THE RIDDLE OF THOMAS MERTON -- THE MARVELLOUS MONK!
"You can lead a man to religion, but only MERTON CAN make him drink." Synthecizing the work of Merton.
"The natural man can evolve as much as is possible but he still won't understand God or ascend, not until the God spirit enters him. That is the evolutionary miracle, that it can. And that it can change a man so much." Merton paraphrased, not a quote. "ONLY MERTON can make you 'get the God thing." Why? BECAUSE HE's SO READABLE!
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was once a New York kid living in the French Pyrennes with an expatriate artist hippie Dad who was following Cezanne's impressionist paths. After Mom's death they moved back to NEW YORK where Dad was an illustrator for the publishing industry. Thomas went to COLUMBIA, hung with all the COMMIES, even briefly was a commie, cuz reds were big in the thirties, Then he went to CAMBRIDGE got expelled, then was a writer and Trappist monk at Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. His writings include such classics as The Seven Storey Mountain, New Seeds of Contemplation, and Zen and the Birds of Appetite. Merton is the author of more than seventy books that include poetry, personal journals, collections of letters, social criticism and writings on peace, justice and ecumenism.
A READER SAID " I picked up Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, mainly because my friends were reading it. Last spring, I went on a serious Merton bender: The Silent Life, The Sign of Jonas, The Monastic Journey, A Vow of Conversation, and The Secular Journals. I like Merton, although not necessarily for the reason a lot of people like him.
I get the impression that people like Merton because late in his life he studied Zen Buddhism; he was the Catholic monk who “dabbled” or studied things that many Catholics do. I like Merton because he stands in very distinct opposition to the stereotypical idea of the clergyman, especially the Catholic clergyman, and the monk. Far from being a skinny, weak, effeminate (NOT!, women were a problem ) person of quiet piety, Merton was a lively, affable, strong, masculine struggler, in the sense of the Russian word 'podvizhnik.
He’s a pretty happy person in his journals, but I think that’s because of his struggles earlier in life. Reading The Seven Storey Mountain, I’m struck by how . . . unsympathetic his younger self seems. I’m not sure if “unsympathetic” is the right word. He’s not likeable, but not particularly unlikeable, either. The early Merton of Seven Storey Mountain seems like a fairly unremarkable, well-off bon vivant. Maybe “bland” is a better word. He’s pretty hard on his early self, but that’s not surprising considering the austere life of penance he was called to.
What’s really surprising is that, somewhere between his arrival in America and his conversion to Catholicism, the reader begins to care about Merton. As a child and a young man, Merton is not an inspiring figure. For all his difficulities or struggles, the reader does not feel invested in them. And then, suddenly, you care about this guy. The reader even likes him.
Even though Merton becomes a remarkably devout Catholic for years before he enters the monastery, he is likeable in a way that many holy people, especially in literature, aren’t. The popular conception of a holy person is an image of a fairly boring and annoyingly pious person. The impression the post-conversion Merton makes is of a vital and vigorous person living quietly but happily, a person most people would want to be friends with. If you have never read The Seven Story Mountain, read it. If you read it years ago, and many have, pick it up again. If it’s a re-read, you can skim the first few chapters.
ANOTHER READER: My grandfather (the baptist preacher) gave me a copy before I started seminary the first time in Richmond. I was astounded that a 30 year old had that much to say about himself. It was quite the purging.
But it hooked me on Merton. It was the first I read of his work. From there on I have really only read his (New) Seeds for Contemplation and his journals. I have read none of his poetry or the Zen stuff. It holds little attraction to me. For some reason Zen never has. Curious.
FAMOUS PAL of MERTON WROTE: The Seven Storey Mountain'' was first published 50 years ago this month. As Thomas Merton revealed in his journals, he had begun to write his famous autobiography four years earlier, at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky to which he had journeyed in December 1941, at the age of 26, after resigning as a teacher of English literature at St. Bonaventure College in Olean, N.Y. ''In a certain sense,'' Merton wrote, ''one man was more responsible for 'The Seven Storey Mountain' than I was, even as he was the cause of all my other writing.'' This was Dom Frederic Dunne, the abbot who had received Merton as a postulant and accepted him, in March 1942, as a Trappist novice.
