Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The publication in October, 1948, of his autobiographical work The Seven Storey Mountain marked the true beginning of Thomas Merton’s extraordinary literary career. Seven years earlier, Merton had entered the Trappist abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Encouraged by his abbot, Dom Frederic Dunne, Merton wrote his autobiography in order to describe his transformation from a nonpracticing Anglican into a convert to Catholicism who abandoned a promising academic career in order to enter a cloistered monastery. During the last twenty years of his life, Merton wrote extensively on such diverse topics as war and peace, the ecumenical movement, racial and social injustice, Eastern and Western monasticism, and the relationships between traditional Christian beliefs and the modern world. Although Merton never composed a formal autobiography after The Seven Storey Mountain, he did write several fascinating journals, including The Sign of Jonas (1953), Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1966), and his posthumously published The Asian Journal (1973). In 1968, he undertook his first extended trip away from his monastery: On December 10, 1968, he was accidentally electrocuted while attending an international conference of Eastern and Western monks in Thailand.

Before the publication of The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton was not entirely unknown in literary circles. In 1944, his first book, Thirty Poems, had...

(The entire section is 465 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Sources for Further Study

Cunningham, Lawrence. Thomas Merton and the Monastic Vision. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1999. Merton’s life and thought after he entered the monastery, including his development during the civil and spiritual changes of the 1960’s.

Elie, Paul. The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. Discusses connections between Catholic authors Merton, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy, three of whom were converts.

Pennington, M. Basil, ed. I Have Seen What I Was Looking For. Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press, 2005. Merton wrote more than seventy works; this book presents excerpts from his writings organized by major themes.

Shannon, William H. Thomas Merton: An Introduction. Rev. ed. Cincinnati, Ohio: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2005. An excellent introduction to Merton’s life and works, with a fairly detailed discussion of The Seven Storey Mountain.

Shannon, William H., Christine M. Bochen, and Patrick F. O’Connell, eds. The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2002. Useful for both the scholar and the serious reader of Merton.

Zuercher, Suzanne. Merton: An Enneagram Profile. Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 2001. A study that links Merton’s biography, personality, and spirituality as a search for one’s true self in connection with God.