The second volume of Thomas Merton's letters is devoted to his correspondence with friends -- relatives and family friends, longtime friends, special friends, young people he regarded as new friends, and circular letters addressed to groups of friends. They range from 1931, ten years before he became a monk, to 1968, the year in which he died at a monastic conference in Thailand.
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux
August 09, 1989
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Excerpt from The Road to Joy by Thomas Merton
The Road to Joy
The Road to Joy
To Mark Van Doren
You are certainly one of the joys of life for all who have ever come within a mile of you.
MERTON TO VAN DOREN JUNE 6, 1959
Mark Van Doren (1894-1972), as Merton wrote in Monks Pond, "needs no introduction. He is one of the major American poets of the century." A professor of English at Columbia College from 1920 to 1959, he was Merton's teacher and figured largely in The Seven Storey Mountain. In 1939 he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. They corresponded until Merton's death in 1968. Van Doren exerted great infiuence on Merton's writing and publishing, first in teaching and later in promoting his first published book, Thirty Poems (1944). Van Doren selected the poems, persuaded James Laughlin at New Directions to publish them, and signed the contract for Merton. He later selected and wrote an introduction for Merton's Selected Poems (1959). Merton had known Van Doren's wife, Dorothy (Graffe) Van Doren, and his sons, Charles and John, before he entered Gethsemani. Mark and Dorothy Van Doren, to whom Merton dedicated The Strange Islands, visited Merton at Gethsemani in March 1954 and September 1957. Van Doren also lunched alone with Merton in Louisville in June 1956 and visited him at the Abbey in December 1961. The Van Doren side of their correspondence may be consulted in The Selected Letters of Mark Van Doren, edited by George Hendrick (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987). The first four letters that follow were written to Van Doren from Greenwich Village.
35 Perry Street, New York March 24, 1939
Well here is this Joyceish thing. It is a dialogue between a master & pupil. What is not clear is that the pupil is asking the questions of the master, replying, teaches him myths. In the end the master berates himfor not knowing the difference between art & idolatry--just briefly that is.
I would like to make quite a long thing, starting from this, & going on, maybe as a masque.
March 30, 1939
Surprised Mr ffinDaruian,
and daylighted for your brief letture right in these stole of James' Joys. That glose so fain "Can Grande Latians" grace is! (Gracious!) And so to thank these pencils draw to a close.
Now were to unweight the agurbite of bitterbeer and "Herbies" shall be roarly down in black & wit: but black for line, not (just my gist has) art. And O'Neill as right I did a chief the art-heckle of Rickard Huge ["The Art of Richard Hughes"], and so far wall
Pastcrit: An M. A. Theseus!
August 18, 1939
Thanks for your letter. No, I hadn't known about the mermaids with fishes heads! People who won't allow Dali to use his good idea deserve to go flat broke, I say [the Dali Exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair].
I went back up to Olean after writing to you & stayed another month & a half. Did I tell you I was writing a novel? Anyway I finished it. 160,000 words. Weighs five & a half pounds. These are about the only things I can say about it that are not completely misleading.
I sent it to Farrar & Rinehart because I heard Farrar was a friendly guy and I saw a picture of him in which he looked as if he had some humor. There again it would be misleading to say the novel is in any ordinary sense funny. And by the way I'm glad you saw that other short novel & told me it was no good because in this (even though it was entirely different to begin with) I tried to keep as far as possible away from the tone of "Marion & Winona", as well as all the private language of [Bob] Lax's & my Jester & so on.
The novel is called The Night Before the Battle but I would not be prepared to defend that title with my life. Its basis is intellectual autobiography. It goes from 1929 to the present year. Of course a lot of it has to do with my going into the church. If I were to be writing the advertising blurb I would say it was about what the generation born during the war has been worrying about & a lot of tra-la-la like that. I just mean that the jacket blurb might safely bait a hook for suckers with this inferior meat, but that is certainly not what I was trying to write or what I wrote. On this foundation is built a novel about a lot of fictional characters & a complex business with no little parody & burlesque in it. I don't know how to start explaining how it goes.
But one character has four love affairs which all burlesque one another, because they all have a similar pattern. A whole lot of things happenin the book & it reads fast I think & everyone who has seen it has liked it fine.
I judge from a note from Farrar that he is himself reading it, but don't know if that means much or even if it is true. To be clear: I sent him a letter giving a vague idea what the book was & got a letter back saying "I look forward to reading it." He has had it about a week. I don't know how it will turn out at all, but I am sure it is a good book, although I will want to rewrite parts of it.
It is not without commercial appeal since it is about English schools & Cambridge & Paris & Cannes & Rome & New York & every place I ever went to, practically, &, as I say, a lot of things happen in it.
By the way, you are in it, I hope you don't mind: that is your Shakespeare class is talked about & I say some things I learned from you, & say I am glad I learned them from you. Is that all right? It all has to do with poetry. By the way, I invented a great fool in the book & made him one of the editors of The New Yorker.
The Dali poem came back from Harpers Bazaar with one of their most flattering rejection slips. This time they were more than sorry, they were "exceedingly sorry" to send back one of my poems. I didn't even try The New Yorker. Now Southern Review has it, along with some others.
[James] Laughlin sent the pastoral back & didn't even say anything about it. I haven't done any more work on it since I have been too busy on the novel.
John Crowe Ransom sent a friendly letter back saying he couldn't use that old Washaw article & this completes this summer's rejections. I think it's about time somebody took something of mine, & I hope it will be the novel! But, as I say, I never sent a novel to a publisher before, & I don't know what to expect. Maybe I was silly to send it to Farrar, because they only seem to publish Anthony Adverse & Mary Roberts Rinehart.
