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

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Arthur W. Biddle
University Press of Kentucky, 2001 - Biography & Autobiography - 448 pages
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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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The letters of Thomas Merton and Robert Lax : when prophecy still had a voice

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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 ... Read full review

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About the author (2001)

Born in France, Thomas Merton was the son of an American artist and poet and her New Zealander husband, a painter. Merton lost both parents before he had finished high school, and his younger brother was killed in World War II. Something of the ephemeral character of human endeavor marked all his works, deepening the pathos of his writings and drawing him close to Eastern, especially Buddhist, forms of monasticism. After an initial education in the United States, France, and England, he completed his undergraduate degree at Columbia University. His parents, nominally friends, had given him little religious guidance, and in 1938, he converted to Roman Catholicism. The following year he received an M.A. from Columbia University and in 1941, he entered Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where he remained until a short time before his death. His working life was spent as a Trappist monk. At Gethsemani, he wrote his famous autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain" (1948); there he labored and prayed through the days and years of a constant regimen that began with daily prayer at 2:00 a.m. As his contemplative life developed, he still maintained contact with the outside world, his many books and articles increasing steadily as the years went by. Reading them, it is hard to think of him as only a "guilty bystander," to use the title of one of his many collections of essays. He was vehement in his opposition to the Vietnam War, to the nuclear arms race, to racial oppression. Having received permission to leave his monastery, he went on a journey to confer with mystics of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. He was accidentally electrocuted in a hotel in Bangkok, Thailand, on December 10, 1968.

Robert Lax (1915 2000) was born in Olean, NY, and lived in France, New York City, and Hollywood before settling on the island of Patmos for the last thirty years of his life. His publications extend to hundreds of pieces, many published by small presses, and many published in Europe. His early major collection 33 Poems was published by New Directions in 1988.

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

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