Authors: John Buchan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Scottish novelist, short-story writer, poet, historian, and politician


John Buchan (BUHK-uhn) was a prolific writer of history and fiction, a distinguished member of Parliament, a lawyer, an editor, a director of information for the British government, a churchman, and governor general of Canada. He was born in Perth, Scotland, August 26, 1875, to a Free Church minister, John Buchan, and a farmer’s daughter, Helen Masterson Buchan. Surviving an early skull injury which kept him in bed for a year, he entered Glasgow University when he was seventeen; he then, having been awarded a scholarship, went to Brasenose College at Oxford, where he won a number of literary prizes and wrote three books.{$I[AN]9810000243}{$I[A]Buchan, John}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Buchan, John}{$I[geo]SCOTLAND;Buchan, John}{$I[geo]CANADA;Buchan, John}{$I[tim]1875;Buchan, John}

John Buchan.

(Library of Congress)

In 1900 he went to London to study law and was admitted to the Middle Temple bar the following year. During that time he also served as a member of the editorial board of the Spectator. He began his career in public service by going with Lord Milner to South Africa, where he acquired a broadness of outlook that made him a successful administrator. Two years later he returned to England, having by that time completed five novels.

He entered into partnership with the publishers Thomas A. Nelson and Sons in 1907. He married Susan Charlotte Grosvenor and had three sons and one daughter; his wife provided him with the opportunity for writing and served as his hostess during various government assignments.

After leaving Nelson and Sons, Buchan worked for a time as director of the Reuter Press Agency and then, during World War I, as correspondent for the London Times. His most famous novel, The Thirty-nine Steps, was published at that time. While serving next as director of information for the British government, he not only edited Nelson and Sons’s twenty-four-volume popular history of the war but also wrote his own four-volume history.

Buchan entered Parliament in 1927 as a Conservative member for the Scottish universities, and he held his seat until his appointment in 1935 as governor general of Canada brought with it the title of Baron Tweedsmuir. He had previously been honored by being made lord high commissioner of the Elder Church of Scotland in 1933. He was an agreeable and efficient governor general, friend to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and host to King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when the royal pair visited Canada in 1939. Buchan’s death at Montreal, February 11, 1940, was the result of a skull injury.

Buchan was a capable, exciting, and prolific writer, even though he led a busy political life and was often able to write only on weekends and during the summers. His historical works, particularly his Oliver Cromwell, were well received, but he was most popular for his adventure stories, many of them featuring Richard Hannay, who figures in The Thirty-nine Steps, Greenmantle, Mr. Standfast, and The Three Hostages.

BibliographyBuchan, Anna. Unforgettable, Unforgotten. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1945. This memoir by one of Buchan’s sisters provides a personal look at the author. Indexed and illustrated, it is especially good for his early life.“Buchan, John.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1998. Essay in a collection of articles on sixty-eight mystery authors from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provides an overview of Buchan’s life, an analysis of his work, and a bibliography.Buchan, William. John Buchan: A Memoir. Toronto, Ont.: Griffen House, 1982. Written by John Buchan’s son, this very readable biography humanizes Buchan by concentrating on his personal, rather than public, life. Based on William’s childhood memories, as well as his own expertise as a novelist, poet, and literary critic. Well indexed and contains a good bibliography.Butts, Dennis. “The Hunter and the Hunted: The Suspense Novels of John Buchan.” In Spy Thrillers: From Buchan to Le Carré, edited by Clive Bloom. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Butts’s analysis of Buchan’s work appears in one of thirteen essays examining books by twentieth century suspense novelists. Includes an introductory essay about the genre, a bibliography, and an index.Cawelti, John G., and Bruce A. Rosenberg. The Spy Story. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Cawelti’s chapter, “The Joys of Buchaneering,” argues that Buchan’s Richard Hannay stories are the crucial link between the spy adventures and the espionage novels of the twentieth century. Buchan developed a formula that was adopted and given various twists by successive authors. Includes an excellent bibliography and appendixes.Daniell, David. The Interpreter’s House: A Critical Assessment of John Buchan. London: Nelson, 1975. Concentrates on the tension between Calvinism and Platonism in Buchan’s life, two perspectives identified as the key to appreciating and understanding Buchan and his works. Scholarly and very thorough, the book refutes many of the common myths about Buchan.Green, Martin. A Biography of John Buchan and His Sister Anna: The Personal Background of Their Literary Work. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990. A useful study of how literary talent is developed. This is a strictly chronological approach, except for the first chapter, “Heroic and Non-heroic Values.” Includes notes and bibliography.Hitz, Frederick P. The Great Game: The Myth and Reality of Espionage. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004. Hitz, the former inspector general of the Central Intelligence Agency, compares fictional spies in the work of Buchan and others to actual intelligence agents. His purpose is to demonstrate that truth is stranger than fiction.Kruse, Juanita. John Buchan and the Idea of Empire: Popular Literature and Political Ideology. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1989. Kruse approaches Buchan’s novels from a postcolonial perspective, describing his ideas about the British Empire and examining the role of colonialism and imperialism in his work.Lownie, Andrew. John Buchan: The Presbyterian Cavalier. Boston: D. R. Godine, 2003. Originally published in London in 1995. As the subtitle indicates, Lownie is concerned with developing the Scottish roots of Buchan’s writing. This very helpful biography includes a chronology, a family tree, notes, and a bibliography.Smith, Janet Adam. John Buchan and His World. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1979. Only 128 pages, this is an updated version of an earlier biography. Makes use of newer material provided by Buchan’s family and publisher. Illustrated and well written, the biography concentrates on Buchan’s life as both a writer and a public servant.
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