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."
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.
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
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).
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
I was now free to be an artist." That's what he was then, and is now.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
result was 'The Seven Storey Mountain,' which was to become a best seller
in the United States and around the world."
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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