Biographers of Thomas Merton and his circle have nothing but the best of intentions. They want to bring out the “true” Merton. Inevitably, there may be erroneous statements or misinterpretations of Father M. Louis, his name in religious life, but Merton’s biographers always manage to divulge one more interesting item about their subject, adding a new facet to his legend. Many of those intimates Merton once held dear are now passing away and so much of our insight into this enigmatic man necessarily relies on and is limited to those works deposited in archives around the nation. Portraits of Merton have been reconstructed with some frequency—as Columbia University cut-up, literary bon vivant, monk, social critic, closet Buddhist. Relying on these sources, but trying nevertheless to penetrate to the “real” Merton by interviews, letters, and diaries of his two closest college friends, James Harford supplies a further angle from which to spy the most famous Cistercian of the twentieth century.
Harford was for nearly four decades the staff director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, based on Princeton, New Jersey. Harford never met Merton, but through his friendships with Robert Lax and Ed Rice he came into the Merton orbit beginning in 1952. Harford thus has an insider’s grasp on what the principal points of disagreement are in interpreting Merton’s life, and while these are never really definitively resolved (a stimulus for continued reflection on the monk), what emerges is a more human individual, Merton the pal. At the outset, Harford recounts the youth of the three and how they came to meet at Columbia. He moves chronologically through their college years to first jobs and soon the reader begins to see just how deep the three impacted one another through Harford’s use of their correspondence. There is a code-like quality between these intimates, borne from a common labor: scores of hours pouring over copy in the offices of The Jester, a Columbia literary journal. Rice would go on to publish the magazine Jubilee, a lay-controlled journal of Catholic art and opinion—a boon to Catholic culture from 1953-1967, the likes of which have not been seen since. Lax took on brief and sporadic writing assignments and had poems published in The New Yorker. By the early 1960s, however, Lax would settle in Greece and, with this as his base, would become an accomplished European poet. Better known is the star that was launched with The Seven Story Mountain, Merton’s popular autobiography.
Harford finds the connective tissue between their careers and, mainly, supplies a vibrant narrative on the highs and lows of each. The beginnings of Harford’s chapters snap with insight and give an excellent overview of what happens in the stages of the three friends’ lives. There are, however, some places which could benefit from further scrutiny or greater elucidation. For instance, at times Harford indicates that the files into which he dug are “substantial” but he gives no indication of what that might mean. At other times, he provides too little explanation or too much description. An instance of the former might be the rather flat statement addressed to the reader that “Merton bought into Zen wholeheartedly—go read him yourself, and good luck” (169). An instance of the latter might be his characterization of noted author Ann Freemantle as “articulate, and sometimes angry” (138) and in any event, he never indicates what he means by such comments. In places, Harford’s analysis limps along and he reels in surprise on somewhat trivial points, as when he suggests that the prices paid for items in the 1950s and 1960s are fractions compared with today. Hasn’t he ever heard of inflation?
However, the book does make important contributions to our knowledge of the personalities behind Jubilee as well as the magazine’s demise. Harford also has been able to reveal further dimensions of the Merton network through some of the principal archival materials and supplies a bibliography of the published works of Lax, Rice, and Merton, from which he draws heavily. The specialist in Merton studies may be only slightly impressed by Harford’s achievement, but after reading his book as an introduction to the Trappist, the newcomer may come away eager to tap into one of the most influential Catholic writers in the latter half of the twentieth century.