The Literary Essays Of Thomas Merton, by Thomas Merton
While I cannot imagine this book ever becoming a popular sort of volume to read, nor do I fully agree with the author’s sometimes off-putting “woke” perspective on politics and his leftist bias, there is definitely an aspect in which I have a high degree of empathy for the writer (and for anyone else who chooses to read this). For one, as a writer of a fair amount of literary essays, some of them book reviews and some of them more lengthy and detailed discussions of various texts, I fully understand the way that an author can struggle to deal with some writing that is timeless and some writing that is more or less entirely obscure to any later readers. A writer can hardly know what is going to last the test of time and what will not, even when (as is especially the case here with some obscure leftist Latino poets) the author wishes to promote such writers to a wider audience. For the reader, therefore, this book is a reminder that reviewers of books spend a great deal of time sifting through immense amounts of literature, most of which will be entirely irrelevant to later generations who will barely know the people who influenced the author, much less the obscure authors themselves. And sometimes one will find thoughtful comments on literature, as is occasionally the case here.
This sprawling book of more than 500 pages is divided into four parts with three appendices that are generally worth reading. The first part of the book looks at the literary essays that Merton wrote between 1959 and 1968. Here we have some thoughtful essays on noted authors and their contexts, like Blake, Joyce, Pasternak, Faulkner, Weil, and Flannery O’Connor. We also have writings on far more obscure authors who simply have not endured in the public consciousness, like Julian Green and J.F. Powers. The second part of the book, and probably the most tedious, contains seven essays on Albert Camus ranging over the entire course of his work and demonstrating the author’s vain attempt to state that Camus would have become Catholic in the presence of the right hip Catholics who could have helped him with his Hellenistic opposition to Hellenistic Christianity. The third part of the book shows Merton writing about obscure Spanish language poets in translation in the vain attempt to get liberation theology to appeal to American Catholics of any worth. The fourth part of the book looks at related literary questions and this was the part of the book that I liked the most, as it dealt with questions of the theology of creativity and issue of poetry and alienation and freedom. The appendices include the author’s M.A. thesis on Blake, various interesting book reviews, including one on C.S. Lewis’ insightful literary criticism, and two transcriptions of Merton’s talks on William Faulkner.
A reader can find a great deal of interest here that demonstrates Merton’s inconsistent worth as a literary critic. On the one hand, where Merton defends the legitimacy of the author writing about his (or her) own alienation and writes about the theology of creation or the creations of others, he generally has something sound to say. At times his understanding of various writers and their spiritual perspectives is insightful and worthwhile. Far too often, though, Merton is led astray by his own knee-jerk hostility to conservative politics. As a great deal of heresy consists in a lack of balance and an improper emphasis of something to an extreme degree, it is lamentable that an author as focused on heresy as Merton is ends up falling into heresy himself because he cannot see that which is corrupt about his own leftist worldview and that which is noble and proper and godly about the conservatism that he is hostile towards, for whatever reason. In his desire to show hostility to the WASP elite that he was familiar with from his own youth, he ends up falling into serious error, errors that are all too frequent for those who consider themselves Progressive Christians of any denomination. As a result, there is a great deal about these literary essays that simply does not work.