Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith

By Frederick Buechner.
Harper San Francisco. 2001. 160 pp. $22.00 ISBN 0-06-251752-X

—reviewed by Blue Calhoun Wood, Watkinsville, Ga.

A month after the August 2001 publication of this anticipated new work of Frederick Buechner reverberated with particular poignancy. Its title, from Shakespeare's King Lear, expresses the necessary response to "the weight of this sad time."

The result is a dense, rich and often difficult journey through redemptive darkness and its representation in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, G. K. Chesterson’s A Man Called Thursday and Shakespeare’s King Lear.

These writers, “vein-openers” (p. ix), share the courage to explore those dark spaces repressed or endured in life but voiced, often triumphantly, in their works. Some reviewers have found these four writers strange bedfellows, but dedicated readers will recognize their allusive presence in Buechner’s earlier work even if the order of this influential quartet seems puzzling.

Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, familiar to countless readers, might seem a more accessible entry than the poetry of Hopkins. Given Buechner’s wish “to shift my gaze from inward to outward, to the shadowy side of lives other than mine” (p. 159), we should not be surprised to move from the personal isolation of Hopkins during his last years of emotional and intellectual privation in “what seems to have been the almost unrelieved desolation . . . of his life in Dublin” (p. 4), to the increasingly harsh social criticism of Twain and the cultural “decadence and darkness” (p. 95) engulfing Chesterton, to the finally universal, even cosmic tragedy of King Lear, man as “poor, bare, forked animal” — bereft of familial and wordly connection, but not of human dignity and mercy.

Buechner combines reflection with biography and close reading, the sometime maligned (but thankfully enduring) critical method that was sweeping the academy when he attended Princeton and began his multifaceted career. This method invites, even demands, our immersion in the text; but it also risks tedium.

More troubling is the writer’s inability to leave a point well made. The weaknesses of the method, however, are closely allied with its strengths. The subtly mingled voices (of the works’ language, the characters, the vividly evocative narrator) and our own intense concentration take us down roads heretofore untraveled and depths unplumbed — at least in quite this manner — in Buechner’s works.

Speak What We Feel may not appeal to everyone. It does not read quickly or easily. It does, however, speak honestly and eloquently to those whose sense of mortality urges them to take stock, to think back, to look through the experiences of these writers, including Buechner himself, at the “weight of [their own] sad times.”