The Thomas Merton We Knew

Part 3

Rice muses about Merton. "His father was an artist, a New Zealander, and his mother was American, from the Middle West. Merton was born in Prades in France and went to school as a child in Montauban. He was fluent in French; in fact, he was always called on at Gethsemani to interpret for the Abbot-General, Gabriel Sortais, during the Abbot-General's visits there. His parents died when he was small; his mother when he was only six, his father a few years later. He was brought to England and lived with a guardian, who sent him to a fancy public school -- Oakham -- and from there to Cambridge.
"Merton was a writer, a musician, poet, painter, photographer, a good-time Charlie, and an excellent student. You would never have known it from his antics in college, but he was deeply interested -- and I do mean deeply -- in philosophy and theology."
     It was a troubled period -- especially for a young person. We were just pulling ourselves out of the Depression, and now when the lights seemed to be coming on again, war was clearly on the way. I still have the image sharp in my mind, my father in our house in the outskirts of Atlanta, at the depth of the Depression, getting ready to take the streetcar into town to look for work. He had a dime for the carfare there and back; he dropped it as he was putting it in his pocket, it rolled across the floor, and as we all held our breaths, it fell through a crack into the darkness under the house. It is a shattering experience at the age of l2 to see one's father, the hero and authority figure of one's young life, helplessly crying on the edge of his bed.
     My family on my father's side had always been railroad people. On a trip from New York to Atlanta once, I suddenly had the urge to leave the main highway and have a look at Blacksburg, South Carolina, where my father was born. What was there in this small town were about six churches, fifty-odd frame houses and a massive railroad yard. The railroad yard explains how my father was born in this particular Southern place; it was his father's work scene.
     My father was a brakeman, which meant that he hopped rolling freight cars, switched them off the mainline and braked them into sidings. His father had been a flagman, on the Southern Railroad run from Atlanta to Salisbury in North Carolina. Four brothers also worked for the railroad. My father left railroading in the early twenties, during the particularly vicious strikes of that period; several of his friends had been killed by company goons. Typical of the times in the South, he didn't get very far with his schooling, and ended up throwing his sixth-grade books into the Reedy River in Greenville, South Carolina, and going to work so he could contribute to the family income. The twenties were a huge struggle for my parents -- and as they came out of those hard times, the Depression hit us all. (For someone with little education, my father did very well for himself and for the rest of us. He became a successful businessman, was elected to the Atlanta City Council over and over again, and was Mayor pro tem of Atlanta under the city's very progressive mayor, William Hartsfield).
     In those days, Columbia College offered scholarships to two high school graduates from Atlanta, two from Memphis, two from Little Rock -- and from other cities around the South. In 1936, I won one of the two Atlanta awards; the scholarship was worth $500 per year; since tuition was $400 I would have $100 left to spend, as they say, as I pleased. There remained, of course, the matter of dormitory expense and meals, books, clothes, and, if possible a little spending money now and then. My parents would have much preferred that I went to the University of Georgia, or better still, Emory, right there in Atlanta. But the honor was too great; you don't just turn down the most coveted scholarship in town. So they looked at the figures hard, borrowed money from a friend, advised me strongly to wait on tables for my meals and find other work to pay for other expenses, said their prayers and turned me loose. God bless them; I hope they never regretted it; I certainly didn't. Columbia brought me Joseph Wood Krutch, Dwight Minor, Lionel Trilling, Ian Fraser, Louis Hacker, Van Doren -- as well as fellow students Robert Gerdy, Edward Rice, Robert Lax, Seymour Freedgood, Octave Romaine and of course, Tom Merton.
     Rice came from a well-off middle-class family in Brooklyn. His mother was a schoolteacher and his father a partner in a banking firm. "Ours was the biggest house on the block in Bay Ridge," he says. "We lived pretty well even during the Depression."
     "We were Catholics, and very sincere Catholics, but I never went to a Catholic school," Rice says. "My mother had a dispute with the local priest and sent us (him and his brother and sister) to a Quaker school, and then to a non-denominational school. I became more deeply involved with the Catholic Church later."
     "My mother saw to it that we went to mass regularly, received the sacraments and went to confession. She just didn't want us to go to a Catholic school, where the teaching was so rigid and authoritarian. I'm still impressed by the way the Quakers lived and taught, their whole way of life, and it had a deep effect on me later on. Merton was also very interested in the Quakers -- also the Shakers, and the emphasis they placed on living up to their beliefs, their principles and their art.
     "I went to a private non-sectarian high school -- a very good one that concentrated on Latin and Greek as well as modern languages, that made us work hard in English composition and grammar, in literature, so that when I came to Columbia I was ready."
     In looking back, I think I was ready too, in that fall of 1936, in spite of the fact that I carried around with me, at least in the beginning, the classic Southern inferiority complex of the period (we carry a stigma, we Southerners, about blacks and slaves, we are said to be shiftless, rural and a little crazy), an attitude that in retrospect had a slight resemblance to the problems of a minority. Not nearly as serious, of course, and certainly not as long-lasting; with a little effort on all sides, we all soon became more or less equal. At any rate, I had been prepared educationally by one of our region's better public schools, perhaps not quite up to the level of the top New York schools of that time, very good nevertheless. Herbert Orlando Smith, principal at Atlanta Boys' High, was a classicist, and a committed educator. He was also a disciplinarian who had a deep love for his work. He made useful flowering plants out of some of his weeds, and he recognized the hunger for learning when he saw it and never missed the chance to nurture it.
