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Robert GirouxFebruary 27, 2024
Robert Giroux and Thomas Merton (Composite: Wikimedia Commons)

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in America on Oct. 22, 1988, as "Editing The Seven Storey Mountain."

Thomas Merton’s autobiography was published in October 1948, but he had begun to write it in 1944, as he reveals in his journal. A day or so after Pearl Harbor, at age 26, he had journeyed as a postulant to the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, having left his job teaching English literature at St. Bonaventure College in Olean, N.Y. As Merton also states in the journal: “One man was in a certain sense more responsible for The Seven Storey Mountain than I was, even as he was the cause of all my other writing. This man was Dom Frederic Dunne, my Spiritual Father, the Abbot who received me as a postulant, who had given me the habit of a novice one cold Sunday in Lent” in 1942.

Merton was criticized for having written the book, not only by hostile reviewers but by fellow religious who thought it inappropriate for a professed monk to write.

“I brought all the instincts of a writer with me into the monastery,” Merton acknowledged, “and Father Master not only approved but encouraged me when I wanted to write poems and reflections and other things that came into my head in the novitiate.” At first, Merton resisted when Dom Frederic suggested that he write his life story. After all, one reason he had become a monk was in order to leave behind his past life, of which he was anything but proud. But once he began to write, it poured out. He wrote freely, with no thought of the Trappist censors. “I don’t know what audience I might have been thinking of,” he admitted. “I suppose I just put down what was in me, under the eyes of God who knows what is in me.” He wrote these words while he “was trying to tone down” the original draft for the censors, who had criticized it severely, especially the account of his years at Clare College (Cambridge University) during which he became the father of an illegitimate son. After his guardian in England learned about this, he advised his ward, both of whose parents were dead, to leave Cambridge and forget about his hopes of a career in the diplomatic service. Merton sailed for America and enrolled at Columbia University, where I met him in 1935.

The first draft of The Seven Storey Mountain may have been nearly 800 pages. It no longer exists. The manuscript which Merton sent to his literary agent, Naomi Burton Stone, who sent it to me, came to 694 typewritten pages. The printed book came to 429 pages, a substantial book in any publisher’s eyes. The reason we know the first draft no longer exists is that Sister Thérèse Lentfoehr—to whom Merton gave one of the three existing copies of the manuscript (the second he gave to Francis Sweeney, S. J., of Boston College and the third, the one that came back from the printer, he gave to me)— asked him in 1949 if he still had any deleted pages around. She was attempting to reconstruct the text as it was before the editing (and apparently the censoring) was done. She collected all the pages and passages I had cut, but she asked if there were any more. He finally wrote her (July 15, 1949): “About the missing pages, I have nothing at hand. If they are here, they have been used as scratch paper. I’ll look at the back of notes and things, to see if there are any fragments of the Mountain lying around. I believe there was at least one section that I tossed out deliberately, and made sure that nothing was left of it in any manuscript” (italics mine). He is referring of course to the trouble he got into at Cambridge, about which I and almost everyone else knew nothing until 1972 when Edward Rice published his book, The Man in the Sycamore Tree.

By December 1946 the first censors had approved the text which Merton had cut and rewritten. Early that month he sent it off to Curtis Brown Ltd. This is the literary agency where his friend, Naomi Burton Stone, whom he had met after graduating from Columbia, had acted as his agent for the three unpublished novels he wrote before he became a monk (and which I and other publishers rejected).

Naomi’s reaction to The Seven Storey Mountain was very good, as Merton noted in his journal: “She is quite sure it will find a publisher. Anyway my idea— and hers also—is to turn it over to Robert Giroux at Harcourt, Brace.” This entry was dated Dec. 13. Fourteen days later he wrote in his journal: “Yesterday at dinner Father Prior handed me a telegram. I had been thinking, ‘If anything comes to me in the mail, I shall take it as a present from Saint Thomas à Becket.’ But when I saw the telegram my heart sank into my dinner. The first thought that came into my mind was that the manuscript of The Seven Storey Mountain had been lost. Naomi Burton gave it to Harcourt, Brace only a week ago. I knew quite well that publishers always make you wait at least two months before saying anything about your manuscript….I waited until after dinner and opened the telegram. It was from Bob Giroux. And it said: ‘MANUSCRIPT ACCEPTED, HAPPY NEW YEAR.’”

