Barlow School, 1965–71; author. Military service: U.S. Army, 1944–46.
MEMBER: National Council of Churches (committee on literature, 1954–57), Council for Religion in Independent Schools (regional chair, 1958–63), Foundation for Arts, Religion, and Culture, Presbytery of Northern New England, PEN, Authors Guild, Authors League of America, Century Association, University Club (New York, NY).
AWARDS, HONORS: Irene Glascock Memorial Intercollegiate Poetry Award, 1947; O. Henry Memorial Award, 1955, for short story "The Tiger"; Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award, 1959, for The Return of Ansel Gibbs; National Book Award nomination, 1971, for Lion Country; Pulitzer Prize nomination, 1980, for Godric; American Academy Award, 1982; D.D. from Virginia Theological Seminary, 1983, Lafayette College, 1984, Cornell College, 1988, Yale University, 1990, and Sewanee University; Litt.D. from Lehigh University.
A Long Day's Dying, Knopf (New York, NY), 1950, reprinted, Brook Street Press (Saint Simons Island, GA), 2003.
The Seasons' Difference, Knopf (New York, NY), 1952.
The Return of Ansel Gibbs, Knopf (New York, NY), 1958.
The Final Beast, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1965, reprinted, Harper (San Francisco, CA), 1982.
The Entrance to Porlock, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1970.
Lion Country (also see below; first in "Book of Bebb" tetralogy), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1971.
Open Heart (also see below; second in "Book of Bebb" tetralogy), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1972.
Love Feast (also see below; third in "Book of Bebb" tetralogy), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1974.
Treasure Hunt (also see below; fourth in "Book of Bebb" tetralogy), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1977.
The Book of Bebb (contains Lion Country, Open Heart, Love Feast, and Treasure Hunt), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1979, reprinted, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2001.
Godric, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1980.
Brendan, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1987.
Wizard's Tide: A Story, Harper (New York, NY), 1990.
The Son of Laughter, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1993.
On the Road with the Archangel, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1997.
The Storm, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1998.
The Magnificent Defeat (meditations), Seabury (New York, NY), 1966.
The Hungering Dark (meditations), Seabury (New York, NY), 1969.
The Alphabet of Grace (theological and autobiographical essays), Seabury (New York, NY), 1970.
Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Harper & Row ((New York, NY), 1973.
The Faces of Jesus, photography by Lee Boltin, River-wood (Croton-on-Hudson, NY), 1974.
Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Harper & Row (San Francisco, CA), 1977.
Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who, Harper & Row (San Francisco, CA), 1979.
The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days (autobiography), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.
Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation (autobiography), Atheneum (New York, NY), 1983.
A Room Called Remember: Uncollected Pieces, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1984.
Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1988.
Telling Secrets, (autobiography), HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1991.
The Clown in the Belfry: Writings on Faith and Fiction, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1991.
Listening to Your Life: Meditations with Frederick Buechner, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1992.
The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections (autobiography), HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1996.
The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1999.
Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 2001.
Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC's of Faith, HarperSanFrancisco (New York, NY), 2004.
Short stories have been anthologized in Prize Stories 1955: The O. Henry Awards, edited by Paul Engle and Hansford Martin, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1955. Contributor to numerous periodicals, including Poetry and Lawrenceville Literary Magazine.
Collections of Buechner's manuscripts have been established at Princeton University and at Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.
SIDELIGHTS: Frederick Buechner is a novelist and nonfiction writer whose work as a Presbyterian minister informs his writings. Virtually all of Buechner's books, from his novels to his nonfiction theological "meditations," address moral, ethical, and religious themes.
Two years after graduating from Princeton University, Buechner published his first novel, A Long Day's Dying. The book "is a strikingly fine first novel, and it seems entirely safe to say that its publication will introduce a new American novelist of the greatest promise and the greatest talent," wrote C.W. Weinberger in the San Francisco Chronicle. "In strict accuracy, it is not proper to refer to Mr. Buechner as being a novelist of great promise, for he has already arrived in superlative fashion."
Buechner's A Long Day's Dying is generally considered to be an unusually sensitive and insightful study of various relationships. "Buechner has written a perceptive and often astringently witty study of subtle human relationships and delicate tensions," stated C.J. Rolo in Atlantic, "a book which continually reaches for the emotional meanings of the moment." And David Daiches wrote in the New York Times that "this first novel by a young man of twenty-three is a remarkable piece of work. There is a quality of civilized perception here, a sensitive and plastic handling of English prose and an ability to penetrate to the evanescent core of a human situation."
Buechner's second novel, The Seasons' Difference, was not greeted with the same degree of enthusiasm as A Long Day's Dying. For example, Oliver La Farge pointed out in Saturday Review that The Seasons' Difference "starts with promise. Again and again it looks as if the promise were going to be fulfilled. There are moments when it lights up brightly, and one thinks, at last he has hit his stride—but always, somehow, the light goes out again. It is one of those most tantalizing of all things in writing—a near miss." H.L. Roth wrote in Library Journal that Buechner's "emphasis is less on plot than on the development of atmosphere but even that emphasis seems to get lost in an arty attempt at developing a feeling of mysticism."
However, Tangye Lean found Buechner's book "brilliant and closely knit both in its rather overloaded descriptive power and its invention." Writing in Spectator, Lean remarked that The Seasons' Difference "may be recommended as one of the most distinguished novels that has recently come out of America." And a critic for U.S. Quarterly Book Review observed that "the arresting quality of this sensitively and elaborately written novel lies in the delineation of its characters, especially the children, and of their interrelations: adult to adult, child to adult, and child to child." Nevertheless, reasoned Horace Gregory in the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, "Buechner probably needs more time to complete his own vision of the world that is glimpsed in certain descriptive passages of [The Seasons' Difference]. The promise of his first book is still awaiting its fulfillment."
With his promise not quite fulfilling the initial expectations of critics or readers, Buechner had reached a writer's block. Having moved to New York with two novels completed, he tried to continue writing but found himself considering other careers, according to Philip Yancey in Books & Culture. "Uncharacteristically," Yancey wrote, "simply because the building sat a block from his apartment, he began attending the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, pastored by the celebrated George Buttrick." Buechner had never attended church regularly until that time, and only occasionally in his childhood. When he heard a sermon delivered in 1952, right around the time of Queen Elizabeth's coronation, Buechner experienced a life-altering revelation. "But-trick was contrasting Elizabeth's coronation with the coronation of Jesus in the believer's heart, which, he said, should take place among confession and tears," recounted Yancey. Buechner tells the story in The Alphabet of Grace: "And then with his head bobbing up and down so that his glasses glittered, he said in his odd, sandy voice, the voice of an old nurse, that the coronation of Jesus took place among confession and tears and then, as God was and is my witness, great laughter, he said. Jesus is crowned among confession and tears and great laughter, and at the phrase great laughter, for reasons that I have never satisfactorily understood, the Great Wall of China crumbled and Atlantis rose up out of the sea, and on Madison Avenue, at 73rd Street, tears leapt from my eyes as though I had been struck across the face." As Yancey pointed out, that was the beginning of Buechner's belief and trust in God. It continued to shape him as an ordained minister, a teacher, and most importantly, as a writer.
"In The Return of Ansel Gibbs, Buechner marked a more decisive departure from his earlier manner," wrote Ihab Hassan in Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel. "The book is reasonably forthright; its material, though rich in moral ambiguities, is topical rather than mythic, dramatic more than allusive." An Atlantic contributor noted that this book "is quite a departure from [Buechner's] two previous novels, which were open to the charge of preciosity. Now the style is less ornate, the plot straightforward." Richard McLaughlin remarked in the Springfield Republican that Buechner's earlier novels "established him as a writer with a distinguished style but a rather narrow range of interests. In [The Return of Ansel Gibbs] he explores, with his usual subtlety and feeling for language and moods, a wider, more public domain."
Writing for Saturday Review, A.C. Spectorsky commented that "there is a quality of distinction about Frederick Buechner's [The Return of Ansel Gibbs] which might best be compared to the gleam of hand-polished old silver. There is about his work some of the charming cultivation of the best of Marquand, and Cozzens' capacity to make each incident—however casual or trivial in appearance—emerge as meaningful and illuminating."
In 1958, the same year Buechner published The Return of Ansel Gibbs, he was ordained a minister of the United Presbyterian Church. For the next several years Buechner performed the duties of school minister at Phillips Exeter Academy while continuing to write his novels. As Elizabeth Janeway explained in the New York Times: "Part of Frederick Buechner is a writer of imagination and insight. Part of him is a man with a Christian mission so strong that he decided to enter the Presbyterian ministry. There is no reason why the two shouldn't combine to write excellent and powerful novels."
