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Nov. 14, 2012

Vol. 113, No. 4


‘Pay attention to your life’

By Maurice Timothy Reidy ’97
Published in the November 14, 2012, issue

Fred Buechner ’47
Fred Buechner ’47

IN 1967 BUECHNER MOVED TO VERMONT, where he returned to writing full time. He and his wife, Judy, raised three daughters on Wind Gap Farm, and the daughters and grandchildren are frequent visitors. If Buechner’s life is not quite monastic, it is quiet and reclusive. He does not use email and still corresponds with his readers in longhand. At the height of his career he wrote a book a year, but he no longer is so prolific; his last collection of essays, The Yellow Leaves: A Miscellany, was published in 2008. Asked how he spends his days he says, impishly, “I stare into space.” “I can’t seem to write anymore, unfortunately,” Buechner says. “I hope it will come back.”

Buechner still writes letters, but his diminished productivity is frustrating. After all, this is the man who wrote in his 1992 memoir Telling Secrets: “After 40 years of writing books, I find I need to put things into words before I can believe they are entirely real.” 

For Buechner, the process of writing about his life is sacred: “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. ... It is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally.” 

Buechner turned to memoirs to explore a troubled family past. When he was just 10, his father committed suicide. In his memoirs The Sacred Journey and Telling Secrets, he circles back to this event again and again to explore its significance. “If ever anybody asked how my father died, I would say heart trouble,” he writes. “That seemed at least a version of the truth. He had had a heart. It had been troubled.” 

Despite the difficult subject matter, Buechner found joy in writing about his life, especially his youth. “It gives you back a part of your life that you might never have stopped to think about,” he says. His library is filled with mementos of his youthful passions: the Oz books by L. Frank Baum; a glass pair of ruby red slippers; drawings from the Uncle Wiggily cartoons. The Magic Kingdom, as he calls his library, is a place of both seriousness and whimsy. Children’s books are shelved along with the works of Anthony Trollope and Augustine. One wall is filled with rare books he bought in Europe on his honeymoon. Buechner spends most of his days in his study or the writing room that adjoins it. Here are “books I’ve known all my life and love to have about me,” he says, “even if I don’t read them all the time.” 

Amid the books sits evidence of his friendships, both real and literary. Next to his chair is a bust of the poet James Merrill. They met at Lawrenceville and remained friends until Merrill’s death seven years ago. On the wall hangs a letter from William Maxwell, a writer whom Buechner much admires and considers underappreciated. A picture of Graham Greene smiles from across the room. Buechner never met the man, but he feels a strong kinship with his work, especially the novel The Power and The Glory. The central character of that novel is an inept and sinful “whiskey priest” who somehow manages to do God’s work. Leo Bebb, the protagonist of four novels Buechner wrote during the 1970s, is a similar character: a charlatan preacher who still bears witness to the presence of God. “It was really the great literary romance of my life,” Buechner says of the four Bebb books. “When I took the pen it was as if there was a hand inside my hand ... I didn’t have to stop and imagine. They were very alive in my head. And very good company.” 

Though Buechner’s books generally have been well received, there have been negative reviews. Writing about Treasure Hunt in 1977, Edith Milton commented in The New Republic that Buechner’s characterizations remind one of “those Broadway comedies of the ’30s, in which funny people, easily recognizable from the second balcony by one large but harmless peccadillo, enter, collide, and exit, without major social or dramatic consequences.”

But Buechner’s next novel, Godric, was a finalist for the 1980 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Dale Brown teaches the book regularly at King College, and believes it will be Buechner’s most lasting work. It tells the story of a 12th-century saint who embarks on a journey of self-purification late in life. Buechner’s fans regularly cite quotes from the book. “What’s prayer?” Godric asks. “It’s shooting shafts into the dark. What mark they strike, if any, who’s to say? It’s reaching for a hand you cannot touch.”

BUECHNER MAY BE uniquely prepared for the quiet life that he now lives. 

