‘YOU MAKE ME FEEL LIKE AN ORACLE, the way you ask these questions,” Fred Buechner ’47 says, with some irritation, from his patio chair on Wind Gap Farm, the Vermont home where this writer and preacher has lived for more than 40 years.
Having just turned 86, and with 30-plus books to his credit, Buechner has earned the right to decide what he wants to talk about: perhaps about his career as a writing wunderkind who left the trappings of New York literary life behind to become a Presbyterian minister. Or about leaving a job in the ministry to return to writing, and winning the devotion of writers such as John Irving, Garrison Keillor, and Kathleen Norris. Or maybe about having a literary festival devoted to your work and your words printed on coffee mugs.
Buechner (whose full name is Carl Frederick Buechner, pronounced “Beekner”) is happy to talk about any of these subjects. He is not, however, interested in playing the role of sage. He does not want to talk about God or the afterlife or how to achieve literary success. Instead, sitting outside on a July day with the Green Mountains in the distance, he repeats the mantra that has come to define his life and work: “Pay attention to your life.”
“Because otherwise it’s just a lot of wasted effort,” explains Buechner, a cane by his side. “To live is to experience all sorts of things. It would be a shame to experience them — these rich experiences of sadness and happiness and success and failure — and then have it just all vanish, like a dream when you wake up. I find it interesting, to put it mildly, to keep track of it and think about it.”
Buechner may resist the role of oracle, but that has not stopped people from seeking him out. His books have earned him a large audience among both believers and skeptics. His writings are widely quoted and anthologized. Recently first lady Michelle Obama ’85 cited Buechner’s description of vocation: “where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” He has a large following in Christian colleges, and has delivered sermons at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and at Westminster Abbey in London.
“He is just so eloquent and thoughtful,” says Bob Abernethy ’49, the host of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, a PBS program that aired a profile of Buechner in 2006.“He sits up there, on that hill in Vermont, and he comes up out of himself, out of his own feelings and thoughts — that’s his greatest resource.”
“Probably right now, if you went around the country from Sunday to Sunday and listened to ministers, Buechner would surely be among the two or three most quoted,” says Dale Brown, director of the Buechner Institute at King College in Tennessee, a program that seeks to foster conversation on faith and culture. But beyond the pulpit, one of the most common refrains Brown hears about Buechner is: “I’m surprised I never heard of him before.”
If Buechner is not as well known as, say, his late contemporary Gore Vidal, perhaps it is because he is, in his words, “too religious for secular readers” and “too secular for religious ones.” That may be changing. Last year King College held a “BuechnerFest” exploring the various ways artists of faith engage the culture. A second festival is planned for 2013. The school sponsors an annual lecture, also named for Buechner, which has been given by the writers Ron Hansen, Barbara Brown Taylor, and Marilynne Robinson, among others. For Brown, the founder of the festival, the annual gathering was a natural way to honor Buechner. He believes Buechner’s work will continue to grow in popularity as more people discover it.
BORN IN NEW YORK CITY, Buechner attended the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey before matriculating at Princeton. His father also had attended Princeton and knew Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald — a literary connection, one family member suggests, that Buechner quietly treasures. Entering his library, a visitor and fellow alumnus is greeted with the question, “Have you read This Side of Paradise?”
“I really knew two Princetons,” says Buechner, resting in an armchair and surrounded by thousands of books. “The first one was during the war, when everybody was being drafted or enlisting. It was just one drunken farewell party after another. Nobody did any work. I didn’t learn anything at all. I was in the Army for two years. When I came back, I was so delighted to be free again that I buckled down and learned a few things.”
In his second stint at Princeton, Buechner began work on A Long Day’s Dying, a novel that served as his senior thesis. His advisers were reluctant to allow him to write a novel, but he convinced them, and the book was published after graduation to wide acclaim. The novel, which Buechner describes today as “tortured, labyrinthine, elusive,” was compared to the work of Henry James. It was a New York Times best-seller and remains Buechner’s most commercially successful work. His second book, The Seasons’ Difference, was a critical disappointment, but he enjoyed a measure of reprieve when his short story “The Tiger” was published in The New Yorker in 1953 and won an O. Henry Award. It is about a Princeton undergraduate who dresses up as the mascot at a football game; later, at a party, a girl asks him to tell her about tigers. He never gets the chance. “If I had, it would probably have gone something like this,” the narrator says. “Tigers are wild-hearted creatures of great strength and dignity who are to be found in jungles or in zoos and nowhere else. There was a time when every once in a while you’d see one parading around, unhurried and in superb control, at a football game, but that was 25 years ago, so if you think you see one there nowadays, you can be sure it’s only a fake.”
Buechner did not remain among the New York literati for long. After he began studying for the ministry at Union Theological Seminary in New York, moved by the example of the pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, one reviewer commented that “Mr. Buechner has put his foot in it.” Even at a time when Union was home to luminaries like Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, Buechner’s choice was greeted with puzzlement.
“It was the kiss of death, in a way,” Buechner says of his decision to be ordained. “When book reviewers saw that I was a minister, what they read was not the book I had written, but the book they thought a minister would write.”
According to Brown, Buechner’s journey fits a pattern. “It is the [C.S.] Lewis model,” Brown writes in The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings. “Erudite academic sheds the robes of the dons for the cloak of Christ.” However, he notes, “the story is more complicated and more interesting than the formula suggests.”
In fact, Buechner served only for a short time in formal ordained ministry. From 1958 to 1967 he served as chaplain at Phillips Exeter Academy, where he also taught English. At Exeter he had to find new ways to present the Christian story to disaffected teenagers with a budding disrespect for authority. (John Irving was among his early students.) In a way, his career as a Christian writer has been the same ever since: finding ways to tell a religious story to a secular society.
“Every minister should start off with a hostile congregation, I think,” he muses, “because they just don’t accept it all.”
In the preface to Secrets in the Dark, a collection of sermons published in 2006, Buechner writes: “It seems to me there is an Exeter student in each of us, even those of us who are churchiest and most outwardly conforming, who asks the ultimate question, ‘Can it really be true?’ and every time I have ever preached, I have tried to speak to that question.”