Why did the success of The Seven Storey Mountain go so far beyond my expectations as an editor and publisher?

After Naomi sent the manuscript by messenger to my office, I read it at once. I thought the text began badly, but it quickly improved. With growing excitement as I came to the end, I decided that, with cutting and editing, it was publishable. It never once occurred to me that it might be a best seller. In fact, I wondered whether I had gone out on a limb when I asked my boss, Donald Brace, to read it and was finessed by his asking, “Do you think it will lose money?” “Oh no,” I replied, “I’m sure it will find an audience.” I explained to him that Tom had been my classmate at Columbia—both Donald Brace and Alfred Harcourt were Columbia men—and I was worried that I might not have been as objective as I should be. “Merton writes well,” I added, “and I wish you’d take a look at it, Don.” “No, Bob,” he said, “if you like it, let’s do it.”

The next day I phoned Naomi with an offer, which she accepted on Tom’s behalf, and then I sent the telegram to the monastery. On Jan. 2 he wrote Naomi: “Please assure Bob that I give him a free hand with the editing. There is one idea that I would like to keep: the one about the identity of disinterested charity and true freedom, because that is important. I guess it is evident enough that the whole book is more or less about that, but I’d like if possible to keep the part that says it explicitly. Also I’d like to keep as much as I can of the references to Duns Scotus.”

There was no problem about either of these points. The main flaw was the essay, or sermon, with which the book opened. Thanks to Sister Thérèse, this original opening, an example of misplaced “fine” writing, has survived: “When a man is conceived, when a human nature comes into being as an individual, concrete, subsisting thing, a life, a person, then God’s image is minted into the world. A free, vital, self-moving entity, a spirit informing flesh, a complex of energies ready to be set into fruitful motion begins to flame with potential light and understanding and virtue, begins to flame with love, without which no spirit can exist. It is ready to realize no one knows what grandeurs. The vital center of this new creation is a free and spiritual principle called a soul. The soul is the life of this being, and the life of the soul is the love that unites it to the principle of all life—God. The body that here has been made will not live forever. When the soul, the life, leaves it, it will be dead....” And so on and on for four typewritten pages.

In rejecting this opening, I pointed out to Tom that he was writing an autobiography and readers would want to know at the start who he was, where he came from, and how he got where he was. Finely phrased as it may have been, the original opening was too abstract, too general, too dull and too prolix. He accepted the criticism cheerfully, and after two or three tries he found the right beginning. In books that become classics (”A classic is a book that remains in print”—Mark Van Doren) 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 and the worst of times”). Merton’s new opening sentence: “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 shadow of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world.” It was personal, concrete, vivid, and got the reader involved in the story immediately.

The next most urgent editorial problem was the conclusion of the book, the section entitled “Meditatio Pauperis Solitudinis,” which in the original version was 28 typewritten pages—much too long. I succeeded in getting him to cut out 10 pages. Sister Thérèse, who had copies of both versions, asked Merton to date them. He explained that he had written the earlier version in October 1946. The final version, Merton said, was begun in March 1947 “after my solemn profession, and was in fact the result of some lights that came to me in prayer on the feast of the Sacred Heart, June 1947. I wrote the last pages (the conversation with Our Lord) on the occasion of that feast. Most of the other parts of the last section of the epilogue (about the monastery) in the new and printed version were written about that time too, in the days before the feast.”

The New York Times never listed The Seven Storey Mountain as a best seller. In January, when critics were picking the “Outstanding Books of 1948,” the Mountain was not mentioned.

With the two most serious problems solved, there remained minor editorial polishing throughout—cutting out excess verbiage, repetitions, longueurs or dull patches. I must say that Merton was very responsive and cooperative about all these emendations, which were too numerous and unimportant to record. Writing to Sister Thérèse about these cuts—and if it were not for her scholarly interest in the matter, I would have been unable to throw much light on the editing since I kept no notes— Merton told her: “Really, the Mountain did need to be cut. The length was impossible….The editor at Harcourt was, is, my old friend Bob Giroux who comes into the book for a line somewhere. He did a very good job….I am perfectly satisfied to see anything go out of a book….When you hear your words read aloud in a refectory, it makes you wish you had never written a word. Fortunately, the Mountain was not read here. I would never have had the virtue to face such an ordeal!”

