Frederick Buechner, Novelist With a Religious Slant, Dies at 96

Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister who never held a church pastorate but found his calling writing a prodigious quantity of novels, memoirs and essays that explored the human condition from inspirational and often humorous religious perspectives, died on Monday at his home in Rupert, Vt. He was 96.

His son-in-law and literary executor, David Altshuler, confirmed the death.

Drawing on literary and theological credentials over six decades, Mr. Buechner (pronounced BEEK-ner) published 39 books, many of them well-received fictional excursions into the adventures of charlatans, lovers, historical or biblical characters and ordinary people who take on self-imposed superhuman challenges and stoop to only-too-human skulduggery, all in the name of God.

His 10th novel, “Godric” (1980), the first-person tale of a 12th-century English holy man who purifies his soul of the mortal sin of pride, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1981. His “Lion Country” (1971), a novel about a pedophilic former jailbird who ministers to the faithful as a fake pastor in a phony church, was a National Book Award finalist in 1972.

While he was best known for his novels, some translated into 27 languages, Mr. Buechner also wrote poetry, literary reviews, essays on secular subjects and “meditations” on religious matters. He lectured widely at colleges and universities and delivered sermons in the United States and Europe. His four autobiographies professed to find divine grace everywhere in the human experience.

Where does a Christian novelist get his ideas? For Mr. Buechner, the protagonist of his “Book of Bebb” quartet — “Lion Country” followed by “Open Heart” (1972), “Love Feast” (1974) and “Treasure Hunt” (1974) — was conceived in a barbershop, as he was waiting his turn and reading a magazine. The image of an antihero floated up like a mystical vision, and it dominated his writing for years.

In a memoir, he recalled the character: “He was a plump, bald, ebullient southerner who had once served five years in a prison on a charge of exposing himself before a group of children and was now the head of a religious diploma mill in Florida and of a seedy flat-roofed stucco church called the Church of Holy Love, Incorporated. He wore a hat that looked too small for him. He had a trick eyelid that every once in awhile fluttered shut on him. His name was Leo Bebb.”

Other characters proliferate in “Open Heart,” as Cynthia Ozick noted in The New York Times Book Review: “Bebb has a gin-swigging wife who drowned her baby long ago, a well-domesticated ex-homosexual assistant who believes Bebb raised him from the dead, and a tough adopted daughter who sleeps with strangers.”

Can Bebb and his entourage be repositories of grace? Might his house of worship turn out to be, as Ms. Ozick put it, “the truly-revealed Invisible Church, an adumbration of the divine intention? When the Redeemer is called on only to help a man make a living, does he make a life instead? Buechner implies yes.”

Likened by some critics to the works of Mark Twain, Henry James, Elizabeth Bowen and Truman Capote, Mr. Buechner’s novels were admired by loyal readers for their elegance, wit, depth and force. His more homiletic memoirs and essays reached much larger audiences of Christians and consumers of religious books, even though he did not hold orthodox religious views.

“Contrary to widespread religious belief,” he wrote in a 1994 essay for The Times, “I don’t think God goes around changing things in the sense of making bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to good people, or of giving one side victory over the other in wars, or of pushing a bill through Congress to make school prayer constitutional.”

Mr. Buechner said he believed that chance largely ruled the universe, but also that “through the chance things that happen, God opens up possibilities of redemptive human change in the inner selves, even of people who wouldn’t be caught dead believing in Him.”

Emerging from a chaotic childhood in which his family moved constantly as his father, an unsuccessful salesman for industrial chemical companies, drifted from job to job during the Depression and committed suicide when the boy was 10, Mr. Buechner attended a private boarding school and his father’s alma mater, Princeton, and taught for a few years before starting his writing career in New York City.

His first novel, “A Long Day’s Dying” (1950), about conflicts among a college student, his widowed mother, his grandmother and his mother’s lovers, appeared when he was 23. It won both lavish critical praise and commercial success. “All in all, this is a work of real art, fine sensitivity and uncanny human understanding,” David Daiches, a Cornell English scholar, wrote in The Times Book Review.