''I brought all the instincts of a writer with me into the monastery,'' Merton said, adding that the abbot ''encouraged me when I wanted to write poems and reflections and other things that came into my head in the novitiate.'' When Dom Frederic suggested that Merton write his life story, the novice was at first reluctant. After all, he had become a monk in order to leave his past life behind. Once he began to write, however, it poured out. ''I don't know what audience I might have been thinking of,'' he wrote. ''I suppose I put down what was in me, under the eyes of God who knows what is in me.'' He was soon ''trying to tone down'' his original draft for the Trappist censors, who had criticized it severely, especially the account of his years at Clare College, Cambridge University, during which he had become the father of an illegitimate child (killed with the mother, apparently, in the bombing of London). For this Merton was ''sent down'' -- expelled -- and he ultimately sailed for America and enrolled at Columbia College, where I met him in 1935.
The country was still in the Depression; the times were serious and so were most undergraduates. Among Merton's and my classmates were Ad Reinhardt, who became a famous painter; John Latouche, who became famous in the musical theater; Herman Wouk, who became a famous novelist, and John Berryman, who became a famous poet. I met Merton when he walked into the office of The Columbia Review, the college literary magazine, and showed me a story and several reviews, which I liked and accepted. He was stocky, blue-eyed, with thinning blond hair, and he was a lively talker, with a slight British accent. He was a junior and I was a senior. He told me of his interest in jazz, Harlem and the movies, enthusiasms I shared. We both admired Mark Van Doren as a teacher. We went to a couple of movies at the old Thalia, and of course in those leftist days words like religion, monasticism and theology never came up. Several years later, when I was working at Harcourt Brace & Company as a junior editor, I was asked to evaluate a novel by Merton, submitted by Naomi Burton of the Curtis Brown literary agency. The hero of ''The Straits of Dover'' was a Cambridge student who transfers to Columbia and gets involved with a stupid millionaire, a showgirl, a Hindu mystic and a left-winger in Greenwich Village. I agreed with the other editors that the author had talent but the story wobbled and got nowhere. Merton was an interesting writer but apparently not a novelist.
Then, in May or June 1941, I encountered Tom in Scribner's bookstore on Fifth Avenue. I had been browsing and felt someone touch my arm. It was Merton. ''Tom!'' I said. ''It's great to see you. I hope you're still writing.'' He said, ''Well, I've just been to The New Yorker and they want me to write about Gethsemani.'' I had no idea what this meant and said so. ''Oh, it's a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where I've been making retreats.'' This revelation stunned me. I had had no idea that Merton had undergone a religious conversion or that he was interested in monasticism. ''Well, I hope to read what you write about it,'' I said. ''It will be something different for The New Yorker.'' ''Oh, no,'' he said, ''I would never think of writing about it.'' That told me a great deal. I now understood the extraordinary change that had occurred in Merton.
The partly approved text of ''The Seven Storey Mountain'' was sent to Naomi Burton late in 1946, and she sent it on to me at Harcourt Brace. I began reading the manuscript with growing excitement and took it home to finish it overnight. Though the text began badly, it quickly improved and I was certain that with cutting and minor editing it was publishable. It never occurred to me that it might be a best seller, though I was sure it would find an audience. The next day I phoned Naomi with (for that era) a good offer, which she accepted on the monastery's behalf. Merton, of course, did not receive one penny of his enormous royalties, because of his vow of poverty; the earnings all went to the community.