One irony is that I persuaded Merton to add five-and-one-half printed pages to the text. I had sent an advance galley proof to my friend, Professor Francis X. Connolly of Fordham University, who liked the book enormously. Merton had just published an article in Commonweal about America discovering the contemplative life, and Dr. Connolly thought this would fill one of the gaps in the book—the relevance of Merton’s vocation to the modern world. Merton agreed, and it occupies pages 414-19.

This interpolation also occupies the same number of pages in the London edition of The Seven Storey Mountain, which was edited by no less a light than Evelyn Waugh. I had sent him galley proofs, hoping for a quote but not really expecting one, and he wrote at once: “I regard this as a book which may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience. No one can afford to neglect this clear account of a complex religious process.” (I had also sent galleys to Graham Greene, Clare Boothe Luce and Fulton Sheen, all of whom responded in equally superlative terms. It was at this point that Harcourt, Brace increased the first printing from 5,000 copies to 12,500.)

If Sister Thérèse felt that my editing was too severe— and I’m afraid she did—I wonder what she thought of Evelyn Waugh’s. To begin with, he changed the title, the image of the mountain of purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which Merton considered “literally and physically accurate” for his book. Waugh found an English source in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Elected silence, sing to me/And beat upon my whorlèd ear,” and his edition was brought out by Hollis and Carter in 1949 under the title, Elected Silence. In his preface, Waugh stated, “Nothing has been cut out except certain passages which seemed to be of purely local interest.” For example, following Merton’s moving account of the wartime death of his only brother Paul, whose bomber crashed in the North Sea, I ran Merton’s fine elegy in verse. Waugh threw it out. But surely it has more than local (by which Waugh of course meant American) interest. He also cut out parts of the Columbia College section, including Merton’s account of our first meeting at the Columbia Review. The English edition comes to 375 printed pages, 50 less than the American, a reduction of nearly 10 percent.

When I met Waugh in New York, on his way to Hollywood and later to Gethsemani, he told me how thoroughly he had edited Merton’s text. “Yes,” I agreed, “you edited me out of it.” “Really? I never noticed that,” he replied. At one point he described J. F. Powers, whose work he admired, as “a Southern writer.” When I said “Midwestern writer” would be more correct, he said he regarded Illinois as a Southern state. I was also amused by Merton’s report of Waugh’s visit to the monastery. He told Tom he found Hollywood dull; he had expected to find glamour and jewels and parades of elephants but found only businessmen doing business. He said the only real entertainment in Hollywood was at the Forest Lawn Cemetery, which he visited every day. He did not send Merton a copy of The Loved One because “it is not proper material for your refectory.”

In the midst of Merton’s cutting and editing of The Seven Storey Mountain, a crisis arose. He wrote Naomi that one censor now refused permission for the book to be printed. This censor, who was unaware that a publisher had contracted to publish it, said his chief objection was to Merton’s “colloquial prose style.” He advised him to put the book aside until, Merton reported, “I learned how to write decent English.” I advised Merton to present the matter, under these circumstances, to the Abbot General, and Naomi wrote, “I need hardly say that we feel your English is of a very high order.” Naomi and I decided that these anonymous censors would have suppressed St. Augustine’s Confessions if they had had the chance. According to Merton, the head of the Cistercian order in France “said I could go ahead and write as I pleased and to use all the slang I wanted,” but he would not force a contrary opinion upon any censor. This breath of fresh air changed the atmosphere. Soon Merton wrote that “the censor came through with a complete capitulation on everything that mattered and wrote me a very nice letter into the bargain. So in matters of style I am left to my own devices.”

By the early summer of 1948, Merton was correcting the page proofs, and the book was scheduled for publication in the fall. Finished books were ready in August, and I rushed the first copy to the monastery. “I shall never forget,” wrote Merton, “the simplicity and affection with which Dom Frederic put the first copy of the book in my hand. He did not say anything. He just handed me the book, amused at my surprise.” A few days later Dom Frederic died of a heart attack while on a train. “He seemed to sense, in a way that I did not, something of the effect the book might have,” Merton wrote. “The publication of The Seven Storey Mountain... brought a change in my whole life.”