I had a fine summer: now it is hot here, though; but I am finding out a lot of good things. One is that I can read Provencal fairly easily, & I have been finding out Provencal poetry is just as fine as they all say! A lot of it is amazingly fine religious poetry. And where the Latin poetry of the same time is all naive, more or less, this stuff is of much more stature. The sound of the language itself is wonderful,--adjectives & participles ending in -etz & -atz. Take this:
Senher Sant John Baptista Que fust per Dieu marturiatz La tieu testa fou requista El tieu sane fou escaupatz
(Lord St. John the Baptist Who was martyred for God They claimed your head They shed your blood ...)
Some endings for lines! Some beat, too. The way I found out I could read Provencal was from the lines about Arnaut Daniel in the Purgatory of Daniel.
October 24, 1939
... They gave me a teaching job in extension: composition at night for business folk. It is quite dull and harder than I had expected to find it: much harder. But anyway I have got them so that they all like Thurber, except one brute who thinks it's monotonous to laugh so much as Thurber makes you laugh. I keep telling them if they want to write, why don't they first read something besides Time magazine and second do a little writing at least.
I guess they are all very willing, and some of them write a lot of extra things and bring them too. What I mean by that is, they write a lot of essays about real estate, for practice sake: but that's all right. I don't mind that at all.
I was scared I wouldn't have enough to say in my classes, and would find myself stuck after the first fifteen minutes, trying to think up ideas to talk about: but that isn't so, rather, I talk so much that I really never get around to actually discussing their themes in class.
I was in Olean all summer, and wrote a novel: I suppose I told you. Well, Farrar and Rinehart kept the novel a long time, but not so much because they were interested in it as because the reader kept getting colds or something. They gave it back saying they didn't quite follow it, and why did the plot have to be so complicated? On the other hand, they did say it was dull, and I was afraid it might be that to someone besides friends. I sent the pastoral to Southern Review, but I don't know what they have been doing. I think they lost five of my poems, too, in August. On the other hand I am not caring so much about not getting published, because I am less convinced that what I have been writing is any good.
Did you ever get to see all the good pictures in the Old Masters exhibit at the fair? Coming back to New York I found they had done a fine job of messing up Dali's dream of Venus with a lot of rubber turtles the publicity agent thought up out of his hollow head. Also they finally came around to putting mermaid pants on the mermaids, which made them very awkward and silly, swimming about unhappily with their feet tied together in a sack made to look like a fish's tail made out of a sack. The whole amusement area has been pretty sick, I suppose, ever since the first week, but then parts of it were surprisingly good. Nobody believes that any more. [Bob] Lax came to New York for a minute, but he was only here long enough to refuse a job writing a kids' poetry program for the radio. Now he is back in Olean.
I am not paying any attention to my dissertation now. In fact I am more interested in medieval Latin courses and medieval philosophy courses than in English courses, which I have not gone to much yet. I maystart finding out a lot about the language of analogy in Bonaventure and Hugo of St. Victor and write some paper explaining that you can't make a literal statement about anything that is worth while talking about ...
During his visit to Cuba in the spring of 1940, Merton wrote a poem called "Song for Our Lady of Cobre," which he sent Van Doren with the following note.
Here is a poem I wrote. Cobre is a place in the mountains of Cuba near Santiago & the Virgin of Cobre is miraculous. I am in Santiago now, it is a fine place with a fine harbor a lot of mountains around it but very hot so tomorrow I expect to start back to Havana.
When I get back to America I hope to go into a monastery to be a Franciscan. Back in October & November some angels told me it would be a good thing. My novitiate begins in August. Will you be in Connecticut in May, June or July & if so may I come up and see you? I suppose I will run out of money & come back to America in about 2 weeks.
Olean, New York June 16, 1940
You see I am back here living in [Bob] Lax's hut. I got back from Cuba a month or so ago. It was fine there, it is fine here. I wrote some stuff called a travel book there and I am not bothering to write anything here, as there is no necessity for me to write anything just now. Everybody else here is writing a lot though and I think Lax's big page of masque for his girl was the best thing they ever printed in New Yorker: I never knew they were so smart.
You remember about that Joyce pastoral of mine? Well some little crazy magazine in Woodstock is going to print it, and I am happy that it is going to be printed, even if only by this little magazine I've never even heard of. The way they got hold of it is, I figured Phoenix might be the sort of magazine would think my pastoral was just the thing for their crazy pages, so I sent it to Phoenix, and Phoenix gave it to the fellow next door who has a magazine called Ritual which says it is "devoted to the revelations of idiocy and insanity, both simulated and pathological" which is their way of being funny. But I don't care; as long as they are going to print this pastoral I am glad.
Lax said you were surprised a little that I was leaving the world and that surprised me a bit, too, as I hadn't thought of it in negative terms, but only that I was going to become a Franciscan. If it comes to that, a fellow is supposed to leave the world as soon as he is baptized: that is part of the baptismal vows, but then of course I will take the added vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience giving up all the world has to offer of property, wives and personal independence. But on the other hand a Friar is perhaps in the world more than I have ever been in the sensethat he leads a more active life than I have ever led, what with preaching and teaching and hearing confessions and possibly in my own case writing if I am told to write anything. But of course I will have an opportunity to lead a more contemplative life also than I have ever led, by reason of being part of a religious community and because of those same three vows which take away a false kind of freedom and replace it with a real one.