‘Becoming the writer-monk’: Mary Gordon on Thomas Merton
The fascinating premise of Mary Gordon’s lovely little book On Thomas Merton is that, except for his extensive correspondence with Evelyn Waugh and Czeslaw Milosz, Thomas Merton was without literary peers who could perceptively judge, critique and improve his writing. And so in this monograph she has taken up the task to address him, “writer to writer.” She does that by examining the enormous popularity of The Seven Storey Mountain, his quirky 1941 novel My Argument with the Gestapo (which was only published after his accidental death in Thailand) and the seven volumes of journal entries from 1939 to 1968 that probably represent his highest artistic achievement.
With 600,000 hardcover copies sold in 1948, The Seven Storey Mountain, she writes, “is not a book, it is a phenomenon, its success at once traceable and mysterious.” In this frank, passionate memoir of religious conversion, the not-yet-ordained Trappist monk accounts for his childhood in France, a boarding school education in England, a child-out-of-wedlock scandal at Cambridge and then his final undergraduate and graduate years as an English major at Columbia University, where he also converted to Roman Catholicism and finally, remarkably, his entrance into the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky at the age of 26. Gordon faults the autobiography for its “triumphalist rhetoric, the boosterism, the Manichean self-loathing and hatred of the world and the flesh, and the cavalier dismissal of other faith traditions.” She notes that just three years after its publication even Thomas Merton himself said the man who wrote it was dead. Yet she praises his book for “scenes [that] are Merton at his best: demotic but precise; fully realized sensually; moving slowly from the physical to the metaphysical, not pole-vaulting from one to the other, as he does in too many of his theological writings.”
My Argument with the Gestapo was written in the summer of 1941 when Thomas Merton was vexed by the yearning for a religious vocation and teaching English at St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York. He called the novel a “divertissement” and “a sardonic meditation on the world in which I then found myself: an attempt to define its predicament and my own place in it.”
Mary Gordon accords her highest praise for Thomas Merton's journals, where “his talent for description is greatest. When his senses are fully engaged, his writing comes most vividly alive."
It is a hallucinatory report on wartime Europe by a first-person narrator named Thomas Merton who has overindulged in James Joyce. And despite the book’s title, Nazi thugs make no appearance in it. In a 1969 book review of the posthumously published book, critic John Leonard wrote: “Compounded in equal parts of autobiography, spiritual passage and incantatory tour de force, it is less a conventional novel than a word-drunk, panic stricken, sorrowful-hilarious journal by a man hounded by and hounding after the idea of God.”
Mary Gordon notes: “The Seven Storey Mountain put him on the map; it made him a best seller. Its formal straightforwardness made it accessible to a large audience, who would have been baffled and alienated by My Argument with the Gestapo.... His success came about, then, not from following the daring path of [the novel] but by turning radically away from it, becoming the writer-monk, writing what would be of use.”
She accords her highest praise for the 2,500 pages of journals, where “his talent for description is greatest. When his senses are fully engaged, his writing comes most vividly alive.... I detect a much greater sense of spiritual vitality in his journal passages than I do in his books that are self-consciously ‘spiritual.’ In those, I feel the strain, an excessive abstraction that leads to flaccid and disembodied language. But from the very first pages of the journals, everything he describes using sensory language shimmers and resonates.”
Mary Gordon is the author of eight critically acclaimed novels, including There Your Heart Lies; six works of nonfiction, including the memoirs of her parents The Shadow Man and Circling My Mother; and three collections of short stories. A highly regarded professor of English at Barnard College, she brings to this book on Merton what he himself often offered others: the frank convictions of a practiced teacher, the certainty of an established critic, and the sympathy of a successful writer who is equally aware of struggle.