     "My mother wanted me to become a doctor," Rice says. "But I didn't want to be a doctor, I wanted to be an artist. I fought back and that was something harsh and uncomfortable between us.
     "She died when I was eighteen. You know, I have a confession to make, it's still with me; my sadness over her death was lightened by the fact that our fight about being an artist or a doctor was over. More important than anything else,
I was now free to be an artist." That's what he was then, and is now.
     We worked together at "Jester," on the fourth floor at John Jay Hall where most of the student activities were located. Merton, now in graduate school, had been a very good editor, a funny writer and an interesting illustrator. So was Rice -- all three of those things. Lax was a sage and poetic presence, generous with all he knew about the new writers and the new art. Harry Rosenthal wrote very good Proust-like prose that showed a nervous psychological fragility; and he later had a complete breakdown. Eugene Williams, an earlier "Jester" editor, when Merton was art editor, was a very good jazz critic; a painfully thin, fragile and high-strung young man, he later committed suicide. Chuck Saxon was one of our funnier cartoonists, he obviously was honing his talents for the success he would have at "The New Yorker;" he died a few years ago. Bob Gerdy was a wise, knowledgeable and talented editor, as he was to be later at "The New Yorker;" Gerdy died young on a New York street corner of a heart attack brought on by a collision between alcoholism and anti-anxiety medication, and I've never got over it.
     Rice, Gerdy and Knight -- we were instant friends. We spent hours together in Rice's room in Hartley, often drinking a concoction of grapefruit juice and rum, nearly always listening to jazz and talking about the coming war. Rice used fiber needles on his 78s, claiming they preserved his precious records better than steel needles. The fiber needles had to be sharpened for every other record with a special appliance; Rice used most of his spare cash buying fiber needles. They were light and flimsy; Pops Foster's bass on the Louis Armstrong recording of "Dallas Blues" was so loud and forceful that the needle and the arm would jump right off the record.
     The shadow was always there. The world had just barely started again after the Depression, and suddenly it seemed to be coming to an end -- an end quite different, more terrifying, than just the poverty and deprivation of Depression. "The war was coming, we all knew it," Rice says. "It looked as though the world as we knew it was finished. This made most of us party even more, but Merton became very serious about life; he was going even more deeply into medieval philosophers, among them St. Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus, and the Spanish mystics, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. We didn't notice at the time, but Merton was now a sincere and practicing Christian.
     "Eventually, he decided he was going to become a Catholic; since I was the only Catholic in our group, he asked me to be his sponsor. He was baptised at Corpus Christi Church near Columbia on November 16, 1938, with me as his sponsor, and Gerdy, Lax and Freedgood in attendance.
     "We were all nervous and scared about the war. Merton and Lax both were pacifists, but they registered for the draft when the time came. I thought we had to be involved; in fact, that it was a great thing to do, a necessary thing. I was strongly anti-Nazi, worried about the threats to England and France, upset about what was happening to the minorities being persecuted by the Germans, and I was ready to go to war."
     Rice did not go to the war. An eye disability -- a congenital coloboma, that prevented the iris of the right eye from opening properly; a kind of cat's eye -- kept him from being accepted.
"It was a difficult time," Rice recalls. "Everything was uncertain. None of us had a clear notion of what was ahead. In his increasing seriousness about his faith, Merton decided to enter the religious life. At first, he thought he would become a Franciscan, but after visiting a Franciscan monastery in New York, he developed doubts. It was not strict enough, he told me; all they do is sit around drinking Coca Cola and listening to baseball games on the radio. The antagonism seems to have been mutual; the Franciscans rejected Merton, apparently because of the illegitimate child.
     "His next step was to enter a really rigid religious order -- the Trappist monastery in Kentucky, Our Lady of Gethsemani, known formally as the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance. It offered isolation from the outside world, with a concentration on God through prayer and meditation.
"I'm sure it was very difficult for Merton. His urge to write, to create, to express himself on all the pressing topics of the times was still very strong. The Abbot at Gethsemani realized this; he had the insight to know that Merton wanted to write, so he set him to writing about his conversion and what it meant, his pilgrimage through a modern world dedicated to war and destruction.
     "The result was 'The Seven Storey Mountain,' which was to become a best seller in the United States and around the world."
     I have always thought that, beyond the depth of his new religious conviction, and its almost mystic nature (things that my brain for some reason does not allow me to comprehend fully), Merton also was looking for the discipline and the quiet, the forced focus that would enable him to write and write and write. He says almost as much in "The Seven Storey Mountain": "What I needed was the solitude to expand in breadth and depth and to be simplified out under the gaze of God more or less the way a plant spreads out its leaves in the sun."

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