Not all reviewers have shared Janeway's contention that the ministry and the writing of novels is a likely and acceptable combination. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly observed that "to a certain number of critics and reviewers, there is something disconcerting about a minister who can write a novel, containing some vivid sex scenes and a four-letter word or two." Buechner, however, sees no conflict with being a minister and a novelist. He explained in a Publishers Weekly interview that, to him, "writing is a kind of ministry." As Buechner once elaborated: "As a preacher I am trying to do many of the same things I do as a writer. In both I am trying to explore what I believe life is all about, to get people to stop and listen a little to the mystery of their own lives. The process of telling a story is something like religion if only in the sense of suggesting that life itself has a plot and leads to a conclusion that makes some kind of sense."
Buechner's first literary work written after his ordination was The Final Beast. Published seven years after The Return of Ansel Gibbs, The Final Beast displays a shift in theme that a number of reviewers, including Gerald Weales, believed would become more prevalent in future Buechner novels. In the Reporter, Weales described the theme as "the possibility of spiritual rebirth." A Choice reviewer felt the work marked the beginning of Buechner's "concern with religious belief and the religious life." Charles Dollen remarked in Best Sellers: "Despite what might sound like heavy drama in the plot, this [book] is a joyous one and its fictional people are searching for, and finding, real happiness. This is a deeply religious book without the slightest hint of [piety] or sentimentalism."
In 1971 Buechner published Lion Country, the first book of a tetralogy that also includes Open Heart, Love Feast, and Treasure Hunt. Eight years later these four novels were published in one volume titled The Book of Bebb. The tetralogy traces the activities and relationships of Leo Bebb, a former Bible salesman, founder of the Church of Holy Love, Incorporated, and of the Open Heart Church, and president of the Gospel Faith College, a religious diploma mill. Buechner did not originally intend to write a follow-up to Lion Country. He explained how the series evolved in his introduction to The Book of Bebb: "When I wrote the last sentence of Lion Country, I thought I had finished with [the characters in the series] for good but soon found out that they were not finished with me. And so it was with the succeeding volumes, at the end of each of which I rang the curtain down only to find that, after a brief intermission, they'd rung it up again."
The Bebb series is considered by some to be Buechner's best work to date. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt wrote in the New York Times: "You smile to think how Frederick Buechner keeps getting better with each new novel, for where he was gently amusing in Lion Country, he is funny and profound in Open Heart." While numerous elements have been cited as reasons for the popularity of these four novels, most reviewers agree that much of the credit belongs to Buechner's presentation of thought-provoking ideas in a witty manner. A Times Literary Supplement contributor commented that Buechner maintains "a strange, serene balancing act which blends successfully satirical talent and the moral purpose." And a Publishers Weekly reviewer noted that the way Buechner "writes is special and engaging—serious, comic, with a kind of reverent irreverence for his people and their lives. [He has an] amused and amusing view." Another reviewer for Publishers Weekly held up Lion Country as a perfect example of a "human comedy of complexity and persuasion." As a Virginia Quarterly Review writer remarked: "Urbane, arcane, intelligent, low-keyed comedy is rare enough in these parlous times, but [Lion Country] is a choice example certain to appeal to a variety of tastes."
Some reviewers have noted that Buechner's comical sense is especially evident in his handling of religious matters. "This may sound like slapstick [to] suggest that although Mr. Buechner takes bows toward religion he is really more interested in laughs," suggested Michael Mewshaw in the New York Times Book Review, "but throughout the [tetralogy] he is most serious when he is funny, and he has found an inevitable and instructive confusion between wheat and chaff. As the Bible warns, one can't be cut away without injuring the other." And in a review of Open Heart, John Skow observed in Time: "It is something of a mystery how Buechner has produced a live, warm, wise comic novel. And yet that is exactly what, in all shifty-eyed innocence, he has done. [He] seems to have found an acceptable way to deal with religious mysteries in fiction."
Other reviewers commented similarly that Buechner seems to have mastered a technique for dealing with theological subjects in an entertaining fashion. A Times Literary Supplement contributor pointed out: "The fine lucidity of Mr. Buechner's prose, the pure verve of his humour, the grisly authenticity of his characters and settings make this highly elusive, indeed almost deliquescent brand of Christian Philosophy seem not unpalatable but actually convincing." Lehmann-Haupt wrote in the New York Times that Buechner's "contrast between the serious and the absurd serves to underline the meaning of both Love Feast and the [tetralogy] as a whole: to wit, the message of Jesus Christ may emanate from strange places indeed, but it is the message that matters, not the messenger."
