Carl McColman: Does Anyone Read Thomas Merton Anymore?


Yesterday I received a review copy of a beautiful new book: The Selected Essays of Thomas Merton, edited by Patrick F. O'Connell. This newly published anthology from Orbis Books includes thirty-three essays on a wide range of topics. I am confident that anyone who loves Merton, poetry, or contemplation will find much to savor here. Merely glancing at the table of contents is enough to make this reader practically salivate: with topics ranging from St. John of the Cross to Gandhi, from Boris Pasternak to Albert Camus, from the philosophy of solitude to the theology of creativity, from the importance of oriental wisdom to the role of contemplation in the modern world - this is a collection of essays that highlight the literary and artistic breadth of one of the leading spiritual writers of the twentieth century.

Each of these essays are readily available in other books, books which, as best I can tell, are all still in print. But this collection is designed as a sort of "greatest hits," gathering together in one volume a representative sampling of Merton's best work, showcasing how philosophy, theology, interfaith dialogue, existentialism, monastic spirituality, and of course, poetry, all contribute to the genius of this cloistered author. With an introductory essay by Merton scholar Patrick O'Connell and a foreword by Merton's secretary and fellow monk Patrick Hart, this book ought to introduce Merton to a new generation of literary admirers.

I say "ought to," because my one gripe with the book is its price: at $50, it seems that the publishers expect only libraries or dedicated (and affluent) Merton fans to want to purchase it. Granted, Amazon has the book significantly discounted, and hopefully an ebook edition will be even less expensive. But when I consider this gorgeous new book and its forbidding price, I am reminded of a conversation I had just the other day with Jon Sweeney, the editor at Paraclete Press who handled my book on C. S. Lewis. We were talking about the trends we see in contemporary Christian publishing, and he bluntly asked me, "Does anyone read Thomas Merton any more?" I noted that the Abbey Store, where I work, still sells Merton's most popular titles, like New Seeds of ContemplationThe Inner ExperienceContemplative Prayer, and The Seven Storey Mountain, with some regularity. "But," I admitted, "we are a monastery bookstore. If Merton is going to sell anywhere, it would be at a retailer like ours."

Jon mentioned a review he had written of another recently published Merton book, The Life of the Vows. In this review, he suggested that Merton might not be as widely read nowadays for a very simple reason. When Merton wrote The Seven Storey Mountain, that kind of confessional spiritual memoir was unusual, to say the least. With the possible exception of Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua, this kind of authentic, self-reflective spiritual writing had not made much of a significant literary splash since, oh, the late fourth century, when Augustine penned hisConfessions. But in the 65 years since Merton's autobiography was published, writers from Henri Nouwen to Anne Lamott, from Donald Miller to Kathleen Norris, from Barbara Brown Taylor to even Anne Rice, have all offered their own variation on the confessional autobiography: to the point that nowadays, "spiritual memoir" is practically its own genre. And so the writer whose towering masterpiece essentially launched that genre remains almost forgotten, a casualty of the Catholic Church's swing to the right over the last thirty years and the general cultural amnesia of Americans as a whole.

I think there's some merit to his argument, but I also think we should be wary of reducing Merton to his most successful moment. The Seven Storey Mountain may have made him, for a generation or so, almost a household name, at least among Catholics or contemplatives. But Merton wrote dozens of books, poems, journals, letters and essays in the twenty years between Seven Storey's publication and his untimely death in 1968. His prodigious literary output proves not only his genius, but the breadth of his genius: for Merton was not only a memoirist, but - as the new Selected Essays demonstrates - he was also a poet, a monastic and theological teacher, an essayist, a social and literary critic, an interfaith explorer, and perhaps most important of all, a contemplative. In any one of these categories, Merton deserves to be remembered. The fact that he made contributions in all of them is, well, staggeringly awesome. "Insanely great," as Steve Jobs would say. But of course, it was the youthful memoir that sold hundreds of thousands of copies, that made Merton into the contradictory figure of a "rock-star-monk" - but that also ensured he could keep writing, and continue to be read.

So yeah, maybe Merton is not getting the attention today that he received thirty or fifty years ago. The same could be said of other significant writers of the last century, like Evelyn Underhill, or Kenneth Leech, or Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Perhaps this is the normal cycle of things. In years to come, perhaps Merton will be no more widely read than other worthy Cistercian authors like Michael Casey, Bernardo Olivera, Christian de Chergé, or Francis Kline. In other words, fewer folks may be reading him, but I trust that readers who will truly appreciate, and be enriched by, his work will still manage to find him. Although, on the other hand... if publishers would make sure that attractive new editions showcasing Merton's work could be made available to the public at more affordable prices, then perhaps Merton could still command a larger audience, even now, 45 years after his passing.

Disclosure: a complimentary copy of  the book reviewed in this post was supplied to me by the publisher.

Taken with permission from Carl's blog.