Resources for Thomas Merton

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There’a a wealth of material on Thomas Merton, so I’m going to list some of the better known biographies and critical works here for anyone who might be interested in learning more about Merton.

Here are some important biographies:

Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton by Jim Forest (Orbis Books, 1991).

Merton: A Biography by Monica Furlong (Harper & Row, 1980).

The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton by Michael Mott (Houghton Mifflin, 1984).

The Man in the Sycamore Tree–The Good Times and Hard Life of Thomas Merton: An Entertainment by Edward Rice. This is a biographical portrait of Merton with reminiscences of him by one of his close friends from Columbia. Rice became a distinguished journalist and writer as well. (Image Books, 1972).

When searching books on Merton on Amazon and the library I’ve found more material on Merton in relation to Catholic thought, spiritual direction, activism, peace, philosophy and ecumenism than I have what might be considered straight literary criticism. However, here are some works on Merton from a lit-crit perspective:

The Art of Thomas Merton by Ross Cabria (Texas Christian University Press, 1979).

Thomas Merton, Monk and Poet: A Critical Study by George Woodcock (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1978).

Thomas Merton by Victor Kramer (1984). This is a volume in the always useful Twayne’s United States Authors Series.

Walking With Thomas Merton: Discovering His Poetry, Essays, and Journals by Robert Waldron (Paulist Press, 2002)

Merton PBS

Here’s a book that examines Merton’s artwork:

Angelic Mistakes: The Art of Thomas Merton by Roger Lipsey (New Seeds, distributed by Random House).

I was looking up Merton on Amazon and encountered this title:

Popology: The Music of the Era in the Lives of Four Icons of the 1960s by Timothy English (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013). This books examines the role music played in the lives of John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Thomas Merton. When Merton went into Louisville on various errands or appointments, he liked to catch live jazz–he had always enjoyed jazz–and enjoy some bourbon, scotch or beer (or maybe a little bit of each). According to the blurb for this book, Merton liked John Coltrane, Dylan, and the Beatles and was “obsessed” with Joan Baez’ version of the old folk ballad “Silver Dagger.” Interesting stuff.

Joan Baez in the early 1960s.

Joan Baez in the early 1960s.

Here’s a link to the International Thomas Merton Society at Bellarmine University in Louisville.

Here’s a link to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky:

I’ve visited the Abbey of Gethsemani, and it’s a special place–that will be the topic of a future blog. Certain parts of the abbey are off-limits to visitors, but there’s still plenty to see, and you can visit Merton’s gravesite. The abbey has retreat options available–check out their website for information.

Trappist monasteries, like other monasteries, usually have some kind of unique goods produced for sale to help sustain themselves and to give to charities they support. The monks of Gethsemani produce excellent cheeses, fruitcakes, and fudge. I haven’t tried their cheese or fruitcake yet, but I’ve had their bourbon fudge, which I thought outstanding. They also sell coffee from a monastery in Nicaragua. If you are interested in purchasing any of these ‎items, you can access their catalog through the link above.

Coffee and coffee mug available from Gethsemani Farms.

Coffee and coffee mug available from Gethsemani Farms.

Patrick Kerin


Remembering Erma Bombeck: 1927-1996

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Erma Bombeck was born on this date–February 21–in 1927 in Bellbrook, Ohio. She was a best-selling author, humorist, and newspaper columnist whose syndicated columns were popular throughout the United States. She wrote about the challenges of daily life, family, and motherhood with wit and compassion in a straightforward and low-key style that resonated with readers from the 1960s throughout the 1990s. She was also a strong supporter of women’s rights who fought for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Please join me in remembering Erma Bombeck on her birthday, and stay tuned to this blog for a profile on her in the upcoming week.

Patrick Kerin


The Long Journey of Thomas Merton


He was born in France and died in Thailand. But when he was laid to rest it was in the soil of the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky where he had lived for 27 years as a monk of the Trappist order, officially known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. Thomas Merton was one of the most important and profound spiritual writers of the twentieth century. Like other Trappists, he took a vow of silence, but book after book of poetry, essays, commentary, reflection and meditation made his voice heard around the world. He was also a complex and many-sided man who had his share of struggles, doubts and disappointments.

Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

It was a long and fascinating journey that brought him to the Abbey of Gethsemani. He was born in Prades, France on January 31, 1915. His father, Owen Merton, was a painter from New Zealand. His mother Ruth, also an artist, was an Ohio-born American from a Quaker family. They met in Paris, married, and had two children, Thomas and his younger brother John Paul, who was killed at sea during the Second World War. Merton’s mother died when he was six, and Merton and his family moved around frequently during his childhood and adolescence, shuttling among France, England, Bermuda and the United States. He spent time in boarding schools and living with relatives. His father, who was absent from him for long periods of time, died when he was fifteen, and he lived with his grandparents in England, later attending Oakham in Rutland  and then spending a year at Clare College, Cambridge.

Oakham in Rutland, England.

Oakham in Rutland, England.

His time at Cambridge was a dark period of his life. Merton was a troubled young man swiftly becoming a hard-drinking womanizer, eventually fathering a child (both mother and child are believed to have died during a Nazi air raid on London). His guardian settled the threat of a paternity suit against him and sent him to live with his American grandparents. Thomas Merton sailed to Long Island and enrolled at Columbia University.

Butler Library at Columbia University in New York City.

Butler Library at Columbia University in New York City.

Merton found the Columbia campus a welcome change. He became involved in fraternity life, worked for student publications, made friends and was nurtured by teachers the likes of Mark van Doren, a distinguished poet and revered English professor. Merton plunged into literary study, wrote fiction, and drew cartoons and sketches, but he was still a man about town, enjoying jazz, the company of young women, and long nights drinking with his friends. He flirted with Communism. During these years in New York, Merton composed four novels, only one of which he saved (and was published posthumously), completed his master’s thesis on William Blake and began graduate work on the famous Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. In addition, he contributed book reviews to both the New York Herald Tribune and the New York Times.

Professor Mark van Doren.

Professor Mark van Doren.

But the young man determined to be a writer also felt a deep restlessness during his college years. One day he passed the Scribner’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue and became entranced by a copy of Etienne Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy in the store window. He purchased the book and soon began reading other Catholic religious and philosophical works, inching closer to conversion. He began attending Mass, learned the Catechism and was baptized. In 1940 he took a position teaching at St. Bonaventure College in Olean, New York after completing his master’s degree.

Etienne Gilson.

Merton’s conversion had a long foreground. Although his experiences with formal religion within his family were minimal, Merton was taken with the cathedrals and churches of Rome when he visited there in 1933, and he never forgot the Catholic culture he saw in France, remembering in particular a French couple deeply devoted to their faith. He also became interested in mysticism after reading Aldous Huxley’s Means and Ends, and befriended a Hindu monk visiting New York named Mahanambrata Brahmachari who encouraged Merton to pursue Christian answers to the spiritual questions that he had.

But the restlessness persisted after his conversion, something telling him he had a religious vocation. He considered becoming a Franciscan and was disheartened when a friar discouraged him from entering the order. However, an Easter retreat at Gethsemani in April of 1941 had a powerful effect on Merton. He returned to the Cistercian monastery, and on December 10, 1941, just a few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Thomas Merton was tentatively accepted into the community in Kentucky, leaving behind his assorted manuscripts with friends in New York. The young pilgrim had found his home.

Abbey of Gethsemani.

Abbey of Gethsemani.

Merton had entered one of the toughest of the Catholic religious orders. The monks followed a vow of silence, ate spartan meals, and spent long hours in prayer, meditation and physical labor. Yet Merton embraced the life.

