by John Wilson
Editor's Note: On October 10, 2014, W. Dale Brown—founder and director of the Buechner Institute at King University (formerly King College) in Bristol, Tennessee—died, a few days after a bicycle accident. We will be posting a piece remembering Dale and his work. In the meantime, here is a report from 2008 on the inauguration of the institute.
On Monday January 28, my wife Wendy and I found ourselves in Bristol, a city divided between Virginia and Tennessee—the state line runs right through the downtown—on the campus of King College, set among rolling hills. We were there for the inauguration of the Buechner Institute, whose director, Dale Brown, recently came south after a long tenure at Calvin College. Brown—author of The Book of Buechner, the fullest guide we have to Buechner's fiction—presided over Calvin's Festival of Faith & Writing for many years, and he's long been interested in "the ways in which faith informs art and public life," as the institute's website puts it.
Wendy and I have loved Buechner's work for many years, and it was a treat to gather with others of like mind. We heard about Buechner the novelist (our favorites are Godric and Brendan, but this occasion inspired us to take up The Book of the Bebb, me for a re–reading after many years and Wendy for the first time through), Buechner the memoirist (Thomas Lynch—funeral director, poet, essayist, and raconteur of the first order—was terrific on this theme), and Buechner the preacher. In an inspired pairing of kindred spirits, the theologian Walter Brueggemann interviewed Buechner to conclude the festivities Monday night. The conversation was bedeviled by recurring sound problems, amid which the guest of honor exhibited saintly patience, but it was worth the aggravation.
And we heard from Buechner himself, not only in the interview but also in the morning, during the formal inauguration ceremony. It was characteristic of the man that he began by speaking candidly of failure—of the way he has gone faithfully to his "Magic Kingdom" each day to write, and yet has found himself—for ten years or so—unable quite to finish anything to his satisfaction. This was said simply, not with a great deal of fuss, not with any self–dramatizing, and that simplicity made the pain of the declaration all the more real.
Buechner—now in his early eighties—went on to say that he had lately been going through the piles of stuff not completed, looking for bits that might stand alone. He said he quarried a few of these to be published later this year (in June, probably: stay tuned) by Westminster John Knox Press under the title Yellow Leaves, alluding to Shakespeare's Sonnet 73, the first lines of which he quoted for us:
That time of year thou mayest in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
He then read two of these pieces, the first a harrowing and also blackly comic account of his mother at the end of her life, the second a reverie wonderfully titled "Presidents I Have Known," an extraordinary piece in which radically different registers of feeling and experience are all present, hence almost dreamlike in its unfolding. Hearing these pieces made me yearn to read the rest of the volume. They are the kind of thing that can only be written by a master, very late in life.
Long may the Buechner Institute flourish. Thanks to King College and Dale Brown for the vision and resourcefulness to bring it into being—and to Frederick Buechner.
John Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture.
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