Soon after its publication on Oct. 4, 1948, it was clear that it was becoming a national phenomenon. The first printing of 5,000 copies had been increased to 12,500 and then to 25,000 after three book clubs selected it. It sold 5,914 copies in October, 12,957 in November, and—most surprising of all—31,000 copies in December. Between Christmas and New Year’s, usually the slowest sales period of the year, the order clerks had their busiest time. Yet The New York Times never listed The Seven Storey Mountain as a best seller. In January, when critics were picking the “Outstanding Books of 1948,” the Mountain was not mentioned. Eugene Reynal, head of the trade department at Harcourt, Brace, ran an ad in The Times in March giving the sale figures and showing it was outselling all other nonfiction titles in those months, but The Times refused to put the book on their weekly bestseller list on the grounds that it was “a religious book.”

The celebrity that followed the book’s publication became a source of embarrassment to Tom.

Why did the success of The Seven Storey Mountain go so far beyond my expectations as an editor and publisher? Why, despite its being banned from the lists, did it outsell all other nonfiction books in the same months? Though few readers believe it, publishers cannot create best sellers. There is always an element of mystery when it happens: why this book at this moment? The most essential element of success is right timing, which cannot usually be foreseen. The Seven Storey Mountain appeared at a time of disillusion, following World War II, when another war—the cold war—had started and the public was ready for a change from disillusion and cynicism. Second, the story Merton told was unusual: an articulate young man with an interesting background leaves the world and withdraws into a monastery. Third, it was a tale well told, with liveliness and eloquence. No doubt there were other reasons, but the combination of the right subject at the right time presented in the right way accounts for a good part of the book’s success.

One sign of its impact was the resentment it inspired in certain quarters. Merton was criticized for having written the book, not only by hostile reviewers but by fellow religious who thought it inappropriate for a professed monk to write. As Merton’s publisher, I received hate mail from readers who complained that this talking Trappist who took a vow of silence should be made to shut up. Of course, Trappists take no such vow, though silence is a traditional part of their lives. But maintaining silence (to increase contemplation) does not rule out communication. I had a six-word reply to the hate letters: “Writing is a form of contemplation.”

The celebrity that followed the book’s publication became a source of embarrassment to Tom. I had a phone call from the police about an impostor who turned up in a Chicago nightclub claiming to have left the monastery. They asked if there was any easy way to prove him an imposter. “Ask him to name his literary agent,” I suggested, and of course the faker couldn’t.

In May, the new Father Abbot, Dom James Fox, invited me and other close friends to the monastery for Tom’s ordination. I brought along copy No. 100,000 in a special leather binding. In the original cloth edition, the trade sales were over 600,000 copies. In succeeding years the book was translated and published in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain (both in Castilian and Catalan) and Sweden.

Merton wrote a special preface in 1966 (two years before his death) for the Japanese edition published in Tokyo. It is not generally known. The author’s second thoughts about his book, after almost 20 years, provide an appropriate coda to the story of The Seven Storey Mountain: “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....” And he concluded: “Therefore, most honorable reader, it is not as an author that I would speak to you, not as a storyteller, not as a philosopher, not as a friend only, I seek to speak to you, in some way, as your own self. Who can tell what this may mean? I myself do not know. But if you listen, things will be said that are perhaps not written in this book. And this will be due not to me but to the One who lives and speaks in both.”

In 1968, Merton attended a conference of Eastern and Western monks in Bangkok, during which he died apparently of accidental electrocution. Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee, one of the conference’s organizers (he was Abbot Primate of the Benedictines at that time), described how Merton’s body was found on the floor of his room, during one of the rest periods, with an electric fan fallen across his body. The fan’s velocity-control box lay right against his flesh (he had just taken a shower) and on his skin “the area around the box was burned pretty badly and that burn extended down on the whole of the right side of Merton’s body.” Inevitably, to readers familiar with The Seven Storey Mountain, this brings to mind the final sentence of the book, the conclusion of “the conversation with Our Lord,” which he had written in 1947: “That you [meaning himself] may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”

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