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Thomas Merton and James Laughlin: Selected Letters Hardcover – 1 Apr 1998
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The thirty-year correspondence between the religious writer and his faithful publisher traces the widening of Merton's focus from the internal to the social and global, and the development of his consciousness of himself as a public writer.
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So did his essays. As this collection edited well by David D. Cooper frames, in about one-fourth of the extant correspondence between 1945 and Merton's odd, premature death in 1968, we see the independent streak in Merton endure. The initial immersion into asceticism and denial understandably shook Merton up: he fears in early letters that being on the same roster as Henry Miller (whom he resembled and later struck up a friendship with) and Jean Genet might shake up Catholics. He wondered if his own inclusion in an anthology aside Genet or such might indirectly lead some young man into homosexuality; Merton scrupulously asked Laughlin if his own works for New Directions that funded the publication of less successful authors could make him (a term I employ but he does not) what used to be called a near occasion of sin.
However, by 1956, a change comes. As the Beats and rock stimulated the culture, so Merton might have been jolted. He begins to read Buddhism and ask about Zen. He no longer signs his monastic name in the very same letter where first he raises this interest, intriguingly. Laughlin must have labored well to assist Merton in obtaining books; consider this is but one of a series of volumes where Laughlin writes at length and in depth to such as W.C. Williams, Rexroth, Schwartz, Pound, and Miller at the same time. There's an affection on the page, even as the contents tend as the years go on to fill with worries over censorship by Merton's Order, the tensions of the superpowers, the war in Vietnam, and the pull of a nurse with whom Merton fell in love in 1966 (discreetly and sensitively handled by the editor and both correspondents; an afterword includes Laughlin's letter to her, tracked down over a year after Merton's death, and Laughlin's nimble recollections of his friend.
I agree with Laughlin that once one reads Merton, however imperfect some of his verse could be, one keeps on. His voice, approachable, ironic, sensitive, intellectual, compassionate, admonitory: it expresses insight and acuity. He's intellectual without posing as an academic, a committed priest who learned to let go of the narrowness of his call in its remote setting, so as to embrace the wider community. He gently early on encourages Laughlin towards faith, reminding him how a ritual rewards the body, which needs its own satisfaction along with the tug of the mind or pull of the soul.
Ultimately, the message Merton by the mid-50s articulates places him in the progressive movement's vanguard. His list of what he reads, who he writes to, what he knows, shows his curiosity and his drive to not cut any ties with society even as he seeks a hermitage to retreat to within the monastery's expanse. This energy, as he burrows down there in Kentucky even as he travels now and then before his final journey to Asia, compels him, and the need to resort to a mimeographed form of transmitting what the Order feared when they stopped him from publishing in print political anti-war, anti-nuclear content demonstrates his decision to address the "pestilence" of a dark time as a priest who had to act.
One passage stands out. On 11/26/63, Merton tells of the reaction in the monastery to JFK's murder. While he sympathizes with his family, he feels "more sorry for the national dance of death." That is, he reminds Laughlin what I have never before seen publicized. The speech to have been delivered by Kennedy in Dallas was read in the monastic refectory. It's a "symptom of our whole condition," and revealing. "Strange thing: he lists all the increase in our weapons, missiles, bombs, polaris submarines etc. etc., and after doing so says that this would put a stop to any sinister plans of aggressors and. . . assassins. With all those missiles and submarines, all it took to do him in was a rifle and two bullets--one extra for the Governor of Texas." (234) Merton suggests this "angle" has "unconsciously unnerved people" and it unsettled me when I read his take on this mythic event. As far removed as he was from the non-stop media coverage that blanketed the nation then, he pinpoints the larger problem, and he refuses to idolize one who after all was responsible for some of the violence. One again sees the boldness of Merton's vision, and why he remained outspoken in his wisdom in a confusing age: he helped some of us react to it differently than did more popular media.
The contents show Laughlin's support and Merton's quest as it unfolds over more than twenty years. True, it's necessarily bogged down sometimes with details about what to print next, what needs editing, who wrote what, but this shows the passion with which Merton and Laughlin sustained their mutual support to connect him with a readership that at New Directions might not otherwise be open (then or now) to reading a Catholic convert's works. I also noticed how publications did not accept all of his articles or poems after his fame; you do get the sense Merton produced an enormous amount, and he seems to have an eye on practically publishing it all, even if not all of it during his lifetime.
Merton grows up to accept his burdens that he thought once might be relieved of him as a monk. He takes on more, willingly, and while he chafes at some of his adopted home's strictures, he loves the place and you read this collection understanding how he depended upon Laughlin to negotiate his intellectual journey as his mediator and yearly visitor, who enabled Merton to find us as his audience. Navigating between solitude and engagement, isolation and intimacy, Merton's again worth reading.
While their friendship seemed an unlikely one, it grew into a rich exchange of ideas and affection between two men committed to their ideals.
Given the way most of us take the role of technology in our lives for granted today, Merton can seem almost quaint in concerns such as this: "The splitting of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." However, this is exactly the kind of sharp, non-sentimental comment that makes me pay attention when Merton is speaking.
While the letters sometimes get a little bogged down in the details of publishing, this is a trivial matter, for the wealth of compassion and depth of thought make this an excellent book to delve into again and again.