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The path to The Seven Storey Mountain
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The artwork of Burton Silverman

The Path to the Mountain

Robert Giroux '36
One of the most surprising bestsellers of the late 1940s was the autobiography of  Thomas Merton '38, a still-young English expatriate who had abandoned a fashionable leftism and a promising career for Roman Catholicism and the discipline of the Trappist cloister. In this excerpt from his introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, published last October by Harcourt Brace, Robert Giroux '36, Merton's College friend and later editor, recounts the path that led to the Mountain.

The Seven Storey Mountain was first published 50 years ago this month. As Thomas Merton revealed in his journals, he had begun to write his famous autobiography four years earlier, at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky to which he had journeyed in December 1941, at the age of 26, after resigning as a teacher of English literature at St. Bonaventure College in Olean, N.Y. "In a certain sense," Merton wrote, "one man was more responsible for The Seven Storey Mountain than I was, even as he was the cause of all my other writing." This was Dom Frederic Dunne, the abbot who had received Merton as a postulant and accepted him, in March 1942, as a Trappist novice.
"I brought all the instincts of a writer with me into the monastery," Merton said, adding that the abbot "encouraged me when I wanted to write poems and reflections and other things that came into my head in the novitiate." When Dom Frederic suggested that Merton write his life story, the novice was at first reluctant. After all, he had become a monk in order to leave his past life behind. Once he began to write, however, it poured out. "I don't know what audience I might have been thinking of," he wrote. "I suppose I put down what was in me, under the eyes of God who knows what is in me." He was soon "trying to tone down" his original draft for the Trappist censors, who had criticized it severely, especially the account of his years at Clare College, Cambridge University, during which he had become the father of an illegitimate child (killed with the mother, apparently, in the bombing of London). For this Merton was "sent down"--expelled--and he ultimately sailed for America and enrolled at Columbia College, where I met him in 1935.
The country was still in the Depression; the times were serious and so were most undergraduates. Among Merton's and my classmates were Ad Reinhardt, who became a famous painter; John Latouche, who became famous in the musical theater; Herman Wouk, who became a famous novelist, and John Berryman, who became a famous poet. I met Merton when he walked into the office of The Columbia Review, the College literary magazine, and showed me a story and several reviews, which I liked and accepted. He was stocky, blue-eyed, with thinning blond hair, and he was a lively talker, with a slight British accent. He was a junior and I was a senior. He told me of his interest in jazz, Harlem and the movies, enthusiasms I shared. We both admired Mark Van Doren as a teacher. We went to a couple of movies at the old Thalia, and of course in those leftist days words like religion, monasticism and theology never came up.

Several years later, when I was working at Harcourt Brace & Company as a junior editor, I was asked to evaluate a novel by Thomas James Merton, submitted by Naomi Burton of the Curtis Brown literary agency. The hero of The Straits of Dover was a Cambridge student who transfers to Columbia and gets involved with a stupid millionaire, a showgirl, a Hindu mystic and a left-winger in Greenwich Village. I agreed with the other editors that the author had talent but the story wobbled and got nowhere. Merton was an interesting writer but apparently not a novelist.

Thomas Merton '38 at Gethsemani
The celebrity...became a source of embarrassment to Tom.

Then, in May or June 1941, I encountered Tom in Scribner's bookstore on Fifth Avenue. I had been browsing and felt someone touch my arm. It was Merton. "Tom!" I said. "It's great to see you. I hope you're still writing." He said, "Well, I've just been to The New Yorker and they want me to write about Gethsemani." I had no idea what this meant and said so. "Oh, it's a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where I've been making retreats." This revelation stunned me. I had had no idea that Merton had undergone a religious conversion or that he was interested in monasticism. "Well, I hope to read what you write about it," I said. "It will be something different for The New Yorker." "Oh, no," he said, "I would never think of writing about it." That told me a great deal. I now understood the extraordinary change that had occurred in Merton.
The partly approved text of The Seven Storey Mountain was sent to Naomi Burton late in 1946, and she sent it on to me at Harcourt Brace. I began reading the manuscript with growing excitement and took it home to finish it overnight. Though the text began badly, it quickly improved and I was certain that with cutting and minor editing it was publishable. It never occurred to me that it might be a best seller, though I was sure it would find an audience. The next day I phoned Naomi with (for that era) a good offer, which she accepted on the monastery's behalf. Merton, of course, did not receive one penny of his enormous royalties, because of his vow of poverty; the earnings all went to the community. 

