Personal, Prolific, Provocative: Thomas Merton’s Life in Letters

merton-life-in-letters-coverI was honored to be asked by Patrick O’Connell, Thomas Merton scholar and editor of the Merton Seasonal journal, to review a new collection of Merton’s personal letters titled Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters, published in 2008 by HarperOne. Below is the review for your reading pleasure.

Personal, Prolific, Provocative

by Rose Marie Berger

Esteemed Merton scholars Christine M. Bochen and William H. Shannon have again brought to bear their years of wisdom and insight into Thomas Merton—the man, monk, merry prankster, mystic, master poet, and writer—in crafting the essential epistolary collection Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters.

Carefully culling from the more than ten thousand letters archived at The Thomas Merton Center, Bochen and Shannon—who edited individually or together the previous five collections of Merton letters—have selected what they consider Merton’s “best letters” from January 2, 1942, when he was a novice at Gethsemani to November 1968, when he wrote his final letter from New Delhi, India.

The breadth and variety of Merton’s correspondents is staggering. Quite simply: He wrote to those who he was interested in learning from and he responded to many who were interested in him and his ideas. The constraints of monastic life and the sometimes ill-fitting gift of stability lent themselves to making out of Merton the prolific letter-writer he became. In this collection, one finds letters to American writer Henry Miller, Pope John XXIII, Nicaraguan journalist Pablo Antonio Cuadra and Nicaraguan president Somoza, American sixth-grader Susan Chapulis, Pakistani Sufi Abdul Aziz, Saturday Evening Post editor John Hunt, Ethel Kennedy, mayor of Hiroshima Shinzo Hamai, ecologist Rachel Carson, novelist James Baldwin, religious scholar Martin E. Marty, Coretta Scott King, beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, rabbi Abraham Heschel, Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. The art of letter writing was for Merton an expression of intimacy. His letters reveal his affections for individuals, ideas, and express theological and political affection for humanity to be its best self. “I do not hesitate to confess,” wrote Merton to Sister Therese Lentfoehr in 1956, “that letters from my friends have always and will always mean a great deal to me” (vii).

Merton aficionados will be familiar with the organization of the previous collections of letters: The Hidden Ground of Love (1985), his reflections on religious experience and the social concerns of the day; The Road to Joy (1989), more intimate correspondence with friends and family; School of Charity (1990), responses to religious renewal, Vatican II, and spiritual direction; The Courage for Truth (1993), ideas shared with writers from around the world; and Witness to Freedom (1994), Merton’s stand against the fettered life, wherever found. These five make up the bulk of Merton’s published correspondence.

In A Life in Letters, however, Bochen and Shannon expanded the five themes into nine. The shift is more than just adding on new themes. The editors reflect a new way of organizing Merton’s letter-writing interests based on having now read nearly all of Merton’s correspondence. Shannon only had partial knowledge of the vast reservoir when he started organizing the correspondence for publication in the early 1980s.

“An explanation of the difference between the titles of the published 5 volumes and the nine themes of the just published one volume, the ‘best’ of the letters, has to do with the contrast between where I was in 1982 (in terms of my knowledge of the Merton letters) when I was appointed by the Merton Trust with the editorship of the Merton letters and where Christine Bochen and I were in 2006 when we accepted the editorship of Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters,” William Shannon explained in an e-mail.

“In 1982,” Shannon continued, “in choosing the material that would go into the five volumes, it was, I believe, my knowledge of Merton’s life and published works that guided me rather than any thorough understanding of the Merton letters (which at that time I did not have).

“By contrast when Dr. Bochen and I began working on Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters, we had a much more comprehensive knowledge of the letters. We were, therefore, in a much better position to choose the nine topics that guided our selection of letters.”

For the seasoned reader then, the Table of Contents (v) itself in A Life in Letters offers new insight into Merton’s life and thought. The nine topics are: “A Life in Letters,” examples of Merton’s overtly autobiographical letters ; “Becoming and Being a Monk,” his reflections on and wrestling with the Christian monastic tradition; “Living the Writer’s Life,” exchanges with literary agent and friend Naomi Burton Stone and early Merton archivist Sister Therese Lentfoehr; “Speaking the Truth,” letters to writers around the world; “Seeking God in the Ordinariness of Life,” explorations in Christian mysticism and contemplation; “Reading the Signs of the Times,” Merton’s unmasking of the moral crisis beneath social and political issues; “Networking for Peace,” correspondence on war and violence, peace and nonviolence; “Keeping Faith in Times of Change,” letters on Roman Catholicism, Vatican II, and honoring tradition while demanding that it respond to the present; “Seeking Unity Beyond Difference,” discussions with Jews, Muslims, Taoists, Buddhists, and Hindus.

For the new reader, this collection gives the freshest thinking on the “essential letters,” and comes with helpful section introductions by the editors to situate the reader in Merton’s life and the political or social context of the time, as well as introducing readers to the correspondents themselves. Occasionally, the sheer volume of selected entries appears to have gotten away from the careful editors’ hands—at least one excerpt from a letter to Sister Therese Lentfoehr, a teacher who corresponded with Merton for more than 20 years, was repeated (83, 182). Undoubtedly, this will be corrected in subsequent editions.

While it is necessary to place the letters in this collection in the context of Merton’s own life and in the context of Merton’s overall legacy, it is also important to examine Merton’s letter-writing art in the context of 20th-century American literature.

Literary sociologists David Barton and Nigel Hall argue in Letter Writing as a Social Practice that letter writing is a genre unto itself and deserves to be studied as enthusiastically as poetry or the novel. Additionally, they posit that “many contemporary genres have their origins in letters” (Barton and Hall, 4). The new research into letter writing raises several questions regarding Thomas Merton, who was, as Shannon and Bochen put it, “one of the most prolific and provocative letter writers of the twentieth century” (vii).

How will Merton be critiqued as a letter-writer per se? William Shannon said in the same personal e-mail that “Merton was an amazingly good letter-writer.” How will critics analyze Merton’s letter-writing genius as compared to his innovation and skill as a poet or his daring analysis as an essayist? British novelist, satirist, and literary critic Evelyn Waugh, who prepared the manuscript of Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain for a British audience, so much admired Merton’s skill that he advised Merton to “put books aside and write serious letters and to make an art of it” (ix). Of course, Merton didn’t set book-writing aside, but he did continue over his life to perfect his letter-writing craft.

More importantly, are Merton’s letters derivative of his political essays, theological and monastic treatises, autobiographical writings, poetry, and intellectual critiques or, as Barton and Hall prompt, do all these genres have their genesis in Merton’s letters instead? Often the personal correspondence of a well-known personality are collected and published in order to provide enthusiasts with an “inside look” at the “personal” life that would otherwise be hidden. The publication of personal letters can have a tinge of voyeurism.

I would argue that it is in Merton’s letters that we find the foundations of his published works. The letters show him testing ideas, crafting opinions, grounding his analysis, playing with images and phrasing, sorting and sifting the essential components of his life story. From this perspective, Merton’s letters (and journals) are the seedbed for his completed works in other genres, rather than the frosting on his “real” work.

Equally important in recognizing Merton’s brilliance in the genre of letter-writing is understanding the “American-ness” of Merton’s correspondence project. Elizabeth Hewitt, author of Correspondence and American Literature, 1770-1865 (Cambridge University Press, 2004), points out that in 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville remarked that the marvel of American political ideology was the seeming ability to strike a balance between individual liberty and a celebration of democratic principles (4). “Letters emphasize the singularity of a particular letter-writer,” writes Hewitt, “even as they strive to position the recipient in an idealized relationship with the writer. They emphasize solidarity and individualism at once,” and thus reconcile a balance of power that is fundamentally American (4).

Merton’s liberality in correspondence provides an exemplar in emphasizing “solidarity and individualism at once.” As Merton explored in letters his own individuality as a means of unmasking the True Self or becoming a spiritually authentic human being, he fostered solidarity with and among correspondents in broad array of stations and stages of life, and social, political, religious, and geographical locations. One could argue, applying Hewitt’s analysis, that Merton established a quintessentially American balance in his letters.

Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters is a critical component to exploring the place of Merton’s letters in American literary history. Shannon and Bochen are unarguably the best situated Merton scholars for selecting correspondence that is both comprehensive and truly representative.

Amid all the amazing letters in this collection, one letter stood out for its uniqueness. On January 12, 1963, Merton wrote to ecologist and biologist Rachel Carson—one of his few, if not his only, letter to a scientist. He was making his way through Carson’s Silent Spring—the book that launched the modern environmental movement. Merton writes:

We don’t like the looks of a Japanese beetle. We let ourselves be convinced by a salesman that the beetle is a dire threat. It then becomes obvious that the thing to do is exterminate the beetle by any means whatever even if it means the extermination of many other beings which have not harmed us and which bring joy into our lives: worse still, we will exterminate the beetle even if it means danger to our children and our very selves. To make this seem “reasonable” we go to some lengths to produce arguments that our steps are really “harmless.” I am afraid I do not relish the safety of the atomic age … . (209)

In this simple analysis, Merton crystallizes the crisis in modern thinking and the spiritual blindness that is the wound of the modern age. Yet Merton, with wry humor, ends his letter to Carson by confessing that he has not “totally renounced” his use of the pesticide DDT and Merton—caretaker for the monastery forest—asks if Carson can help him address a plague of bagworms that are killing his cedar trees.–Rose Marie Berger

Rose Marie Berger, a Catholic poet and peace activist, is an associate editor at Sojourners magazine (www.sojo.net) in Washington, D.C. Her forthcoming book is Who Killed Donte Manning? The Story of an American Neighborhood (Apprentice House Press, Fall 2009).

This was first published as “Personal, Prolific, Provocative,” a review of Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters, The Essential Collection edited by William H. Shannon and Christine M. Bochen (p. 29-32) in The Merton Seasonal (Volume 34, Spring 2009).

2 thoughts on “Personal, Prolific, Provocative: Thomas Merton’s Life in Letters”

  1. How do I get on a mailing list for this sort of information
    I would like to have it include Rose Marie Berger

    Thanks and Peace,

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