One tension that surfaced early involved Merton having essentially two vocations: one as a monastic, the other as writer. Merton gave himself over to the routines of monastic life—the early morning prayers, meditation, the long hours of work in the fields—and initially stifled his desire to write despite surges of poetic inspiration, but the monks learned of his gift of language and asked him to take on various writing assignments at the monastery. Soon Merton could write more freely. In 1944 he published his first volume of poetry, Thirty Poems, which contains the famous and moving poem, “For My Brother, Reported Missing In Action, 1943.” A Man in the Divided Sea followed in 1946 and Figures For An Apocalypse appeared in 1948.

It was also in 1948 that Merton published the book that made him widely known: The Seven Storey Mountain, an autobiography. The abbot had encouraged him to write his life story. The book was a bestseller, and readers were intrigued by the young monk who jettisoned the prospect of a conventional literary and academic career for the monastery. It offered a window into the mysterious world of the monastic who obeyed the vow of silence. The book also seemed to hit a nerve with readers confronting troubling new realities and uncertainties following the cataclysm of World War II. A million copies of the book were sold. Merton’s works helped draw young men to the monastery, made the Cistercian life more widely known, and they were lucrative—Merton gave his royalties to the abbey.


Merton’s career was in full swing. In 1949 he was ordained a Catholic priest and received the name Father Louis. His life was a busy round of both writing and teaching, for in 1951 he was appointed Master of Students. He held this position through 1955, then was named Master of Novices, a position he held until 1965. He had no shortage of students as large numbers of men came to Gethsemani in the years after World War II. It was also in the years after The Seven Storey Mountain that Merton began writing a variety of works and started addressing important social and political topics.

In 1949 he published three works that demonstrate the range of his writing. Seeds of Contemplation is a reflective, devotional work. The Tears of the Blind Lions is a collection of poems—the last he would publish until 1956– and The Waters of Siloe is a history of the Cistercian order from its origins in France. A number of Merton’s works include books he was asked to do by his superiors at the abbey, and The Waters of Siloe is an example of such projects. Other examples of what we might call commissioned works include Exile Ends in Glory, a life of a Trappistine nun named Mother Berchmans published in 1947, and What Are These Wounds?, a life of St. Lugarte of Aywieres. Merton did not always have a high opinion of the books he was essentially asked to write, but his skills as a writer still make some of them interesting reading.

merton smile

But Merton published plenty closer to his own heart. The Sign of Jonas, a journal of Merton’s life from 1946 to 1952, appeared in 1953. Merton would go on to publish many books of essays, devotions, and meditations—he would ultimately publish 250 essays in his life–and as the fifties came to an end Merton began to speak his mind more on social issues, including race, war, nuclear weapons and materialism. Merton also began to explore eastern religions and Asian approaches to mysticism and contemplation and became an important figure in ecumenical dialogue. In addition, he explored Latin American poetry and translated poems by a number of noted poets, including Ernesto Cardenal of Nicaragua, who was one of Merton’s novices at Gethsemani, Alfonso Cortes, Cesar Vallejo, and Ruben Dario. Ernesto Cardenal would later become known as a liberation theologian and member of the Sandanista government in Nicaragua.

Ernesto Cardenal.

Ernesto Cardenal.

Merton’s poetry began to change. While earlier poetry was generally in the shorter lyric form, later work was more experimental, longer, and frequently incorporated selections from Merton’s wide reading. The tone of such poetry is often ironic and sometimes bleak as Merton contemplates the separation of human beings from themselves and from one another. Merton’s last two major poetic works, Cables To The Ace (1968), and The Geography of Lograire (1969), deal much with mass culture, misuse of technology and the long shadows cast over European and American history by mistreatment of non-western cultures.

In 1965, Merton asked for and received permission to live as a hermit on the monastery grounds. A small dwelling was constructed for him and here Merton lived for the remainder of his life. While residing there he published four volumes of a literary journal called Monk’s Pond and continued to write, pray and meditate. However, he did not cut himself off from the community. He usually came back to the main grounds for one meal each day and also gave a weekly Sunday afternoon talk at the monastery. He also explored interests in painting, photography, and calligraphy.


