Thomas Merton was born near Prades, France, in the Pyrenees, on January 31, 1915. His father, Owen Merton, a post-Impressionist painter of some note, was a New Zealander who met his American wife, Ruth, while both were art students in Paris. Because of the dangers of World War I, Merton’s family soon moved across the Atlantic to Douglastown, Long Island, to be near his maternal grandparents. There his brother, John Paul, was born in 1918, and shortly afterward, in 1921, his mother died of stomach cancer. While the younger brother remained in America with his grandparents, young Merton’s father took him to Bermuda, France, and England to find fit subjects to paint. The stay in France was one of the formative influences on Merton’s life, for there he was deeply moved by the “medieval” aspects of French village life, including the Catholic churches that he saw but never entered.
After his removal to England, Merton began his serious education by matriculating at Oakham School in Rutland in 1929. Almost immediately after this, his father contracted brain cancer and after a period of invalidism, died in 1930. This death left the fifteen-year-old Merton orphaned, yet, because of a settlement from his grandfather, financially secure. Only minimally supervised by his grandparents across the Atlantic and a guardian in London, Merton spent his adolescence and early twenties in increasing commitment to two things—literature and dissipation.
Merton started off on a disastrous walking tour of Germany during one of the academic holidays at Oakham and came back with an infection that developed into a near-fatal case of blood poisoning. In 1936, he matriculated at Clare College, Cambridge, where he began a year of dissipation unusual even for college freshmen, one of the few sober moments of which, it seems, was the winter holiday that he spent touring Rome and visiting the many impressive churches there. On the recommendation of his guardian, he left Cambridge at the end of the school year, realizing that he was wasting his time there. He left England and took up residence with his grandparents on Long Island and matriculated at Columbia University.
At Columbia he was accepted into a circle of literary-minded undergraduates including several who were later successful as writers and editors—Edward Rice, Robert Lax, and Robert Giroux. This relationship led him to channel some of his restless energy into several of Columbia’s student publications—forming a habit of regular and prolific writing that never left him. With his friends, he discovered the teaching of Mark Van Doren—a circumstance that convinced Merton to major in English and write a master’s thesis under Van Doren, titled “Nature and Art in William Blake” (1939). His conversion to Catholicism was a process of which the external causes are more difficult to identify than those of his conversion to writing. Among the discernible influences, however, were his enrollment in a course in Scholastic philosophy under visiting professor (later...
(The entire section is 1244 words.)