George A. Buttrick and Frederick Buechner: Messengers of Reconciling Laughter

Article excerpt

George A. Buttrick, minister of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in the mid-twentieth century, played a significant role in Frederick Buechner's life. Although the majority of critics do recognize the significance of Buechner's initial conversion in Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1953, Buttrick's presence as a literary and ministerial influence in Buechner's life still remains unexplored and invites further inquiry. (1) Using Buechner's short story "The Tiger" as an autobiographical starting point, this study retraces the early stages of Buechner's spiritual search and conversion. With these critical moments revisited, a comparative analysis will then suggest that Buttrick's message of "great laughter" marks a transformative point in Buechner's life and writing, as Buechner's literary and theological works continue to reflect that message. (2)

Buechner remembers that in 1953 he was "twenty-seven, living alone in New York trying with no success to start a novel and in love with a girl who was not in love with me" (Alphabet of Grace 43). With two novels completed, Buechner was successful but suddenly uninspired, lovesick, and yearning for meaning in the midst of personal and critical uncertainty. "The Tiger" his only published short story, offers insight into the longing Buechner experienced before his life-changing encounter with Buttrick and the message of reconciling laughter. Written only months before his conversion experience, "The Tiger" has unfortunately remained dormant in the canon of Buechner's prolific career. While the story is minor in comparison to the "post-conversion" works such as Godric, W. Dale Brown correctly recognizes the problems of separating Buechner's texts into two eras that are divided by conversion:

   [For most critics] the phenomenally successful first book, A Long
   Day's Dying, and the less successful The Seasons' Difference are
   placed on one side. Then came conversion and ordination, to be
   followed by forty years of books written directly from a Christian
   consciousness. Such a view unfortunately reduces the spiritual
   longing in the early books and the struggles for faith in the more
   recent ones. (Of Faith and Fiction 31)

"The Tiger" provides insight concerning Buechner's spiritual state because it contains a strongly autobiographical quality. Although Buechner comments that he sometimes feels "a sort of revulsion" toward his early work ("Doubt and Faith" 47-48), "The Tiger" was actually nominated for the O'Henry Award; nevertheless, the story was never anthologized beyond the 1955 O'Henry collection and remains virtually unexamined. While its literary merit may be debated, "The Tiger" helps to establish a foreground for Buechner's encounter with Buttrick. Although originally written "more or less on a dare" (Brown, "A Faith" 55), in response to a review in The New Yorker that characterized The Seasons' Difference as "high-flown nonsense," (3) the story continues to reveal Buechner's longing for something transcendent and permanent in the midst of social banality.

"The Tiger" centers on a young narrator who nostalgically remembers attending college football games as an undergraduate. (4) Amid alcohol and women, he recalls the days when their mascot was a real tiger rented from a zoo, not a costumed caricature that parades around the field eliciting nothing more than laughter or derision from a fickle crowd. At first the narrator's fixation with the mascot seems odd, until it is revealed that his association with the image is connected to more than a symbolic image of power. Echoing William Blake's archetypal vision of the tiger, the beast represents an ideal of something tangible and wild, possibly even divine.

As part of an unofficial school reunion, the narrator is persuaded by his peers to suit up as the tiger for a coming game. Although initially reluctant, he agrees and actually enjoys the attention given by his obnoxious friends at the fifty-yard line. …