In books that become classics the opening words often seem to be inevitable, as if they could not possibly have been otherwise--"Call me Ishmael," "Happy families are all alike," "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." After several tries, the opening of Mountain became: "On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadows of some French mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world." There remained the job of editorial polishing--eliminating repetitions and longueurs. Merton was very cooperative about all these minor changes. "Really, the Mountain did need to be cut," he wrote a friend. "The length was impossible....When you hear your words read aloud in a refectory, it makes you wish you had never written at all."

Then a crisis arose in the midst of the editing. Merton told Naomi that a final censor was refusing permission to publish! Unaware that the author had a contract, an elderly censor from another abbey objected to Merton's "colloquial prose style," which he considered inappropriate for a monk. He urged that the book be put aside until Merton "learned to write decent English." We felt that these anonymous censors would have suppressed St. Augustine's "Confessions" if given the chance. I advised Merton to appeal (in French) to the Abbot General in France, and to our relief the Abbot General concluded that an author's style was a personal matter. This cleared the air and the censor wisely reversed his opinion. At last the Mountain could be published.

When advance proofs arrived in the summer of 1948, I decided to send them to Evelyn Waugh, Clare Boothe Luce, Graham Greene and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. To my delight they all responded in laudatory terms, and we used the quotations on the book jacket and in advertisements. At this point the first printing was increased from 5,000 to 12,500. By November, a month after publication, the book had sold 12,951 copies, but in December it shot up to 31,028. From mid-December to after New Year's Day is usually the slowest period for orders, because bookstores are so well stocked by then. This new pattern of sales was significant--the Mountain was a best seller! It's hard to believe now that The New York Times refused to put it on the weekly list, on the grounds that it was "a religious book." Today, including paperback editions and translations, the total sale of The Seven Storey Mountain has reached the multiple millions, and it continues to sell year after year.

Why did the success of the Mountain go so far beyond my expectations? Publishers cannot create best sellers, though few readers (and fewer authors) believe it. There is always an element of mystery when it happens: why this book at this moment? I believe the most essential element is timing. The Mountain appeared at a time of great disillusion: we had won World War II but the cold war had started, and the public was looking for reassurance. Second, Merton's story was unusual. A well-educated and articulate young man withdraws--why?--into a monastery. And the tale was well told, with liveliness and eloquence. One sign of the book's impact was the resentment it inspired in certain quarters--not only with hostile reviewers, but with fellow religious, who thought it inappropriate for any monk to write. I remember receiving hate mail saying, "Tell this talking Trappist who took a vow of silence to shut up!" Though silence is a traditional part of their lives, Trappists take no such vow. Maintaining silence (to increase contemplation) does not by itself rule out communication (which they do in sign language). I had a short answer for the hatemongers: "Writing is a form of contemplation."

The celebrity that followed the book's publication became a source of embarrassment to Tom. If he had expected to withdraw from the world, it did not happen. Instead, as his fame and writing increased, he heard from Boris Pasternak in Russia, Czeslaw Milosz in Poland, Abraham Joshua Heschel at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Canon A. M. Allchin at Canterbury. His horizons widened more and more. Two years before his death he wrote a preface to the Japanese edition of The Seven Storey Mountain, containing his second thoughts about the book almost 20 years after he had written it: "Perhaps if I were to attempt this book today, it would be written differently. Who knows? But it was written when I was still quite young, and that is the way it remains. The story no longer belongs to me...."
Thomas Merton died in 1968 while attending a conference of Eastern and Western monks in Bangkok. In 1998, on the 50th anniversary of Mountain, I think of Mark Van Doren's words, which Tom and I heard in his classroom: "A classic is a book that remains in print."


Excerpted from the Seven Storey Mountain, 50th Anniversary Edition by Thomas Merton. Introduction by Robert Giroux. Introducation copyright 1998 by Robert Giroux. Published by Harcourt Brace & Company. Copyright 1948 by Harcourt Brace and Company. Copyright renewed 1976 by the Trustees of Merton Legacy Trust..