By Caitlin Mullen ’10
I harbor few regrets regarding my education at Colgate. But the fact that I never met Frederick Busch is a great — if unavoidable — one, a regret that compounds the more I read his work.
Busch, the critically acclaimed novelist and short-story writer who taught literature at Colgate for decades, passed away a few months before I matriculated in 2006. But his presence certainly still lingered in Lawrence Hall when I arrived on campus, and I read my first Busch story fall semester of my first year. I didn’t know then that I would end up pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing, and I couldn’t have imagined that I would teach his stories to college students myself one day.
At that time, I hadn’t read many contemporary writers. My high school English classes left me steeped in Faulkner and Shakespeare, whom I love, but at the cost of being terribly ignorant of the fiction being produced during my own lifetime. The first Busch story I read was “Good to Go,” about a mother struggling to understand and protect her son, a war veteran who is a traumatized, unrecognizable version of the boy she raised. I remember feeling a little dazed that this was what someone could make out of life as I recognized it, out of the experiences of ordinary people, people like the ones I might pass in the grocery store, who might pull up behind me at the gas station. It did what the best fiction can do: it made me more perceptive and more curious about the world around me, about what it felt like to be someone else.
For Colgate alumni and students, there is the simple pleasure of recognition that comes from reading Busch’s fiction. Busch, who grew up in Brooklyn and spent most of his adult life near Colgate in Sherburne, wrote about campus and the surrounding area in many of his most well-known stories, such as “Ralph the Duck.” As we read, we realize that’s our quarry, our quad, our campus set up on the hill, the windows of our gray stone buildings lit with soft yellow light. Beyond Hamilton, Busch’s work conveys the texture of life in and around the Chenango Valley: the rolling hills, the salt-strewn streets, the sound of snowmelt trickling through aluminum gutters. He gives equal billing to the beauty and the melancholy that characterizes central New York, from the calm of deer grazing along the side of the road and the hush of a field under a blanket of freshly fallen snow to the backbreaking strain of long, cold winters and gray skies, old roofs sagging under snow.
Similarly, Busch’s work is invested in showing all facets of the human experience, in conveying the heroism of the average person, as well as our vulnerability to heartbreak, cruelty, violence, or disappointment. Reading Busch, we are reminded that love — for spouses, siblings, parents, and children — is both the root of our most profound pain and the source of our salvation. His fiction forces you to reckon with the knowledge that all of us will make mistakes, mishandle the responsibility of loving and being loved by someone else. Yet Busch was not a pessimistic writer. In fact, his work acknowledges that our human fallibility is an important aspect of our humanity. Our mistakes hurt because, for the most part, we try so very hard to be decent and good. These kinds of tensions and oppositions animate Busch’s work, and make it hum and feel so relatable and so alive.
Ten years after reading Busch for the first time, I find myself humbled by the difficulties of trying to both write fiction and teach it. I tell my undergraduate students at Stony Brook — or perhaps it is more accurate to say I warn them — that, as writers, we need to constantly expand our capacity for emotional generosity and cultivate a sense of empathy that thins our skin. We need to notice and try to understand the way others experience the world while knowing that the task is essentially impossible. That effort alone makes the act of writing worthwhile, and I think this keenly apparent empathy is what the Pulitzer Prize–winning author Elizabeth Strout referred to when she called Busch’s body of work “relentlessly brave.”
In Busch’s stories, we are in the presence of a writer with a bone-deep compassion toward his characters, a writer who seems to be reaching toward the world even as he is no longer a part of it. I’ll never know Frederick Busch, the person and professor, the way Colgate students before me did. But if a writer’s body of work speaks for them — tells us about the questions that preoccupied them, the details they found worthy of notice, the way they expressed a love for life through their unwavering attention to what they saw and felt as they moved through the world — I’d say I have come to know something of what Busch was like and how he thought. I’m immensely grateful for it.