New York Times Book Review contributor Cynthia Ozick believed that the reason the religious messages seem to fit so well into Buechner's novels is that to the author "sacredness lurks effortlessly … nearly everywhere; it singles us out." As Buechner himself writes in The Hungering Dark: "There is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be there too. And this means that we are never safe, that there is no place where we can hide from God, no place where we are safe from his power … to recreate the human heart because it is … just where we least expect him where he comes most fully."
"Life is what Buechner is writing about," explained Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World. "Beneath all the antics of Leo Bebb and those who surround him there is a continuing celebration of life and the interrelation of lives. Buechner's people may at first glance seem caricatures, but their robustness is merely humanity magnified." And Thomas Howard remarked in the New York Times Book Review that "[Buechner's] vision, then, is that of the poet—the Christian poet. He has articulated what he sees with a freshness and clarity and energy that hails our stultified imaginations."
Another factor contributing to the success of these novels is Buechner's skill at characterization. "What makes [the 'Leo Bebb' novels] succeed is Buechner's deft placing of all these characters," explained Roger Sale in Hudson Review, "keeping them funny or impossible when seen from a distance, then making them briefly very moving when suddenly seen from close up." P.A. Doyle stated in Best Sellers that Buechner "grasps each figure firmly and forces it to concrete life. A type of Flannery O'Connor vibrant vividness pervades Bebb … and the other principals causing them to pop out most fully alive from the novel[s]." And Sale, writing in another issue of Hudson Review, singled out Buechner's treatment of the main character, Leo Bebb, and commented: "The word about Bebb is simple—he lights up every page on which he appears, making each one a joy to read and to anticipate, and of all the characters in American literature, only Hemingway's Bill Gorton rivals him in that respect."
Buechner's skillful use of characters did not end with the Bebb series of novels. Reviewers have cited Buechner's following novel, Godric, as still another example of how an effective characterization enriches Buechner's novels. In Godric, Buechner tells the story of a twelfth-century Anglo-Saxon saint. Francine Cardman illustrated in Commonweal: "Peddler, merchant seaman, pilgrim and perhaps pirate, ultimately hermit; roguist, conniving, irascible, repentant, gentle, fierce: Godric is compelling in his struggle for sanctity. Buechner's retelling draws reader/listener into the world of his words, a world and language so strangely and strongly evocative they would seem to be Godric's own." Noel Perrin remarked in the Washington Post Book World that "the old saint [Godric] is so real that it's hard to remember this is a novel. I can think of only one other book like this: Thomas Mann's The Holy Sinner. That's the story, taken from medieval legend, of another carnal saint."
Buechner's 1993 novel The Son of Laughter again showcased the author's penchant for religious themes—in this case, a novelization of the biblical story of Jacob—and moral issues presented in ambiguous, often comic, tones. In presenting the story of Jacob, Buechner deals with numerous well-known biblical tales, including the stories of Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac—whose name means "laughter." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Lore Dickstein remarked: "Buechner has kept intact all the characters and events, the (unknown) biblical time frame, and much of the tone and cadence of biblical prose. He has altered the sequence of the narrative somewhat, using flashbacks and foreshadowing, but he has omitted nothing." Reviewers noted that in this work, as in his previous nov-els, Buechner does not offer easy solutions to moral questions. Addressing this issue, Brooke Horvath, in the Review of Contemporary Fiction, wrote, "The novel's meditative questioning is often moving. It is also often disturbing." "This question of belief is at the heart of Buechner's work," noted Irving Malin in Commonweal. "He makes us wonder about how we can find spiritual truth in the comic incident."
In addition to his novels, Buechner has also written works of nonfiction, including several collections of meditations, religious studies, and autobiographies. Critics have noted that these books are similar in many ways to Buechner novels. As Edmund Fuller wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "The same stylistic power, subtlety and originality that have distinguished his novels, from A Long Day's Dying to Open Heart, lift Wishful Thinking far above commonplace religion books nearly to the level of C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters. An artist is at work here in the vineyard of theology, an able aphorist with a natural gift for gnomics, a wit with wisdom." Reviewing The Alphabet of Grace, Thomas Howard wrote in the New York Times Book Review that Buechner "takes the common, mundane experiences of daily life and reflects on them," he said. "What he does with his material is what the poets do with theirs: he surprises and delights (and—very softly—teaches) us by giving some shape to apparently random experience by uttering it."
