Joan C. McDONALD, Tom Merton: A Personal Biography. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2006. pp. 468. $37.00 hbd. ISBN 978-087462-016-0.
Reviewed by Patrick F. O’CONNELL, Box 3219, Gannon University, Erie, PA 16541

The title of this new life of Thomas Merton, with its informal use of a nickname and its subtitle suggesting either a kind of psychobiographical investigation or a “tell-all” highlighting of the more “scandalous” aspects of Merton’s career, might tend initially to raise certain red flags of warning for many potential readers, but in fact any such worries are largely groundless. The author does a very competent and workmanlike job of chronicling the facts of Merton’s dramatic and extremely productive life without exaggerated emphasis on youthful peccadilloes, tensions with monastic and ecclesiastical authorities, or the brief but intense relationship with the student nurse late in his life, though all these events are included and placed in proper perspective. Merton is indeed “Tom” in the account of his pre-monastic years, but his surname is regularly used once he enters the Abbey of Gethsemani in 1941 at age 26, and there is none of the cloying pseudo-familiarity that the title might suggest and that is occasionally found in writing on the monk. The “personal” dimension may simply be a way for the author, a retired federal employee rather than an academic, to distinguish her approach from that of each of her principal predecessors, the largely literary focus of Michael Mott, the spiritual and theological orientation of William Shannon, and the emphasis on political and social issues of James Forest (who, as a friend and correspondent of Merton, actually has written the most “personal” biography).

According to the back cover, McDonald spent six years researching her book, and this dedication is evident on every page. She has clearly familiarized herself not only with the principal primary and secondary resources on Merton himself, but with material on friends and associates such as his Columbia professor and close friend Mark Van Doren, the Berrigan brothers, “Ping” Ferry, John Wu and others. She has immersed herself in sources as broad as the intellectual and social history of Europe and the U.S. between the World Wars and as specific as the 1939 New York World’s Fair, which Merton frequently visited, as well as the Cistercian monastic milieu in which he spent the second half of his life. She has visited sites in both Europe and America associated with Merton, and especially in the early sections of the book has provided numerous illustrations not previously available, some original, such as her photographs of the Tudor-Hart studio where Merton’s parents first met and of the Paris apartment house where Ruth Jenkins lived before marrying Owen Merton, and others from old postcards and photos of sites in France, England and America associated with Merton’s early life. She provides a wealth of detail about all periods of Merton’s life, with an emphasis on facts and events rather than analysis. The fascination both of Merton’s personality and of his writing, and the reasons for his stature as perhaps the most significant and influential American Catholic author of the mid-twentieth century, are made vividly evident in McDonald’s chronicle.

The cover blurb notes that this is the first biography written since the publication of Merton’s complete journals (chronologically accurate, though Mott, as the authorized biographer, had access to the journals in writing his 1984 life), and the author makes good use of them, though it should be noted that there is remarkably little direct quotation from the journals, or any other Merton works for that matter, perhaps to avoid expensive permission fees. This tendency to summarize or paraphrase rather than to quote is particularly noteworthy in what is surely the most unusual, and disconcerting, element of the biography, the decision to write certain sections, particularly those concerning the involvement with the nurse in the spring and summer of 1966 and the Asian trip of late 1968, but elsewhere as well, in the first person, as if told by Merton himself. While this approach occasionally results in obvious faux pas (as when “Merton” informs the reader that Ceylon is “later” – i.e. after his death – “called Sri Lanka” [427]), and, as it includes the account of Merton’s own death by electrocution, leads the reader to wonder exactly when and how he is supposed to be relating these events, by and large the effect is not as off-putting as one might expect – other than the alteration in pronouns there is very little difference in style and content from the third-person sections (with occasional exceptions such as the rather bizarre “dream” Merton supposedly has of his abbot, James Fox, coming to Merton’s hermitage, asking to call him Tom – “That’s how I always think of you” – and breaking down and confessing “I can’t go on” [366-69], all of which is evidently a fabrication, or at least a fantasia on an actual visit Dom James made to the hermitage in July 1967 which was much more restrained, and constrained, than this imaginary one). The decision to use the first person to relate sections of a life of a writer whose best-known and arguably best works are in fact autobiographical is perhaps understandable, but precisely because these are not his own words but at best a paraphrase, which often echoes Merton’s actual language but doesn’t quite ring true, it is an approach that would better have been avoided.