It was not until after publication of his less-successful second novel, “The Seasons’ Difference” (1952), which explored the moral vacuum in a group of sophisticates, that Mr. Buechner had his spiritual awakening. Attending the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, he heard a sermon by its celebrated pastor, George Buttrick, that inspired him.

He entered Union Theological Seminary in 1954, studied under Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich and, in 1958, earned a divinity baccalaureate and was ordained as a Presbyterian evangelical, a minister without pastoral charge. He joined Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire as a chaplain and founded a religious studies department and taught religion and English there until 1967.

Published in 1991, “Telling Secrets” was one of Mr. Buechner’s several autobiographies.Credit…HarperOne

Starting with the novels “The Return of Ansel Gibbs” (1958), which questioned the human values of a former statesman recalled to Washington for a cabinet post, and “The Final Beast” (1965), which linked a young widowed minister to a woman in a small-town scandal, Mr. Buechner’s writing took on new theological dimensions, finding divinity in everyday life.

In a series of autobiographies — “The Sacred Journey” (1982), “Now and Then” (1983), “Telling Secrets” (1991) and “The Eyes of the Heart” (1999) — Mr. Buechner examined his relationship with his deceased parents and his insights gained from therapy sessions. He explained his intention in an introduction to the first volume:

“More as a novelist than as a theologian, more concretely than abstractly, I determined to try to describe my own life as evocatively and candidly as I could in the hope that such glimmers of theological truth as I believed I had glimpsed in it would shine through my description more or less on their own.”

Critics sometimes accused Mr. Buechner of moralizing. But more typical was Cecelia Holland, in The Washington Post, on his novel “Brendan” (1987), about an Irish saint whose sixth-century voyages were likened to those of Sinbad. “In our own time,” she wrote, “when religion is debased, an electronic game show, an insult to the thirsty soul, Buechner’s novel proves again the power of faith, to lift us up, to hold us straight, to send us on again.”

Mr. Buechner in 2014. He had a spiritual awakening listening to a sermon in a Manhattan Presbyterian church.Credit…Blake Gardner/Frederick Buechner Center, via PR Newswire

Carl Frederick Buechner was born in Manhattan on July 11, 1926, the older of two sons of Carl Frederick and Katherine (Kuhn) Buechner. With their father roving from job to job, Frederick, who never used his first name, and his brother, James, attended another school in another community every year until 1936, when their father died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a car.

Both parents came from upper-class backgrounds, but their inheritances were dissipated during the Depression.

In 1939, Frederick enrolled at the Lawrenceville School, in New Jersey. He published his first poems in its literary magazine and graduated in 1943. He attended Princeton for a year but was drafted into the wartime Army. After the war, he returned to Princeton and earned a degree in English in 1948. He taught at Lawrenceville for five years, then moved to New York to focus on writing.

In 1956, he married Judith Merck, a daughter of George W. Merck, chairman of Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical maker.

Besides his son-in-law, he is survived by his wife; their three daughters, Katherine B. Arthaud, Dinah Buechner-Vischer and Sharman B. Altshuler; and 10 grandchildren.

Mr. Buechner wrote much of his work in Pawlet, Vt., but had lived in recent years in Cambridge, Mass., Rutland, Vt. and Hobe Sound, Fla.

In his last memoir, in 1999, Mr. Buechner recalled his mother, his brother and his childhood friend, the poet James Merrill, all of whom had died. A central character in his recollections, however, is his long-dead maternal grandmother, Naya Kuhn, whom he invites to an imagined conversation in his study at Pawlet.

Searching for insights, he asks her about death: “You’ve already set sail. What can you tell me about it?”

She responds that she considers it misleading to speak of people as having passed away. “It is the world that passes away,” she says.

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