When Prophecy Still Had a Voice: The Letters of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax

Overview

J. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a twenty-year-old sophomore when he was introduced to fellow student Robert Lax (1915-2000) in the Columbia University cafeteria in 1935. They were brought together by an admiration for each other's writing in the college humor magazine. Upon graduation in 1938, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism; Lax began graduate study in English and took a job at the New Yorker. Three years later, Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, and he and Lax saw each other only four more times. ...

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Overview

J. Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was a twenty-year-old sophomore when he was introduced to fellow student Robert Lax (1915-2000) in the Columbia University cafeteria in 1935. They were brought together by an admiration for each other's writing in the college humor magazine. Upon graduation in 1938, Merton converted to Roman Catholicism; Lax began graduate study in English and took a job at the New Yorker. Three years later, Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani, and he and Lax saw each other only four more times. Yet their friendship was sustained for the next thirty-three years through an amazing correspondence.

Their letters show Merton as an irreverent and often hilarious critic of presidents and popes. He also turned to serious issues, such as the war in Vietnam and the dangers of nuclear holocaust. Merton and Lax's correspondence is filled with reminiscences of friends and faculty from their years at Columbia, including Mark van Doren, Lionel Trilling, Ad Reinhardt, Edward Rice, and Jacques Barzun. These letters of two poets and solitaries betray a giddy delight in wordplay, unconstrained by rules of grammar or conventions of spelling. Puns, portmanteaus, and inside jokes abound. The thirty-year exchange began when Merton dashed off a note on June 17, 1938, after spending a week with Lax's family.

The final epistle in this extraordinary correspondence was written by Lax on December 8, 1968. Merton died in Bangkok five days later and never received it. Arthur Biddle spent nearly ten years collecting every letter known to exist between Merton and Lax, a total of 346, two thirds of which have never been published. Biddle provides chronologies of their lives and places events and people in context within the letters. This volume also includes the text of a rare interview with Lax.

Arthur W. Biddle is professor emeritus of English at the University of Vermont.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A book that will fascinate readers, especially those who love Merton, but really anyone with a sense of comic or profane humor, and interest in spiritual motivation and direction, a fascination with how two very separate and solitary individuals can merge their identities to form a whole greater than the two parts." -- Bowling Green Daily News

"Here, in their garrulous exchange of letters spanning 30 years, we see the childlike part of Merton: the innocent, eccentric, irreverent, prankish Thomas Merton.... Even a reluctant reader will be seduced by the rich brew of humor and wisdom that these letters provide." -- Lexington Herald-Leader

"A delight.... At the same time, they reveal serious struggles with personal vocation and issues such as peace and the Cold War." -- Library Journal

"The letters are reckless, sophomoric, erudite, witty, iconoclastic, frank, serious, youthfully exhuberant, scatological, excessive, wordly, mystical, selfconsciously clever, earthy, subversive, and holy -- but above all, charmingly human." -- Wade Hall

Library Journal
Biddle (English, Univ. of Vermont, emeritus) collects all 346 known letters between Thomas Merton (1915-68), the famous Trappist monk, and his best friend Robert Lax (1915-). They met while students at Columbia University, united by their literary interests. First Merton and then Lax converted to Roman Catholicism, and they also came to share a deep concern about peace. Their letters are a delight because both men take pleasure in word play and in manipulating language in the manner of James Joyce. At the same time they reveal serious struggles with personal vocation and issues such as peace and the Cold War, which each increasingly wrote about. Robert E. Daggy published 43 of these letters in The Road to Joy: Letters to New and Old Friends (1989) but deleted substantial sections; 66 were published in A Catch of Anti-Letters (1978) by Merton and Lax; the remaining have not been previously published and greatly extend the corpus. The appendix records the essence of interviews with Lax as Biddle prepared the letters. Biddle edits lightly, maintaining the marvelous word play and unconventional spellings. Recommended for Merton collections and large public libraries.--Carolyn M. Craft, Longwood Coll., Farmville, VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813121680
  • Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
  • Publication date: 12/28/2000
  • Pages: 496
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

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