He never was a man of idle chatter, even at the height of his career, and he does not enjoy analyzing his work in public. He never went on a book tour. He is unlike his late friend Merrill, who was known for heady talk. Buechner prefers to let his writing do the talking. At a 2006 tribute at the National Cathedral, he ended the day by urging the audience to stop talking and appreciate the quiet.

“I have a feeling we have talked enough — that we need silence. Not much — three minutes; to spend three minutes not saying a damn thing. Can we do that? Are we brave enough to do that?”

For a man who appreciates silence, Buechner does not claim to be, at this late stage in his life, engaged in deep reflection. He dismisses questions about his prayer life in the same way he dismisses questions about his writing. Nothing serious, he says; nothing disciplined. It is also notable that the Rev. Buechner does not attend church. He finds most ministers to be playing a role rather than being themselves, a pose he finds intolerable. One of the few preachers he considers “authentic” is his eldest daughter, Katherine, a pastor of a church in northern Vermont.

“Ministers are supposed to say religious things, and they say religious things,” he says. “I always think that at some point in their lives they were moved passionately to become preachers, but that passion has been lost under the clutter of their other ministerial obligations. ... What comes out is not very lively.”

Still, while Buechner may not be a churchgoer, or even a regular man of prayer, he is known for writing eloquent prayers. His son-in-law, David Altshuler, remembers fondly a prayer Buechner wrote for the funeral of his father, John H. Altshuler. Marking his 50th reunion, which coincided with the University’s 250th anniversary celebrations, Buechner offered a reflection that tried to honor both his Christian identity and the school’s diverse population: “Whether or not they call upon his name or even honor it, may [Christ] be present especially in the hearts of all who teach here and all who learn here, because without him everything that goes on here is in the long run only vanity. May he be alive in this place so something like truth may be spoken and heard and carried out into the world. So that something like love may be done.”

WHEN HE IS NOT IN HIS STUDY, Buechner often sits on his patio. Today he is reading The New York Times. A copy of The New Yorker is by his side. He wears a crisp collared shirt, slacks, and a hat, with a button that reads “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.” Up the hill is his wife’s garden, and farther up a grove of trees known for their maple syrup. 

The conversation drifts from the Latin quotation on his ring (Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus ­aderit, meaning “Invoked or not invoked, God is present”) to his lifelong struggle with doubt regarding whether he thinks about the afterlife. (Not really.) Before long he grows tired of these subjects. Earlier in the day, he confided, “I get tired of my own words, I get tired of my own voice, I get tired of my own patterns of thought,” and now it seems to be coming true. He would prefer to talk about his family or a visitor’s plans for summer break. In other words, he wants to be himself.

“The secret of literary success, I think, is to end up sounding like yourself, which is hard to do,” he says. “It’s as soon as you start writing, or making a speech, you want to sound like what you think is going to sell best, or what people will listen to most acutely, what will remind them most of things they say to themselves.”

The sentiment is captured in King Lear, a play Buechner taught at Exeter and returns to again and again. For a moment, he tries to recall the final lines of the play. He drums his fingers on his leg, tapping out the notes to a half-remembered song. And then it comes to him.

“The weight of this sad time we must obey,” he says, pausing for effect. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.”  

Maurice Timothy Reidy ’97 is online editor at America ­magazine.

Post Comments
3 Responses to ‘Pay attention to your life’

Kenell Touryan *62 Says:

2012-11-12 15:58:08

Buechner is one of my favorite writers. As a Christian, he thinks outside the box. His aphorisms, unorthodox ways of describing the wonders of the Christian faith, are very similar to those of C.S. Lewis.

Robert Braxton p'93 Says:

2012-11-26 09:16:06

Excellent - about a very decent human being.

Marly Youmans Says:

2012-12-04 09:33:27

A few hours ago, I pulled "Godric" from my shelf for a reread, and now am so glad to see this piece ...
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