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The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton (New Directions Paperbook) Paperback – March 1, 1985
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From the Back Cover
As wide a following as the late Thomas Merton had while he lived, ever since his tragic accidental death in Bangkok in 1968, there has been a steady upsurge of interest in both his life and writings. A priest and Trappist monk by vocation, his theological works have been instrumental in reforming Western monasticism and in carrying on the religious dialog botanist and West; an enormously productive poet, his poems display an astonishing technical versatility and deeply felt humanity. Merton's stature as a critic, however, was not fully appreciated until the publication in 1981 of the first collection of his distinct literary essays, now available as a paperbo ok.
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"The Literary Essays of Thomas Merton" gives a good window onto the man behind the traditional monastic mask and proves beyond a doubt that one can be a member of a strict religious order and have a very free, wildly poetic and intellectual mind at the same time.
The breadth of Merton's interests vary with such intensity and enthusiasm that it would be well nigh impossible to include them all a single review. He certainly managed to keep with the times, there's no doubt about that: many of these essays appeared in "The American Benedictine Review", "American Pax", "The Catholic Worker", "The Catholic World", "Charlatan", "The Columbia Review", "Commonweal", "Continuum",
"The Critic", "Jubilee", "The New York Herald Tribune Review", "The New York Times Book Review", and the "The Critic". In his relatively short time on earth, Thomas Merton made sure to fulfill one of God's most important vocations for him: the written word.
In his first essay, "Blake and the New Theology", Merton attacks those would make nothing of William Blake but a crazed prophet who wanted to destroy everything save "pure vision": that was not the case, and though Blake's theology was certainly radical, there is no problem reconciling it with the Holy Trinity.
Merton's ongoing fascination with Russian poet Boris Pasternak is given full expression in his lengthy essay "The Pasternak Affair", in which Merton expresses passionate admiration for the poet's refusal to make concessions to the Soviet Union and just narrowly escaping a horrible death at the hands of Stalin's thugs. Constructive rebellion, it seems, was always a concern of Merton's.
The real meat and potatoes of this book are, however, "The Seven Literary Essays On Albert Camus". I was surprised, though I shouldn't have been, to find that the most perceptive and compassionate essays on this modernist agnostic (Camus was never a stated atheist, as Merton points out, though that is a literary myth which has replaced truth). He sees that a lot of Camus' problems with God emerged, as so many people's have, from his experience in France resisting the Third Reich (well, writing leaflets about them with a sharp note here and there, at least). Merton's "final verdict" on Camus and why this otherwise Christian man defied the notion of God is something ever Merton fan will want to find out for themselves.
This is a weighty book, about 590 pages in total and Merton's crackling prose is so engrossing I almost read it cover to cover. Not just for Catholics: must read literature for everyone.