Thomas Merton 1915–1968
French-born American poet, philosopher, essayist, playwright, editor, and translator.
For further information on Merton's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 11, and 34.
Merton was a Trappist monk who became a prolific writer and an influential social activist despite his vows of silence. His works are informed by the interplay between his contemplative life, his compassion for humanity, and his desire to work toward nonviolent solutions to world problems. A popular and critically acclaimed autobiographer, poet, and essayist, he was respected for his insight into twentieth-century social problems, his interpretations of the role of religion in modern society, and for helping to introduce Asian religions to the West.
Merton was born in Prades, France, the son of two artists, both of whom died by the time Merton reached the age of sixteen. He was educated at the Lycée de Montauban in France and the Oakham School in England, and then spent a year at Clare College, Cambridge, before entering Columbia University in New York, where he studied English literature, earning a B.A. in 1938 and an M.A. in 1939. At Columbia he was strongly influenced by what became a lifelong friendship with the noted literary critic Mark Van Doren. Merton converted to Catholicism during the late 1930s, and he entered the Trappist monastery Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky in 1941. Because the Trappists require their members to take a vow of silence which includes strict limitations on writing, Merton's literary output was initially severely restricted by his monastic duties. However, he was soon given numerous writing assignments by his superiors, and although he was frequently frustrated by Trappist censorship, by the 1950s he was virtually free to publish whatever he wished. At age thirty-three he published his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), which became a best-seller and made him a reluctant celebrity. He continued to receive expanded responsibilities in the monastery, and in 1955 he achieved the esteemed position of Master of Novices. During the 1950s and 1960s Merton became increasingly concerned with political events occurring in the outside world, and he began advocating awareness and activism rather than isolation as the proper response to the world's problems. Along with political events, Merton became increasingly interested in the study of other religions, particularly Zen Buddhism. Merton died as a result of accidental electrocution in 1968 in Bangkok, Thailand, where he had been attending an ecumenical conference.
Merton's oeuvre includes numerous works of autobiography, social criticism, poetry, and theology. Among his best-known works is his autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain which relates the events leading to his conversion to Catholicism and advocates a life of contemplation. The Sign of Jonas (1953) is a personal journal that vividly depicts five years of Merton's life in the monastery, focusing on his evolving understanding of the meaning of his role as a monk and his attempt to reconcile the conflict between his religious and literary aspirations. While Merton's early works largely focus on the development of a spiritual life, many of his later writings address social issues, acknowledging the need for political activism. Seeds of Destruction (1964), for example, examines the role and responsibility of the monastic community in relation to such social problems as racism and the threat of nuclear war. Merton's poetry also addresses both religious and secular subjects and employs a diverse range of formal and free verse techniques. Notable among his most experimental works are Cables to the Ace; or, Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding (1968) and The Geography of Lograire (1969), both of which combine prose with poetry.
Merton's early works were praised by both readers and reviewers, in part, according to some critics, because his advocation of the need for a radically different way of life appealed to many people in the years following the chaos of World War II. Although the shift in his writings from a focus on individual spirituality to social criticism generated mixed responses, some critics feel that his later works addressing political themes have yet to be realized as his most important contributions. Assessments of Merton's poetry are varied—some critics find the majority of his verse flawed while others consider him among the most important poets of his generation. Several critics have also observed that there is much scholarship on Merton's works yet to be conducted.