The Monk, the Poet, the Writer

Book cover
Merton & Friendsby By James HarfordContinuum. 352p $35.95

In November 1949, the year after the publication of his bestselling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton dropped a note to his old college friend Robert Lax about the latest news from the Abbey of Gethsemani. "People keep writing from India we should start a monastery there, but Fr. Abbot says no. also a bishop from switzerland wrote, wants american trappists. French-swiss-german-dutch trappists no pep, he says. wants american trappists....Me hide in Kentucky jungle behind horsebarn rain-snow-hail sing king oliver all night."

That Merton could write so breezily to Lax suggests the lifelong affection enjoyed between the two, so deep that even punctuation was unnecessary. (In their letters, the two used a jazzy style of writing called macaronic.) James Harford’s engrossing new book, Merton & Friends, sheds light on the remarkable friendship that knit together three protean figures of 20th-century American Catholicism: the Trappist monk and spiritual master Thomas Merton; the poet Robert Lax; and Edward Rice, the journalist best known for his work in founding and managing the Catholic magazine Jubilee in the 1950’s and early 1960’s.

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Those who know Lax and Rice only from their brief mentions in Merton’s autobiographical writings will be delighted to meet two men who were not simply acolytes to the Merton legend, but talented men in their own right. Merton, Lax and Rice met as undergraduates at Columbia University in the 1930’s and quickly discovered a shared passion for writing, for politics, for jokes, for alcohol, for women and, later, for the Catholic Church.

Beginning in June 1939, the trio (along with other friends) rented a small cottage in the New York town of Olean, near St. Bonaventure’s College, where the recently graduated Merton would take up a teaching position. Merton, Lax and Rice decamped at Olean for a summertime mixture of drinking, arguing and not cleaning the house. The three, reported Rice, also had a contest to see who could write a novel the fastest. "I wrote one in about ten days called The Blue Horse - never published," said Rice. Though Merton freely admitted to dissolute living in his memoirs, Harford’s book underscores how dissolute it really was, though the conversation was more elevated than the normal post-collegiate fare. "We’d buy the food at the A.&P., eat Graham crackers, hamburgers, drink Jim Beam bourbon, sit in the balcony at the movies and drink." There were some frightful Lax-Merton arguments about subjects like St. John of the Cross.

Harford, who served on the board of directors of Jubilee magazine, and who knew Rice and Lax well, has written an important book that is more than simply a gossipy look at the lives of the three famous men. First, it shows three very different but very fruitful ways of living out one’s faith. Robert Lax, a Jewish man who later became Catholic, at first found it difficult to hold a steady job. (A stint at Time magazine was more or less a disaster.) Eventually, he moved to the Greek island of Patmos, and then Kalymnos, where he wrote the increasingly spare concrete poetry that first baffled and then dazzled readers. (One of the more confusing was Sea & Sky, taking up over 100 pages with the single words sea and sky repeated with the rest left as white space.)

Edward Rice, raised a Catholic, would move restlessly from job to job as a journalist before settling down at Jubilee, founded in 1953. In his chapter Jubilee’s Heyday, Harford paints a colorful portrait of the revolutionary journal, whose focus on liturgy, the Eastern churches and the fine arts presaged some of the concerns taken up by the Second Vatican Council. Later in life Rice would find financial success with his masterful biography of Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, the British explorer. (Chancing upon this superb book years ago in a secondhand bookstore, I devoured it, realizing only much later that its author was the Rice of The Seven Storey Mountain.)

Thomas Merton is of course the most widely known of the three and the reason that most people will purchase this new book. And in providing a fuller picture of Merton’s friends, Harford provides a fuller picture of the Trappist. Indeed, while this remains unstated in the book, Merton’s two friends embodied the two sides of Merton: Rice, the peripatetic journalist; Lax, the poet-hermit in exile. Merton’s adult psyche was constantly pulled between the two poles of becoming more involved in the world and becoming more of a hermit. And though toward the end of his life Merton took up residence in a hermitage on the monastery grounds, Harford makes clear that with Merton’s constant stream of visitors, the reclusive Lax, sequestered on his lonely Greek island, was a much better hermit.

Merton & Friends is a quick read with an elegiac tone and stands as a tribute to a time in the church when, standing on the brink of the Second Vatican Council, anything seemed possible. It is admirably detailed and well written, though occasionally interrupted by the appearance of the author and his family. A sentence about another of their friends, the abstract expressionist painter Ad Reinhardt, whom they knew at Columbia, notes that the painter once visited the offices of Jubilee, which is where Millie and I met him. Millie is the author’s wife. Though Harford’s personal relationships and reminiscence lend the book insight and flavor, readers would have been better served had the author hewed more closely to the genre of straight biography.

But that is a minor cavil. Merton & Friends is not simply a successful portrait of three great meneach of whom one might like to have knownbut a vivid reminder of the value of Christian friendship and how important it was for Christ to call us friends.

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