In books that become classics the opening words often seem to be inevitable, as if they could not possibly have been otherwise -- ''Call me Ishmael,'' ''Happy families are all alike,'' ''It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.'' After several tries, the opening of ''Mountain'' became: ''On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadows of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.'' There remained the job of editorial polishing -- eliminating repetitions and longueurs. Merton was very cooperative about all these minor changes. ''Really, the 'Mountain' did need to be cut,'' he wrote a friend. ''The length was impossible. When you hear your words read aloud in a refectory, it makes you wish you had never written at all.''
Then a crisis arose in the midst of the editing. Merton told Naomi that a
final censor was refusing permission to publish! Unaware that the author
had a contract, an elderly censor from another abbey objected to Merton's
''colloquial prose style,'' which he considered inappropriate for a monk.
He urged that the book be put aside until Merton ''learned to write decent
English.'' We felt that these anonymous censors would have suppressed St.
Augustine's ''Confessions'' if given the chance. I advised Merton to appeal
(in French) to the Abbot General in France, and to our relief the Abbot
General concluded that an author's style was a personal matter. This
cleared the air and the censor wisely reversed his opinion. At last the
''Mountain'' could be published.
When advance proofs arrived in the summer of 1948, I decided to send them
to Evelyn Waugh, Clare Boothe Luce, Graham Greene and Bishop Fulton J.
Sheen. To my delight they all responded in laudatory terms, and we used the
quotations on the book jacket and in advertisements. At this point the
first printing was increased from 5,000 to 12,500. By November, a month
after publication, the book had sold 12,951 copies, but in December it shot
up to 31,028. From mid-December to after New Year's Day is usually the
slowest period for orders, because bookstores are so well stocked by then.
This new pattern of sales was significant -- the ''Mountain'' was a best
seller! It's hard to believe now that The New York Times refused to put it
on the weekly list, on the grounds that it was ''a religious book.'' Today,
including paperback editions and translations, the total sale of ''The
Seven Storey Mountain'' has reached the multiple millions, and it continues
to sell year after year.
Why did the success of the ''Mountain'' go so far beyond my expectations?
Publishers cannot create best sellers, though few readers (and fewer
authors) believe it. There is always an element of mystery when it happens:
why this book at this moment? I believe the most essential element is
timing. The ''Mountain'' appeared at a time of great disillusion: we had
won World War II but the cold war had started, and the public was looking
for reassurance. Second, Merton's story was unusual. A well-educated and
articulate young man withdraws -- why? -- into a monastery. And the tale
was well told, with liveliness and eloquence. One sign of the book's impact
was the resentment it inspired in certain quarters -- not only with hostile
reviewers, but with fellow religious, who thought it inappropriate for any
monk to write. I remember receiving hate mail saying, ''Tell this talking
Trappist who took a vow of silence to shut up!'' Though silence is a
traditional part of their lives, Trappists take no such vow. Maintaining
silence (to increase contemplation) does not by itself rule out
communication (which they do in sign language). I had a short answer for
the hatemongers: ''Writing is a form of contemplation.''
The celebrity that followed the book's publication became a source of
embarrassment to Tom. If he had expected to withdraw from the world, it did
not happen. Instead, as his fame and writing increased, he heard from Boris
Pasternak in Russia, Czeslaw Milosz in Poland, Abraham Joshua Heschel at
the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Canon A. M. Allchin at
Canterbury. His horizons widened more and more. Two years before his death
he wrote a preface to the Japanese edition of ''The Seven Storey
Mountain,'' containing his second thoughts about the book almost 20 years
after he had written it: ''Perhaps if I were to attempt this book today, it
would be written differently. Who knows? But it was written when I was
still quite young, and that is the way it remains. The story no longer
belongs to me. . . .''
Thomas Merton died in 1968 while attending a conference of Eastern and
Western monks in Bangkok. In 1998, on the 50th anniversary of ''Mountain,''
I think of Mark Van Doren's words, which Tom and I heard in his classroom:
''A classic is a book that remains in print.''
Robert Giroux is writing a memoir about his almost 60 years in publishing.
This essay is adapted from his introduction to a new edition of ''The Seven
Storey Mountain,'' published this month by Harcourt Brace.
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