Editing Merton

The Jesuit magazine America has posted a brief retrospective article describing Robert Giroux’s early professional coup with his 1948 publication of Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain. This is written by James T Keane. Evelyn Waugh played a part in the story. Here are the opening paragraphs of Keane’s article:

He edited Flannery O’Connor. Virginia Woolf, too. Bernard Malamud, William Gaddis, Jack Kerouac (for a while) and Walker Percy. Donald Barthelme. William Saroyan. Elizabeth Bishop. Katherine Anne Porter. Oh, and T.S. Eliot and John Berryman and Robert Lowell, too. And he had a rather distinguished cadre of external readers for his authors’ manuscripts. When a young Trappist monk and former college chum sent Robert Giroux his memoir in 1946, Giroux asked a few literary friends for advice. Who were they? Graham Greene, Claire Booth Luce, Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Evelyn Waugh.

That’s a lot of literary firepower, and I haven’t even named the monk in question yet: Thomas Merton. The book would become The Seven Storey Mountain, published in Great Britain (with Waugh as the editor!) as Elected Silence. It would remain on The New York Times’s best-seller list for over a year (The Times originally refused to include Mountain on the grounds that it was a “religious book”) and has sold more than four million copies since…

America also helpfully reposts its 1988 memoir by Giroux in which he recounts in somewhat greater detail Waugh’s participation in the project. Here is a relevant excerpt:

…there remained minor editorial polishing throughout—cutting out excess verbiage, repetitions, longueurs or dull patches. I must say that Merton was very responsive and cooperative about all these emendations, which were too numerous and unimportant to record. Writing to Sister ThĂ©rèse about these cuts—and if it were not for her scholarly interest in the matter, I would have been unable to throw much light on the editing since I kept no notes— Merton told her: “Really, the Mountain did need to be cut. The length was impossible….The editor at Harcourt was, is, my old friend Bob Giroux who comes into the book for a line somewhere. He did a very good job….I am perfectly satisfied to see anything go out of a book….When you hear your words read aloud in a refectory, it makes you wish you had never written a word. Fortunately, the Mountain was not read here. I would never have had the virtue to face such an ordeal!”

One irony is that I persuaded Merton to add five-and-one-half printed pages to the text. I had sent an advance galley proof to my friend, Professor Francis X. Connolly of Fordham University, who liked the book enormously. Merton had just published an article in Commonweal about America discovering the contemplative life, and Dr. Connolly thought this would fill one of the gaps in the book—the relevance of Merton’s vocation to the modern world. Merton agreed, and it occupies pages 414-19.

This interpolation also occupies the same number of pages in the London edition of The Seven Storey Mountain, which was edited by no less a light than Evelyn Waugh. I had sent him galley proofs, hoping for a quote but not really expecting one, and he wrote at once: “I regard this as a book which may well prove to be of permanent interest in the history of religious experience. No one can afford to neglect this clear account of a complex religious process.” (I had also sent galleys to Graham Greene, Clare Boothe Luce and Fulton Sheen, all of whom responded in equally superlative terms. It was at this point that Harcourt, Brace increased the first printing from 5,000 copies to 12,500.)

If Sister Thérèse felt that my editing was too severe— and I’m afraid she did—I wonder what she thought of Evelyn Waugh’s. To begin with, he changed the title, the image of the mountain of purgatory in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which Merton considered “literally and physically accurate” for his book. Waugh found an English source in Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “Elected silence, sing to me/And beat upon my whorlèd ear,” and his edition was brought out by Hollis and Carter in 1949 under the title, Elected Silence. In his preface, Waugh stated, “Nothing has been cut out except certain passages which seemed to be of purely local interest.” For example, following Merton’s moving account of the wartime death of his only brother Paul, whose bomber crashed in the North Sea, I ran Merton’s fine elegy in verse. Waugh threw it out. But surely it has more than local (by which Waugh of course meant American) interest. He also cut out parts of the Columbia College section, including Merton’s account of our first meeting at the Columbia Review. The English edition comes to 375 printed pages, 50 less than the American, a reduction of nearly 10 percent.

When I met Waugh in New York, on his way to Hollywood and later to Gethsemani, he told me how thoroughly he had edited Merton’s text. “Yes,” I agreed, “you edited me out of it.” “Really? I never noticed that,” he replied. At one point he described J. F. Powers, whose work he admired, as “a Southern writer.” When I said “Midwestern writer” would be more correct, he said he regarded Illinois as a Southern state. I was also amused by Merton’s report of Waugh’s visit to the monastery. He told Tom he found Hollywood dull; he had expected to find glamour and jewels and parades of elephants but found only businessmen doing business. He said the only real entertainment in Hollywood was at the Forest Lawn Cemetery, which he visited every day. He did not send Merton a copy of The Loved One because “it is not proper material for your refectory.”…

Sister Therese was a nun living in Milwaukee to whom Merton entrusted management of the details of the book’s editing and publication. Apparently he did not have an agent, so she appears to have fulfilled some of the functions an agent would have performed. Waugh met her in person later in the following year when he lectured to the students at Marquette University. For the record, J F Powers, a young Roman Catholic writer with whom Waugh also met on his 1949 North American lecture tour, was living in St Paul, Minnesota, not Illinois, when Waugh met him there. Try as one might, one cannot think of Minnesota as a “Southern” state.




This entry was posted in Catholicism, Newspapers and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.