Childhood & Early Life
Carl Frederick Buechner was born in New York City. He is the oldest son of Katherine Kuhn and Carl Frederick Buechner. The family could not settle in a place for long as Carl was often changing jobs.
His father, overpowered by a sense of failure, committed suicide in 1936. The family then moved to Bermuda. But World War II forced Americans like them to leave the island for safety.
He passed out of the Lawrenceville School, New Jersey, in 1943. At Lawrenceville, he became friends with James Merrill, a poet who would then win the Pulitzer Prize, and began to nurture literary ambitions.
He joined Princeton University, but his studies there were interrupted by his military service between 1944 and 1946. He returned to Princeton and obtained his B. A.
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In 1950, Buechner published his first novel, ‘A Long Day's Dying’ which is his most successful novel, his style drawing favorable comparison to that of Henry James and Marcel Proust.
His second novel ‘The Season's Difference’, published in 1952, was a commercial failure. Determined to focus on his writing career, he moved to New York City and began teaching at Lawrenceville.
He began attending the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Its pastor George Buttrick’s preaching inspired him to join the Union Theological Seminary in 1954, on a Rockefeller Brothers Theological Fellowship.
At the seminary, he was taught by eminent theologians, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and James Muilenberg. They had a positive influence on his writings and career as a minister.
At the end of his first year at the seminary, in 1955, he took a sabbatical and toured Europe for the next few months. He completed his third novel, ‘The Return of Ansel Gibbs’.
‘The Return of Ansel Gibbs’ was published in 1958. The novel told a story about a former statesman who was offered a cabinet post and enticed out of retirement.
He was ordained a minister, in1958, at the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. Invited by Robert Russell Wicks, the minister at Phillips Exeter Academy, he joined the academy to develop a Department of Religion there
He chaired the department for a year, and served as school minister and teacher from 1960 to 1967. At the end of 9 years, the department had 300 students and 4 teachers.
In his 1965 novel ‘The Final Beast’, the main protagonist is a young minister and widower in a small New England town, who is linked scandalously to a woman by the local newspaper editor.
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His first theological work ‘The Magnificent Defeat’ was published in 1966. It was a collection of sermons he gave at Exeter, dealing with what it means to surrender oneself to God.
In 1967, he and his family began living in a farmhouse in Vermont. Two years later, he published his second theological work, ‘The Hungering Dark’, and was the William Belden Noble Lecturer at Harvard.
‘Brendan’, published in 1987, was similar to ‘Godric’. It is set in the sixth century and is about the celebrated Saint Brendon, known for his remarkable voyages of discovery.
Between 1982 and 1999, he penned four volumes of his memoirs. They were published as ‘The Sacred Journey’, ‘Now and Then’, ‘Telling Secrets’, and ‘The Eyes of the Heart’.
His emotional ties with Bermuda where he spent time trying to recover from the trauma of his father’s suicide were his inspiration to write ‘The Wizard's Tide’, told from the perspective of 11-year-old Teddy Schroeder.
His 2008 book, ‘The Yellow Leaves: a Miscellany’, is a collection of personal memories, poems, and essays. It is not considered his best work, but reflects the maturity of his previous works.
The Book of Bebb tetralogy published between 1972 and 1977, consisted of the novels, ‘Lion Country’, ‘Open Heart’, ‘Love Feast’ and ‘Treasure Hunt’. The tetralogy became very popular and won many accolades.
‘Godric’, published in 1980, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. He took care not to use archaic language.
A Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award finalist, Buechner received the O. Henry Award for ‘The Tiger’, the Rosenthal Award for ‘The Return of Ansel Gibbs’, and the Christianity and Literature Belles Lettres Prize.
Recognized by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letter, he was honored, in 2007, with the Lifetime Achievement award from the Conference on Christianity and Literature.
He has been awarded honorary doctorates by a number of universities including Virginia Theological Seminary, Lafayette College, Lehigh University, Cornell College, Yale University, Susquehanna University, Wake Forest University, and King College.
Personal Life & Legacy
Buechner was introduced to Judith while he was a student at the Union Theological Seminary. They were married, in 1956, by James Muilenberg in Montclair, N.J. The couple has 3 daughters– Katherine, Dinah, and Sharman.
In 2008, ‘The Buechner Institute’, which conducts an annual lecture, was inaugurated at King College. Barbara Brown Taylor, Ron Hansen, Katherine Paterson, Marilynne Robinson and Kathleen Norris have been guest-lecturers.