The Long Journey of Thomas Merton

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Rebloging this entry on Thomas Merton as January 31, 2015 marks his 100th birthday.


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…

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Born on January 6: Wright Morris and Carl Sandburg

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Wright Morris as a young man: "Self-Portrait, The Home Place, Near Norfolk, Nebraska, 1947." Image credit: Museum of Nebraska Art.

Wright Morris as a young man: “Self-Portrait, The Home Place, Near Norfolk, Nebraska, 1947.” Image credit: Museum of Nebraska Art.

Two important writers from the Midwest were born on January 6: Carl Sandburg in 1878 and Wright Morris in 1910. Since Morris is the lesser known of the two, I will start with him.

Wright Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska. His mother died within a week of his birth. His father was a traveling salesman, and the boy was often left in the care of relatives while his father was on the road. Morris spent a number of years in small Nebraska towns, then in Omaha and Chicago. He attended Pomona College in California, than traveled in Europe, and was later a professor at San Francisco State University. In addition to his highly regarded novels, Morris wrote a memoir, Will’s Boy (1981), about life with his father in the nineteen-tens and twenties, along with literary and social criticism and books that were combinations of photos and text. He is  greatly respected as a photographer, famous for his striking black and white photographs, particularly of rural Midwestern scenes in the 1940s. Many of the photos are of objects, rooms, buildings, and landscapes. His second novel, The Home Place (1948) is a novel in photo-text form.

Wright Morris (Image credit: NNDB).

Wright Morris (Image credit: NNDB).

Morris has always been known as a writer’s writer, a novelist whose works never found a wide audience but never lacked admirers. His lack of recognition may stem from the fact that many of his books are light on plot in the conventional sense, and often focus on the interior lives of characters and include meditation on past experiences. Many of them concern people searching for meaning or love, or struggling with the frustrations of modern life. The search for some kind of liberation or transcendence is central to his work, as are separations or reconciliations among people. Some of his early novels concern characters trying to come to terms with the past, and considerable importance is placed in these earlier novels on the power of everyday objects to evoke a bygone world.

"Grain Elevator and Lamp Post, Nebraska, 1940." Photo by Wright Morris. (Image credit: Museum of Nebraska Art).

“Grain Elevator and Lamp Post, Nebraska, 1940.” Photo by Wright Morris. (Image credit: Museum of Nebraska Art).

Seven of Morris’s novels have some kind of connection with the cultural and physical Midwestern landscape. For example, Ceremony In Lone Tree (1960), treats family members assembling in a Nebraska ghost town for a ninetieth birthday celebration and the isolation that separates them from one another. Through examination of the characters and their past and present lives, Morris probes a number of important topics, including America’s mythic view of the west and the violence underlying American life—a local boy goes on a shooting rampage reminiscent of Nebraskan serial killer Charlie Starkweather, and another boy runs over two people with his car.

Some of the characters appeared in an earlier novel, The Field of Vision, which won the National Book Award in 1957. This novel concerns a group of Americans in Mexico who attend a bullfight. The characters reflect on important previous experiences in their lives, and Morris raises questions about Midwestern and American values. Perhaps we could say one overarching theme of Morris’s is the relentless examination of American identity.

Charlie Starkweather

Charlie Starkweather

One of his last and best-known works is Plains Song For Female Voices, which won the National Book Award in 1981. This spare but powerful work tells the story of three generations of Nebraskan women from pioneer times through the late twentieth century.

Morris also wrote a number of novels with settings ranging from California and the eastern U.S. to Europe and Acapulco. His novel One Day concerns the reactions of a group of people in a small town near San Francisco to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. In Orbit concerns the effect on a college town’s residents after a young criminal creates mayhem in their community. Man and Boy (1952) deals with the structure of the American family as matriarchy and features one of the most frightening and devouring mothers ever to appear in an American novel. Fire Sermon (1971) examines generational conflict in the story of an elderly man and his nephew traveling in the company of a hippie couple in the America of the late 1960s.

Morris wrote nearly forty books. His work is rich, complex, and subtle. I hope readers may be inspired to take a look at this writer whose work has still not received its due. He died on April 25, 1998.

Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg

Carl Sandburg stands in sharp contrast to Morris. The famous poet and Lincoln biographer was widely celebrated in his lifetime. Sandburg was born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1878, the son of Swedish immigrant parents. He left school at the age of thirteen, held a variety of jobs and wandered America as a hobo before doing a stint in the U.S. Army during the Spanish-American War. Returning home he entered Lombard College, which he attended for a number of years without taking a degree. He later became a newspaper reporter and also worked for the Social Democratic Party in Milwaukee, including serving for a time as secretary to Milwaukee’s Socialist mayor, Emil Seidel.

Sandburg moved to Chicago in 1912 and worked for several publications in the city, eventually joining the Chicago Daily News in 1917. He served on the paper through 1932. Although Sandburg had published poetry privately in 1904, it was in 1914 in Chicago that Sandburg published work that garnered attention. Harriet Monroe had established Poetry: A Magazine of Verse that year (, and included among the early groundbreaking verse published in the journal was Sandburg’s famous poem “Chicago.” In 1916, Sandburg published his first volume of poetry: Chicago Poems. This book included famous early poems of his such as “Fog,” “Grass,” and “Nocturne in a Deserted Brickyard.”