This “experimental” narrative technique raises the question of the intended audience for this book. It is so detailed that it would probably not attract the “casual” reader, though the style is clear and attractive enough to hold such a reader’s attention. Although published by a university press, it is not a “scholarly” biography, as evidenced not only by the quasi-fictional sections but by the complete lack of documentation. (There is in the entire book only a single note [157] which duplicates information found in the text itself, apparently an inadvertently uncancelled remnant of an earlier stage of the text before notes had been eliminated, perhaps for reasons of space.) This lack of citations makes the book essentially useless for researchers, which is unfortunate because the author clearly did an enormous amount of research herself. But there are certainly areas where her information is misleading or simply erroneous, particularly her efforts to expand the Merton canon: on the basis of Merton’s use at one point of the pseudonym Marco J. Frisbee, McDonald assumes (249) that he also is the author of a number of articles written by Richard P. Frisbie, who is in reality a fairly well-known author in Chicago Catholic circles and who is still writing today. She also presumes (301) that artwork accompanying some Merton periodical articles was also his (which is highly unlikely) and suggests (76) that he was the cartoonist “Tyng” whose sketches of St. Bernard include one of him reading The Seven Storey Mountain and laughing, even though the style of drawing bears no resemblance to Merton’s and the series was published in Jubilee after Ed Rice’s acrimonious departure from the magazine he had founded, a time when it is inconceivable that his friend Merton would have contributed anything. There are also problematic details such as her attribution (silently following Mott) of Merton’s drawing “Christ Unveils the Meaning of the Old Testament,” to which she repeatedly returns (112, 224, 310, 317, 323-24), to the year 1941, whereas Margaret Betz, who has done the most thorough investigation of the drawing (Merton Annual, vol. 13, 190-207) believes it was done circa 1952. In the course of her discussion of the drawing the author inadvertently has Merton say it was “made years ago at Bellarmine” (310) (the Louisville college where the Merton archives are presently located) rather than St. Bonaventure (where Merton was teaching in 1941) and later (still in Merton’s voice) that it was “given to a nun at St. Bonaventure’s” (317) when in fact it was given to Sr. Thérèse Lentfoehr, a nun from Wisconsin with whom Merton began corresponding only in the late 1940s. These are just a couple of the minor but not infrequent errors of fact that have crept into the text: Merton became a citizen in 1951, not 1954 (71); Naomi Burton worked not for Harcourt, Brace (148) but for the Curtis, Brown Literary Agency (and much later for Doubleday); “The Jaguar and the Moon” is a poem not by Ernesto Cardenal but by Pablo Antonio Cuadra (234); La Revolution Noire was not the name of a periodical to which Merton sent an article, but of a book-length publication in French of his own material on civil rights (253); the “University in Jamaica” at which Dr. Paul Sih taught is St. John’s University in Jamaica, Queens, New York City (258); Teilhard de Chardin was not prohibited from publishing in Eastern Europe, but from publishing anywhere (262); in October 1961 Merton published a chapter from New Seeds of Contemplation, not his first “Cold War Letter,” in The Catholic Worker (262); Emblems of a Season of Fury was Merton’s sixth, not his fifth, book of poetry (266); Pacem in Terris did not call for “moderation in the use of nuclear weapons” (!) (266); “And the Children of Birmingham” is not a poem about children “murder[ed] by a white mob” (271); Eldridge Cleaver’s memoir was Soul on Ice, not Sand on Ice (272); D. T. Suzuki was not a monk (281); Peace in the Post-Christian Era was not included in toto in Seeds of Destruction (283); John Oliver Nelson was not a member of the Catholic Worker (286); Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander was published in 1966, not 1968 (295); Carolyn Hammer worked not at the University of Louisville but at the University of Kentucky (337-38); Tommie O’Callaghan was not the only non-clerical member of the Merton Legacy Trust – all three trustees were laypeople (377); My Argument with the Gestapo was in fact first published by Doubleday, not by James Laughlin at New Directions (who later brought out the paperback) (382); Merton’s “Freedom Songs” were in fact played at the 1968 Liturgical Conference (390); the Berrigans burnt draft files at Catonsville, MD; Philip Berrigan and three others had earlier poured blood on files in Baltimore (392); Andy Boone was not black (397); Merton’s pseudonym for his Asian mail was Rabbi Vedanta, not Rabbi Vandata (402); Fr. Flavian, not Dom James, assigned Br. Patrick Hart as Merton’s secretary (402); Suzanne Butorovich was a high school student, not a college student, when corresponding with Merton (412); St. Louis of France was not killed but died of illness in North Africa (446). While none of these errors, nor the occasional typo such as “O’Hara” for “O’Hare” in reference to the Chicago airport (411), is of great significance, cumulatively they are an unfortunate reminder that the absolute reliability of the information presented cannot be taken for granted, and given the lack of notes, cannot be easily checked.

Nevertheless, the book as a whole is accurate, engaging, not wildly speculative or eccentric in the positions put forth, clearly a labor of love and a product of wide and deep reading and reflection. While certainly not a replacement for, or even the equal of, the now standard biographies of Mott, Shannon and Forest, it is not undeserving of a place with them on the ever-expanding shelves of Mertoniana.

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