Thomas Merton Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111207632-Merton.jpg Thomas Merton Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Thomas Merton is not only the United States’ most famous monk but also one of the most significant literary figures of the twentieth century. He was born in France, the son of Owen Merton, an itinerant painter, and his American wife, Ruth Jenkins. Merton had a difficult youth in which he was shuffled from one place to another—the United States, where his mother died of cancer, the south of France, and eventually England, where he received a secondary education. In 1933 he entered the University of Cambridge. During these years Merton became less inhibited and began to revel in films, girls, and harmless pranks. Yet he remained restive and oftentimes unhappy. The untimely death of his father from a brain tumor, in addition to fathering a child out of wedlock, may have contributed to his decision in 1934 to settle permanently in the United States. In 1935 Merton enrolled at Columbia University with a major in English and very quickly became absorbed in the world of student activities, though he continued to suffer from bouts of depression and various physical problems. After obtaining his B.A. in 1938 Merton entered graduate school and taught briefly at Columbia University and St. Bonaventure’s University. Along the way Merton wrote several novels, but only one of these, My Argument with the Gestapo, survived. Although largely fictional, it is filled with people and moments from his difficult, transient youth.

A major turning point occurred in Merton’s life in 1938 when he came to believe that the void in his life could be filled by joining a religious order. He converted to Roman Catholicism and, although his first attempt failed, in 1941 became a Trappist monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky. Merton proved to be a good monk, though he never lost interest in writing and the affairs of...

(The entire section is 753 words.)