Other famous Sandburg volumes followed: Cornhuskers (1918), Smoke and Steel (1920), Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1922), Good Morning, America (1928), and The People, Yes (1936). Sandburg also wrote stories for children, a novel called Remembrance Rock (1948), and a volume of autobiography called Always The Young Strangers (1953). Sandburg also played the guitar and liked to perform ballads and folk songs, and published a collection of American ballads and folk songs in 1927 in a book entitled  American Songbag.

"Rootabaga Stories"--Sandburg's stories for children.

“Rootabaga Stories”–Sandburg’s stories for children.

In addition, Sandburg is well known as a biographer of Lincoln. His first two volumes of biography—Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years— were published in 1926. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years was published in four volumes in 1939 and received the Pulitzer Prize for History. Sandburg also received the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry  in 1919 for Cornhuskers and in 1951 for his Collected Poems.

Carl Sandburg died on July 22, 1967 in Flat Rock, North Carolina.

Patrick Kerin


The Oxford Companion To American Literature, Fifth Edition. James D. Hart. Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford, 1983.

Dictionary of Midwestern Literature, Volume One: The Authors. Philip A. Greasley, General Editor. Entry on Wright Morris by Joseph J. Wydeven. Entry on Carl Sandburg by Philip A. Greasley.


Remembering Thomas Berger


Thomas Berger (photo credit: wsu-ohioana authors).

Thomas Berger (photo credit: wsu-ohioana authors).

The distinguished postwar American novelist Thomas Berger died on July 13, 2014 in Nyack, New York. As this was a great loss for American letters in the past year, I wanted to post an entry on this very unique and gifted writer, who will be featured more in the future on this blog.

Berger was a native of Lockland, Ohio, an old mill town not far from the city limits of Cincinnati. He was born on July 20, 1924. He attended the Lockland schools and later Miami University in Oxford, Ohio before enlisting in the U.S. Army and serving in the Medical Corps during World War II. Following the war, he attended the University of Cincinnati, graduating with honors, and pursued graduate studies at Columbia. He left grad school and instead took jobs as a librarian, summary writer for the New York Times Index and later as a freelance copy editor while he wrote.

His first novel was Crazy In Berlin, published in 1958, the first of four novels featuring Carlos Reinhart, an Everyman stumbling through the twentieth century. But what eventually put Berger on the map was his 1964 novel Little Big Man, later adapted for the screen in 1970 in a film directed by Arthur Penn and starring Dustin Hoffman. The book had been in a kind of limbo since publication, but the film increased interest in the novel and helped bring greater attention to Berger. It is safe to say this book is a major work of postwar American literature. It’s protagonist, Jack Crabb, is a 111-year old frontiersman telling his story to a “man of letters.” Crabb, who claims to be the only survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn, claims all kinds of adventures in the old west, and has crossed paths with or known many of its major figures, such as George Custer and Wild Bill Hickok.

There are questions raised in the book as to whether Crabb’s narrative is genuine, and the book has also been seen as an examination of American myth and history, a commentary of the art of storytelling, and a send-up on American literary treatments of the west. It was followed many years later by a sequel: The Return of Little Big Man (1999).

Image credit: IMDB).

Image credit: IMDB.

Berger wrote a total of twenty-three novels. One of the hallmarks of his work is the use of genre. Many of his novels take the form of a particular genre—the police procedural, private eye pulp fiction, Arthurian legend, survival narrative, science fiction—but often challenge genre conventions as the narrative unfolds and Berger’s unique fictional universe takes shape. Many of his novels concern issues of freedom, authority, morality, and how our use of language shapes our perceptions of reality.

Another concern of Berger’s is the darkness underlying everyday relationships among people. Suburban existence is a hotbed of paranoia, frustration, and anarchy. For example, in his 1980 novel Neighbors, made into a movie with John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd, a dull middle class businessman finds his life shaken up with the arrival of new neighbors, and finds himself questioning everything around him, including the behavior of his wife and daughter.

Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in the 1981 film version of "Neighbors."

Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi in the 1981 film version of “Neighbors.”

Berger wrote two novels set in the Midwest of the 1930s, which show his skill at capturing the vernacular and feel of the times while also exploring his themes of conflict and alienation. An argument over an unlit cigar near a section of varnish in a hardware store sets off conflicts in a community in his novel The Feud (1983). In his 1975 novel Sneaky People, a used car salesman with a mistress hires another man to kill his wife. Although these novels have comic elements, Berger always, with good reason, resisted the label of “comic novelist.” Serious elements and themes, especially moral decisions, run throughout his work.

Berger at age fifty.

Berger at age fifty.

In addition to his novels, Berger wrote four plays, some short fiction, and was for a brief time a film columnist for Esquire in the early 1970s. He is survived by his wife, the artist Jeanne Redpath Berger. The couple had no children.

Some day in the future, when we can get a better handle on the American literary history of the twentieth century, I think we will see more clearly what a lot of writers, critics, and devoted readers have been saying for decades: Berger is one of the towering major novelists of postwar America.

Patrick Kerin


Understanding Thomas Berger by Brooks Landon. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 2009.

New York Times obituary for Thomas Berger by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and William McDonald, July 21, 2014.