Merton had come a long way from the young monk who composed The Seven Storey Mountain. He was a deeply respected writer who corresponded with important authors, intellectuals and religious figures from around the world. He received so much mail that he usually needed a briefcase to carry it back to his hermitage. But Merton’s life wasn’t easy. He didn’t always get along with his superiors at the abbey. He was expected to stay on the abbey grounds and for a while was forbidden to write on the Vietnam War.

His life was further complicated when he fell in love with a young nurse after he had back surgery. Merton eventually broke off the affair, confessed to the Abbot—one of Merton’s phone calls to her was overheard by another monk—and renewed his vows. Yet the romance seems to have been a kind of anchoring grace in Merton’s life, demonstrating to him he was capable of loving—and being loved—by another human being in a nurturing romantic relationship.

In 1968 Merton left Gethsemani for a trip to Asia, his stated purpose being attendance at a conference of Cistercian and Benedictine superiors in Bangkok, Thailand, but Merton was also interested in learning more about Asian approaches to mysticism and contemplation. He left well ahead of the conference and stayed with Buddhists for forty days and had several long meetings with the Dalai Lama. On December 10, 1968, twenty-seven years to the day since he entered Gethsemani, Thomas Merton was electrocuted in Bangkok when a fan collapsed on him and he came in contact with an exposed wire.


In the forty-five years since Merton’s death, a considerable number of critical and biographical works have been published. Most of Merton’s papers are housed at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky, but the library of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Georgia and St. Bonaventure University also have important Merton collections.

A number of Merton’s works were published posthumously, including his Asian Journal, The Geography of Lograire, and his one surviving novel, My Argument With The Gestapo.

Merton’s reputation has continued to rise through the years, and his life and career continue to be studied. He has left us a rich body of writing and the example of a life dedicated to peace, interfaith understanding, spiritual centeredness, and love of God and one another.

Patrick Kerin

Happy 83rd Birthday to Toni Morrison!

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Happy Birthday to Toni Morrison, born in Lorain, Ohio on February 18, 1931, and one of only six Americans to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Toni Morrison will be profiled on the pages of this blog in the coming week along with Thomas Merton and Erma Bombeck. Please stay tuned!


Famous Last Words

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I don’t see anything in this to convince me you can write either narrative or fiction.”

–Harper’s editor Ripley Hitchcock to Zane Grey regarding Grey’s book The Last of the Plainsmen.

last plainsmen book

Zane Grey and the Western Dream

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Zane Grey. The name itself can conjure images of dusty arroyos, gunfighter villains, square-jawed cowboys and frontier heroines. And yet one of the most prolific and financially successful American writers of western novels—in fact, one of the creators of the western as we know it—was born in Zanesville, Ohio on January 31, 1872. His works have been read and enjoyed by millions of readers, including President Dwight Eisenhower and western actor Randolph Scott. He had 61 books published in his lifetime.
zane grey beard

According to Carlton Jackson, author the Twayne’s U. S. authors study of Grey, “at one time Zane Grey’s works, after the Bible and McGuffey’s Readers, were the third best-selling books in U.S. literary history.” The public purchased 28 million copies of his assorted books. Hollywood based 104 films on Zane Grey plots, and Dick Powell’s Zane Grey Theatre introduced his work to baby boomers through the new medium of television.


He was born Pearl Zane Gray, the son of a local dentist. For a while he followed his father into dentistry, eventually leaving it behind along with the name “Pearl.” He would in turn Anglicize the spelling of his last name, changing the “a” to an “e.”

