Monday, November 23, 2015

Merton and Waugh

Thomas Merton
Merton and Waugh, by Mary Frances Cody (Paraclete Press, 2015), recounts a relatively brief period from August 2, 1948, to February 25, 1952, during which the American author and monk Thomas Merton engaged in correspondence with the British novelist Evelyn Waugh. This slim volume, subtitled A Monk, a Crusty Old Man, and The Seven Storey Mountain, was a gift from my partner/husband Sam on the occasion of the fifteenth anniversary of our relationship, which coincidentally was our wedding day. I finished reading the book exactly three months later, not that it took that long to read the 155 pages but because I read it in digestible bits, allowing ample time to ponder this remarkable period of correspondence between these two interesting men whose lives were perhaps even more intriguing than their writing.

The correspondence between Merton and Waugh began when Waugh was asked by Merton’s American publisher to edit the
Evelyn Waugh
monk’s The Seven Storey Mountain manuscript for a British edition. Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) was approaching middle age in 1948 and had recently become known in the United States following the publication some two years earlier of Brideshead Revisited, his novel of elicit love and divine grace. The manuscript of The Seven Storey Mountain, written by a Trappist monk living in obscurity in a rural Kentucky monastery, arrived unsolicited, sent by Merton’s editor Robert Giroux at Harcourt Brace, the New York publishing company.

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was not a novice writer at the time, although he was still somewhat new to monastic life, having been accepted at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, Kentucky, as a novice monk in the spring of 1942. Early on it was recognized that Merton’s strength lay in his abilities as a writer, and he was set to work producing texts of various sorts as a means of bringing income to the monastery. The Seven Storey Mountain, written when Merton was in his early thirties, is autobiographical and unarguably his best-known book. The title refers to the mountain of Purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Evelyn Waugh was not the only person Giroux approached to edit the work. Three others received unsolicited manuscripts: Graham Greene, Clare Booth Luce, and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. But it was Waugh, who wasn’t expected to respond, who got the nod. Waugh’s endorsement was selected for the cover of the first edition: “I regard this as a book which may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience. No one can afford to neglect this clear account of a complex religious process.” And so it has proven.

Cody has done a masterful job of parsing the two writers’ thoughts and feelings over the course of their exchanges. I suspect most readers will believe, as I do, that in peering into the letters these men exchanged they have been grant privileged access to a moment in time when the lives of these two writers intersected.