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Frederick Busch, 64; a ‘Writer’s Writer,’ Former Professor at Colgate University

Times Staff Writer

Frederick Busch, the author of close to 30 books, many of them novels and collections of short stories about the hardships and anguish of ordinary people, has died. He was 64.

A former professor of literature at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., Busch suffered a heart attack during a visit to New York City and died Feb. 23 at Bellevue Hospital Center, his family said. He had been a resident of Sherburne, in central New York state.

Using his local environs as the setting for many of his novels, Busch “brought central New York alive for millions of readers,” Colgate President Rebecca S. Chopp said in a recent statement.

He was often referred to as a “writer’s writer,” and his work was compared to that of such literary masters as Raymond Carver and John Cheever. Busch received a number of prestigious awards, including the American Academy of Arts and Letters fiction award in 1986 and the PEN/Malamud prize in 1991. Busch once said his goal was to be “a really honest, minor writer of the 20th century.”

Literary critics gave him high praise.

Busch is “an artist who counts, a writer who matters to the cultural life of the nation,” wrote Donald J. Greiner in the Dictionary of Literary Biography in 1980. Greiner also wrote a critical study of Busch’s work called “Domestic Particulars: The Novels of Frederick Busch” in 1988.

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Many of Busch’s stories are about good people going through hard times. “Manual Labor” (1974) tells of a married couple struggling with repeated miscarriages. “Rounds” (1979) follows a medical doctor as he copes with the death of his son. “Girls” (1997), one of Busch’s best received novels, is about a husband and wife who are losing touch after 20 years together.

“We’re not talking about wife beaters here,” Greiner said of “Girls” in a 1997 interview with National Public Radio. “We’re talking about the little tensions that build and build and build. I think [Busch] is very, very good at suggesting a kind of domestic heroism, what it takes to hold a family together”.

Two of Busch’s novels blend fictional characters with figures from history. “The Mutual Friend” (1978) is about 19th century British novelist Charles Dickens. The Guardian newspaper in London called it one of the 10 best books of the year, though a reviewer for the New York Times said it was “often brilliant, but inert.”

“The Night Inspector” (1999) features American author Herman Melville, a once-prominent writer who was nearly forgotten by the time he died in the late 1800s.

In Busch’s story, Melville interacts with a Civil War veteran in what a reviewer for Publishers Weekly called a “serious, nuanced, meditation on history.”

Busch’s interest in his vocation led to a book of essays called “A Dangerous Profession: A Book About the Writing Life” (1998). In it he reflected on the work of Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene and other authors he admired. He also described his own experiences as a writer.

“Read this book if you are a beginning writer who wants the assurance that others, too, have written, submitted and been rejected over and over again,” wrote a reviewer for the New York Times. “Read it if you are an established writer and want to see the continuing doubt and despair of those who have produced great books.”

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Busch graduated from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. He married Judith Burroughs in 1963, and they had two children, Benjamin and Nicholas.

Busch joined the faculty of Colgate in 1966. The next year he received a master’s degree in literature from Columbia University.

He continued to teach at Colgate until 2003. One of his most popular courses featured living writers, many of whom he brought to the campus to read and discuss their work with students. He was also acting director of the creative writing program at University of Iowa in 1978 and 1979.

Besides his wife and sons, he is survived by a grandchild, Alexandra.


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