He came of pioneer stock. His father was the grandson of Irish immigrants who settled in Muskingum County, and the pioneer heritage was particularly notable on his mother’s side. He was named for his maternal great-grandfather Ebenezer Zane, who defended Fort Henry at present day Wheeling, West Virginia during the Revolution and was later awarded land in Ohio, one of his tracts later becoming the town of Zanesville. Ebenezer also left his legacy on the land by blazing Zane’s Trace from what is now Wheeling, West Virginia to Maysville, Kentucky. A section of Zane’s Trace later became part of the National Road, one of the first major interstate routes in the country.


He wasn’t Grey’s only famous relative. His great aunt Betty Zane, who famously sneaked out of Fort Henry and returned with a supply of powder and shot hidden in a tablecloth to aid the besieged settlers, was the subject of his first novel, Betty Zane. The aura of frontier legendry was with Grey from the start.


Zane was an indifferent student, preferring baseball, hunting, and fishing to the classroom, although he enjoyed reading, particularly dime novels. He and a group of friends enjoyed Tom Sawyer-like adventures in the nearby woods, where they had their own cave and passed around copies of dime literature. The boys spent long hours there, even cooking meals together. The only problem was that the cookware came from Zane’s home, and his father finally tracked it down. He discovered the pots and pans, but also a short adventure story that young Grey had written. He burned the story, retrieved the cookware and spanked his son.

Grey continued to read dime novels and also books by authors such as Daniel Defoe and James Fenimore Cooper. Yet the outdoors remained a passion. Grey spent long hours hunting and fishing, avocations he would pursue throughout his life, even acquiring deep sea fishing records in later years. He also loved baseball and played for the University of Pennsylvania while studying dentistry. After he earned his degree, Grey went to New York City and opened a practice.

Zane Grey when he played for the University of Pennsylvania.

Zane Grey when he played for the University of Pennsylvania.

Grey was a strong man who excelled at pulling teeth, but was less skilled at other procedures and was restless in his career. At times he closed up shop and traveled to see his family in Lackawaxen, Pennsylvania where they had moved after a stay in Columbus, Ohio. Here Grey would escape to the woods and streams, and it was here that he met a young woman named Lina “Dolly” Roth. Grey married Dolly in 1905, and she would remain his wife, helpmate and reader for 34 years, even though Grey would prove to be a relentlessly unfaithful husband.

Grey’s first book was Betty Zane, a novel based on the frontier experiences of his famous relative. He followed this work with two others—Spirit of the Border and The Last Trail—to form a trio of books known as the Ohio trilogy, which also feature the controversial real-life frontiersman Lewis Wetzel.


Betty Zane was self-published, and while not a financial success, it got Grey noticed and attracted an agent. He was able to place the next two books with a publisher, virtually giving them away. Betty Zane helped give Grey the confidence to pursue a full-time writing career, and he also married Dolly at this time.

In 1902 Owen Wister had scored a success with The Virginian, a novel that would have a powerful influence on the twentieth century western genre. Grey became interested in writing about the west and wanted to see the region and its people firsthand in order to accurately capture details of western life. In 1907, Grey met a man named C.J. “Buffalo” Jones, a former buffalo hunter and Yellowstone guide who now had a mission to save the buffalo. Grey persuaded Jones that he should go west on a hunting trip with the frontiersman and write a book about their excursion.


Grey traveled with Jones and several other men, experiencing firsthand the rugged terrain and talking to western people. He absorbed Jones’ stories and wrote Last of the Plainsmen, which is essentially a biography of the old buffalo hunter. Grey submitted the book to Harper’s and was discouraged when an editor told him that he didn’t think he could write. Grey was briefly plunged into despair, but recovered, persevered and eventually found another house to publish the book, which was successful.

Grey continued to travel the west, meeting people and absorbing details of geography and culture. He published his first western, Heritage of the Desert, in 1910, following it with Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912, one of his most famous books. Another famous Grey title, The U.P. Trail, was published in 1918.