"Novelist Buechner writes about as well as anyone we know of, when it comes to Christian themes today," noted a reviewer for Christian Century. In an article on The Alphabet of Grace, M.M. Shideler observed in another issue of Christian Century that "Buechner's style is by turns meditative, narrative and anecdotal. His manner is honest, sensitive and direct." And N.K. Burger observed in the New York Times Book Review that in The Magnificent Defeat (Buechner's first book of meditations) Buechner "combines high writing skill with a profound understanding of Christian essentials." Tony Stoneburner wrote in Christian Century that Buechner's collections of meditations "grant relative value to the world, distinguish Christianity and morality, argue the propriety of poetry for discourse about mystery." Commenting on Buechner's second collection, The Hungering Dark, Fuller stated in the New York Times Book Review that "the touches that distinguish [this book] spring from the fact that in addition to Buechner's role as Presbyterian minister and sometime chaplain, he is also one of the better literary talents of his generation." Fuller went on to say that, "He has artistic as well as pastoral insights into the human soul and also some distinction of style." Reviewing Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Richard Sistek pointed out that "this is the kind of book that asks for reflection, creativity, and response. With continually changing times and a church in transition, human experience and creativity are sorely needed to make sense out of change, and move forward with hope. The author has challenged me."
Perhaps nowhere else does the reader achieve a real understanding of Buechner, the author and minister, than in his autobiographies. In his introduction to The Sacred Journey, Buechner writes: "What I propose to do now is to try listening to my life as a whole, or at least to certain key moments of the first half of my life thus far, for whatever of meaning, of holiness, of God, there may be in it to hear. My assumption is that the story of any one of us is in some measure the story of us all." A Publishers Weekly reviewer wrote that in The Sacred Journey, Buechner "exemplifies his conviction that God speaks to us not just through sounds but 'through events in all their complexity and variety, through the harmonies and disharmonies and counterpoint of all that happens.'"
Reynolds Price remarked in the New York Times Book Review that in The Sacred Journey, Buechner "isolates and recreates a few powerfully charged incidents ranging from his early childhood to the time of his decision to enter the ministry." "The heart of this book," Julian N. Hart believed, "is a series of encounters for which 'epiphany,' overworked though it may be, is entirely appropriate." Hart wrote in the Washington Post Book World that "the persistent core metaphor is 'journey'; in his case a life-process defined, not merely punctuated, by revelations of what he comes to acknowledge of divine goodness and power."
Now and Then, Buechner's sequel to The Sacred Journey, "picks up where the first book ends, with the author's experience of having his life turned upside down while listening to a George Buttrick sermon," recounted Marjorie Casebier McCoy in Christian Century. "Part I covers Buechner's years at Union Theological Seminary, where he encountered the theologians and biblical scholars who became his mentors…. In Part II Buechner recalls his nine years as a minister and teacher of religion at Phillips Exeter Academy, trying to be an apologist for Christianity against its 'cultured despisers' by presenting the faith 'as appealingly, honestly, relevantly and skillfully as I could,'" she quoted. "Part III begins with Buechner's move to Vermont in 1967, chronicles his struggle to minister through full-time writing and speaking, and provides insights into the development of his subsequent novels and nonfiction."
Buechner's novel On the Road with the Archangel is based on the Book of Tobit, which is one of the seven biblical books designated as "Deutero-Canonical" by Catholics. Yet Protestants refer to Tobit and other works, including Esdras, Sirach, and Wisdom, as "the Apocryphal Books"; this alone makes Buechner's choice interesting. Tobit itself is, as Alfred Corn wrote in the New York Times Book Review, a sort of historical novel, the only extended first-person narrative in the Old Testament. Written in the second century B.C., its setting is some four centuries earlier, when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and deported its people (the famous "Lost Tribes of Israel") to the Assyrian capital at Nineveh. There a wealthy and generous figure named Tobit undergoes a series of trials that call to mind those of a more well-known Old Testament figure, Job. Tobit prays for death, while in the town of Ectabana, a beautiful girl named Sarah—plagued by a demon who has killed seven would-be husbands—makes the same request. The angel Raphael hears the prayers of both, and intervenes in their affairs, bringing the two together. The tale ends happily, with Sarah's marriage to Tobit's feckless son Tobias.
"No Job-like depths have been plumbed," in Corn's opinion, "but the conclusion's lightly borne sweetness works to justify the ways of God to man by implying that adversities are sometimes remedied, and that curses can never rival the steadying power given us when we praise being." John Mort in Booklist described On the Road with the Archangel thus: "Not Buechner's best, but entertaining and wise, even so." W. Dale Brown in Christian Century held that "We have long relied on Frederick Buechner for a good story, and he does not disappoint." Summing up the book, David Stewart wrote in Christianity Today: "What it adds up to is an unforgettably funny and lovely picture of unlikely Providence, portraying with extraordinary empathy ordinary, flawed folk who at any given moment have only the vaguest idea of what they are doing, or of the import of their actions for themselves or others," he noted. In the end, Douglas Auchincloss concluded in Parabola: "Buechner blesses his readers with two happy endings—one secular and one theological."
