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Thomas Merton Papers

An inventory of his papers at Syracuse University

Finding aid created by: JEJ
Date: Aug 1970

Biographical History

Thomas Merton (1915-1968) was born in Prades, Pyrennes-Orientales in France, the son of artist Owen Heathcote and Ruth Jenkins Merton. He attended schools in France, England, and the United States, receiving his B.A. (1938) and his M.A. (1939) from Columbia University.

After a brief period teaching English at Columbia (1938-1939) and St. Bonaventure (1939-1941), Merton entered the Cistercian Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he was ordained as Father M. Louis in 1949. He served as Master of Scholastics (1951-1955) and Master of Novices (1955-1965) at the monastery.

Most of Merton's writing dates from his years at Gethsemani. To one of his correspondents he has suggested that he accomplished very little writing of importance prior to his conversion in 1938. He further stated that his productive years should be divided into three periods: from 1938 to his ordination in 1949, "that is up to Seven Storey Mountain, Waters of Siloe, etc, when I suddenly got to be well known, a best seller, etc,"; a middle period lasting "until somewhere in the early sixties" and ending with Disputed Questions, after which he "began to open up again to the world"; and a third period resulting in works like Seeds of Destruction, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and Chuang Tzu. With reference to this last period, Merton believed that he was (in 1966) "evolving further with studies on Zen and a new kind of experimental creative drive in prose, poetry, satire, etc."

With respect to his reputation, Merton acknowledged "a lot of critics, particularly among Catholics...Most of them are put of by the fact that I sound at times like a Catholic Norman Mailer. I get on better with non-Catholics, particularly the younger generation, students, hippies, etc." He regretted that many readers knew him only from his earlier "ascetic, conservative, traditional, monastic" publications. In retrospect, he wished that he had never "bother[ed] to write about one third" of the inspirational books.

Thomas Merton wrote several books for New Directions, Harcourt, and Farrar, Strauss, as well as numerous articles for publications such as Commonweal, Blackfriars, Catholic Worker, Collectanea Cisterciensia, Harper's, Sewanee Review, Saturday Review, Jubilee, and other periodicals. Among his poetry titles are Thirty Poems (1944), Figures for an Apocalypse (1948), and Emblems of a Season of Fury (1963). Religion and theology titles include What is Contemplation (1948), Thoughts in Solitude (1958), and Life in Holiness (1963). He also wrote essays, collected in Disputed Questions (1960) and New Seeds of Contemplation (1962), among others. His translations include The Wisdom of the Desert (1960) and Selections from Clement of Alexandria (1963). Other well-known titles include The Seven Storey Mountain (1948), The Sign of Jonas (1953), and Breakthrough to Peace (1962).

Though he tried to shed his reputation as a "spiritual writer," he admitted in 1963 that his work, "both poetry and prose, represents a monastic view of life and implies a rather strong criticism of prevailing trends towards global war, totalism, racism, spiritual inertia, and crass materialism. This criticism is not something I want to repudiate, though I regret an occasional note of acerbity."

In the 1960s Merton was increasingly drawn into a study of the Eastern mystics and domestic issues of war and racism. He died on December 11, 1968 while attending an interfaith conference in southeast Asia.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The Thomas Merton Papers consists almost entirely of writings from the last five years of Merton's life.

The small batch of outgoing Correspondence contains mostly "open letters" intended for general circulation and a few of Merton's addresses. The collection also includes transcriptions of three Interviews and a few reproductions of his Artwork.

Merton's Writings, the majority of the collection, includes several articles and essays, book reviews, a copy of Disputed Questions, a brochure prepared for a Cistercian abbey in Colorado, introductions and prefaces for books by other authors, notebooks dating from 1963 to 1967, several poems, and four issues of the literary quarterly, Monks Pond, which he founded and edited in 1968. Articles and poems are generally in printed, mimeograph, or typescript form, sometimes annotated and revised.

The ten spiral-bound notebooks contain hand-written notes from Merton's readings of other writers, including Simon Weil, Rilke, Maritain, Schiller, Eckhart, McLuhan, Harrington, Sartre, Hernandez, Artaud, Faulkner, Kafka, and others, with a particular emphasis on Camus. Merton also jotted personal reminders and drafts of poetry among the pages of these notebooks.

Arrangement of the Collection

Correspondence is arranged chronologically, preceded by the three addresses in alphabetical order by title. Writings are arranged by type and within that by title.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Subject Headings


Merton, Thomas, 1915-1968 -- Archives.


American literature -- Catholic authors.
Authors, American.
Poets, American.

Genres and Forms




Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Thomas Merton Papers,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Gift of Thomas Merton, 1968.

Table of Contents

Correspondence (outgoing)