Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Trappist and the Thomist

Occasionally visitors at Andalusia ask us about Thomas Merton and Flannery O'Connor.  Because they were contemporaries, a lot of folks assume that Merton and Flannery knew each other or, at the very least, corresponded with one another.  Unfortunately, neither is the case.  Though they were aware of one another, and each had read the other's work, they never met or exchanged letters.  They did, however, have the same editor at Harcourt Brace, Robert Giroux.  When Flannery was introduced to Giroux in 1949 she asked if he would give her a copy of Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain.  When this spiritual memoir, which tells the tale of the author's abandonment of the literary life of Manhattan to become a Trappist monk in Kentucky, came out the year before it was an immediate sensation. Many of the young men who read it were so inspired that the Abbey of Gethsemane, where Merton lived, was overrun with aspirants (to the point that tents were raised in the cloister to house them).  Eventually, the overcrowding became such a problem that the monastery needed to found a daughter house in rural Rockdale County, Georgia.  This, of course, became the The Monastery of the Holy Spirit, which I've written about elsewhere on this blog.  I don't know how Flannery felt about The Seven Storey Mountain.  My guess is that she had some reservations. In 1955 when her first collection of short stories came out, Giroux wrote her to inform her that the book was selling better than anything on their list except Thomas Merton.  Flannery confided to her friend Ben Griffith, "[it] doesn't say much for their list, I guess." (The Habit of Being, p. 89)  Yet O'Connor respected Merton and his opinion mattered to her.  When her second novel, The Violent Bear it Away, was published in 1960, she wrote to Giroux anxious to find out what Merton thought about it. (The Habit of Being, p. 380) While Flannery may have been measured in her assessment of the monk's writings (though by this time her library included a number of his books), Merton was characteristically effusive in his praise for the author from Milledgeville. After Flannery died, Merton wrote a much-quoted epitaph: "When I read Flannery O'Connor, I do not think of Hemingway, or Katherine Anne Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles.  What more can you say for a writer?  I write her name with honor, for all the truth and all the craft with which she shows man's fall and his dishonor." (quoted in A Literary Guide to Flannery O'Connor's Georgia, p. 86).  Indeed, what more can you say for such a writer?
- Mark

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