Autobiography to Autohagiography: Editing Thomas Merton
A summary of my undergraduate thesis: “Autobiography to Autohagiography: Editing Thomas Merton.”
Reed College, B.A., Religion, 2005.
During my senior year at Reed College, I researched the history of Thomas Merton’s best-selling autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. Working under the guidance of Professor Michael Foat, I discovered that the manuscripts to this famous book had not been studied, despite the acknowledgement that they were drastically different than what was eventually published. By comparing early manuscripts to the published text and reconstructing the editing process, I traced ascetic development of this famous American monk. At the end of school year, I received the prestigious Class of ‘21 award for my thesis. The Class of ‘21 award recognizes “ creative work of notable character, involving an unusual degree of initiative and spontaneity.” As of this moment, I am still revising this work for publication. I have found another manuscript to incorporate into the story and there is some interest from a publishing company to release the final edited version.
This thesis is about the close relationship between a man, his book, and his life. In 1949, Thomas Merton published his autobiography,The Seven Storey Mountain, at the age of thirty-four. The story of his birth, in January 1915 into a Protestant family, to his simple vows of monastic profession in December 1944, the Mountain became one of the most popular spiritual autobiographies of the 20th century, because Merton gave a voice to the problems and fears of his generation. However, the life published in the Mountain was not Merton’s original conception of his life story. This thesis is an exploration into one of the early manuscripts of this popular autobiography and how this early autobiographical account affects our view of the later published edition. My first chapter focuses on and details the period in which Merton wrote and edited his autobiography. My second chapter, then specifically looks at one early manuscript to see Merton’s original conception of his life story and the identity constructed in this text, in opposition to the published text. Finally, my third chapter seeks to connect and account for the different identities constructed by, presumably the same author, Thomas Merton.
After Merton finished writing the Mountain in 1946, he began to rewrite various sections of the text and his secular editors and Cistercian censors deleted almost two hundred pages from the manuscript. The revisions removed Merton’s individuality and personal truth from his autobiography, to the extent that the identity in the published text was no longer personally specific to Merton, but rather had dissipated into an empty identity of Cistercian sanctity. The manuscript highlights the hagiographical nature of the published text because the published version uses common ascetic textual strategies that seek to inspire the reader and show the divine presence. In this way the published Seven Storey Mountain is no longer an autobiography, like the manuscript, but it is also not a hagiography because of the narrative’s focus on the individual. Rather, I propose that The Seven Storey Mountain is an autohagiography, a saint’s life written by the saint himself. This approach allows the reader to see the larger set of forces within the text, which otherwise would not be readily available from either the autobiographical or sacred hagiographical genre expectations.