In 1998 Buechner published The Storm, his fifteenth novel. While some reviewers found it to be his least successful novel, they continued to offer praise for his thoughtful direction and his penchant for offering his readers "the sinful saint," as Gwenette Orr Robertson observed in the Christian Century. Maude McDaniel noted in the World and I: "Although his nonfiction has always been more satisfying to me, displaying a depth, feeling, and literary virtuosity I do not always find in his storytelling, his fiction often does a grand job of understanding the very real inability among intellectual moderns … to commit to religious conviction." The story involves two elderly brothers, Kenzie and Dalton Maxwell, estranged for many years due to a mistake Kenzie made as a volunteer social worker in a New York City shelter for runaways. The theme echoes William Shakespeare's The Tempest, with Kenzie working hard to come to terms with his past and the tragedies therein, yet continuing to exercise his control over the lives of those around him. As Bill Ott wrote in Booklist, "Faith is at the core of this novel, as it is in much of Buechner's work, but it is an oddly ambiguous, utterly human kind of faith—characterized not by certainty but by good-humored irony, even world-weariness, and above all, by a profound sense of quiet. Kenzie's belief in God translates, in the minutely observed dailiness of his life, into a belief in what he calls Tendresse oblige, and it is that remarkable tenderness, toward people and things, that envelops this tempestuous tale in an irresistible circle of calm."
The Eyes of the Heart: A Memoir of the Lost and Found and Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith offer further reflections by Buechner. A Presbyterian Record reviewer reflected on The Eyes of the Heart: "Perhaps following his own dictum that all true theology at its heart is autobiographical, he has produced this fourth volume. But, of course, it is more than a memoir. It is Buechner reflecting on life and the possibility of life after death." Bryce Christensen and Gilbert Taylor wrote in Booklist that, "Without ever leaving the magic kingdom of his personal library, the acclaimed author of religious fiction, meditation, and criticism transports us in multiple directions: back in time to witness his grandparents' wedding in Maine; around the world to relive an eventful trip with his wife; and deep into his own dark childhood to comprehend the shock of his alcoholic father's suicide in a fume-filled garage." They concluded saying, "For those unfamiliar with Buechner, these reflections can only awaken desires to explore his other work." In a Los Angeles Times review of Speak What We Feel, Bernadette Murphy wrote, "This book is a fitting celebration of the grace, courage, honesty, and yes, of the sacredness inherent in remarkable literature."
In all of his writings, the collections of meditations, autobiographical studies, and fiction, Buechner has proven to many his ability to successfully maintain a literary career that reflects his dual roles as author and minister. Max L. Autrey concluded in the Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: "Early appraisals of Buechner's work have proved accurate. After producing ten novels and volumes of nonfiction writings, he has demonstrated his right to be listed among such contemporary writers as Mailer, Ellison, Updike, and Barth. Although his literary appeal has been primarily to the intelligentsia, he is now widely recognized as a brilliant, inspirational writer and an original voice."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Aldridge, John W., After the Lost Generation: A Critical Study of the Writers of Two Wars, McGraw-Hill (New York, NY), 1951.
Buechner, Frederick, The Hungering Dark, Seabury (New York, NY), 1969.
Buechner, Frederick, The Alphabet of Grace, Seabury (New York, NY), 1970.
Buechner, Frederick, The Book of Bebb, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1979.
Buechner, Frederick, The Sacred Journey: A Memoir of Early Days, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1982.
Buechner, Frederick, Now and Then: A Memoir of Vocation, Atheneum (New York, NY), 1983.
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1974, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 6, 1976, Volume 9, 1978.
Davies, Marie-Helene, Laughter in a Genevan Gown: The Works of Frederick Buechner, 1970–1980, Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI), 1983.
Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1981.
Hassan, Ihab, Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel, Princeton University Press (Princeton, NJ), 1961.
America, April 14, 1973; December 14, 1974; March 28, 1998, Patricia Allwin DeLeeux, review of On the Road with the Archangel, p. 26.
Antioch Review, fall, 1993, p. 659.
Atlantic, February, 1950; March, 1958; September, 1979; December, 1980.
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