A torrent of prose flowed from his pen, including not only his westerns but also works on hunting, fishing and baseball. Grey’s popular success made him wealthy. By the early 1920s, Grey was pocketing $80,000 for each book and was traveling the world pursuing his love of the outdoors. He purchased a yacht and sailed throughout the world fishing, becoming especially well known in the waters off New Zealand. He and Dolly and their two sons moved to a three-story manor house in Altadena, California, and Grey also acquired ranch property in Arizona.


He also enjoyed a triumphant journey back to Zanesville. In 1921 the town had a special celebration in his honor, and there was a screening of the movie version of The Desert of Wheat, a novel Grey published in 1919.

Many of Grey’s books feature a western hero skilled with weapons, able to negotiate hostile terrain, and possessing a capacity for violence he usually employs in the service of someone—or a community—in trouble, possibly from within the community or outside of it.

Sound familiar? This probably goes to show that we are all “readers” of Zane Grey as the western myth he elaborates in dozens of books and stories is so familiar to us. Grey was never famed as a stylist or a creator of literary high art, but he had a powerful storytelling talent that spoke directly to a hunger in the American public for the mythic west. A literary critic of the early twentieth century, Burton K. Whipple, wrote “We turn to him not for insight into human nature and human problems nor for refinements of art, but simply for crude epic stories, as we might to an old Norse skald, maker of the sagas of the folk.”

While Grey’s dialogue can be flowery and his characterization weak, his work remains compelling. In her book West of Everything: The Inner Life of Westerns, literary scholar Jane Tompkins discusses the power of Grey:

Riders of the Purple Sage (1912) is not like The Virginian. Zane Grey didn’t come from an upper-class background; no one in his family knew Henry James; and his prose doesn’t sound like he’s been reading Thackeray and Austen. It’s wonderful writing, but not in good taste. For sheer emotional force; for the capacity to get and keep his readers, absolutely in his grip; for the power to be—there is no other word for it—thrilling, few practitioners of narrative prose can equal Grey. Sometimes reading him is like being caught in a waterfall or flood; you feel at the mercy of a natural force that cannot be emanating entirely from the page.”

Grey died of a heart attack in 1939, but additional works were published into the early 1960s, although some of these were likely ghostwritten. Millions of readers purchased and enjoyed his books—and still do–and he shaped the dream life of the nation, giving everyday readers the gift of a few hours of escape. Serious literary critics sniffed, both Grey could be counted on to deliver the thrills of a western yarn.

Wiliam S. Hart, one of the first iconic movie cowboys.

Wiliam S. Hart, one of the first iconic movie cowboys.

Other western writers would follow—Louis L’Amour, Will Henry, Matt Braun, William Johnstone, to name but a few—but Grey’s books continue to appear on store shelves. Grey has also attracted increased academic attention. Grey’s treatment of religion (he was highly critical of missionary activity, particularly among the Indian nations), his concern for American Indian people and culture, the role of Mormonism in the west, the impact of new technology and transportation systems on the frontier, his interest in evolution and conservation—these are just some of the topics in his fiction that have drawn scholars to his work.

Other novels touch on issues of politics. For example, The Desert of Wheat, most of which is set in the Northwest, is notable for its strong anti-German sentiment of the First World War and its attack on the famous radical union the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), popularly known as the “Wobblies.” This novel is the subject of an extended treatment in Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America, to give one example of a Grey novel as subject of critical analysis.

In a future post I will attach some links to some of the Zane Grey sites around the country, but let me just note here that there is a National Road and Zane Grey Museum in Zanesville, Ohio. The museum has three components: one on the National Road, one on Grey and the third on the famous Ohio art pottery produced in the region.

The Zane Grey’s West Society helps keep Grey’s legacy alive, and Zane Grey Inc. manages Grey’s literary properties. In addition to continued sales, academic interest, historic sites, and the Zane Grey’s West Society, there is also a yearly 50- mile endurance run named for him held in Arizona.

Not bad for a dentist from Zanesville.

Patrick Kerin