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Not as congenial or digestible as Monica Furlong's Merton (1980), this long, dense, quasi-official biography provides by far the most complete picture of Merton now available, and so becomes the archway to the booming field of Merton studies. Mott, a poet, novelist and English professor (Bowling Green U.), was appointed to do this life by the Thomas Merton Legacy Trust when the original choice, John Howard Griffin, withdrew because of illness. This gave Mott the unique opportunity of reading (though not freely quoting from) Merton's unedited journals for the years 1956-68, which will otherwise remain sealed until 1993. So for the first time we can read the engrossing/pathetic details of the (presumably) Platonic love affair Merton had with a student nurse (""S."") from Louisville in 1966. Merton's final ""eremitic"" phase (ending with his accidental electrocution in Thailand in 1968) is presented in depth and in detail--with its immense creative bursts, its emotional swings and monastic high-jinks (victors to the hermitage were encouraged to bring beer and bourbon), the ultimate leveling-off into semi-serene Christian Zen master. Other new items include a blow-by-blow account of Merton's catastrophic run-in with the noted psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg (""M. sat with tears streaming down his face, muttering 'Stalin! Stalin!' "") and a sensational, but not implausible, speculation that Merton may have undergone some sort of weird ritual crucifixion while an undergraduate at Cambridge. But for the most part Mott follows the familiar path of Merton's childhood and youth in France, England, and the US, his pivotal year at Clare College, his stabilization at Columbia, his conversion and transformation into Fr. Louis, O.C.S.O., his narrow early piety, and the many growing pains of mid-life in Gethsemani. Mott digs out from under the huge pile of Merton's oeuvre by ignoring the potboilers and analyzing a handful of passages from the better stuff. He spends a lot of time keeping track of Merton's myriad friends and correspondents (D. T. Suzuki, Czeslaw Milosz, Jacques Maritain, Abraham Heschel, Daniel Berrigan), cumulatively conveying a sense of Merton's enormous personal magnetism (which went hand in hand with his essential solitariness). The only real lacuna here is a judgment on Merton's place on the American scene, religious and otherwise--but it may be too soon to say. Cleanly written, critically alert, not too shapely but in all likelihood the most we'll hear of T.M. for some time--if not the last. (See Wilkes, Merton: By Those Who Knew Him Best, below.)

Pub Date: Nov. 26th, 1984
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin