The Seven Storey Mountain
|Publisher||Harcourt Brace (1948)|
|October 11, 1948|
|Followed by||Seeds of Contemplation (1949) |
The Seven Storey Mountain is the 1948 autobiography of Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and a noted author of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Merton finished the book in 1946 at the age of 31, five years after entering Gethsemani Abbey near Bardstown, Kentucky. The title refers to the mountain of Purgatory in Dante's The Divine Comedy.
The Seven Storey Mountain was published in 1948 and was surprisingly successful. The first printing was planned for 7,500 copies, but pre-publication sales exceeded 20,000. By May 1949, 100,000 copies were in print and, according to Time magazine, it was among the best-selling non-fiction books in the country for the year 1949. The original hardcover edition eventually sold over 600,000 copies, and paperback sales exceed three million by 1984. The book has remained continuously in print, and has been translated into more than fifteen languages. The 50th-anniversary edition published in 1998 by Harvest Books, included an introduction by Merton's editor, Robert Giroux, and a note by biographer and Thomas Merton Society founder, William Shannon.
Apart from being on the National Review's list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century, it was also mentioned in 100 Christian Books That Changed the Century (2000) by William J. Petersen.
Writing and publication
In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton reflects on his early life and on the quest for faith in God that led to his conversion to Roman Catholicism at age 23. Upon his conversion, Merton left a promising literary career, resigned his position as a teacher of English literature at St. Bonaventure's College in Olean, New York, and entered The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky. Describing his entry, Merton writes, "Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me, and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom." Later, Dom Frederic Dunne, the abbot at the Abbey, who had received him as a novice, suggested that Merton write out his life story, which he reluctantly began, but once he did, it started "pouring out". Soon he was filling up his journals with the work that led to the book which Time magazine later described as having "...redefined the image of monasticism and made the concept of saintliness accessible to moderns."
In Merton's journals, the first entry mentioning the project is dated March 1, 1946, but many scholars think he started writing it earlier than that, because the draft (more than 600 pages) reached his agent Naomi Burton Stone by October 21, 1946.
In late 1946, the partly approved text of The Seven Storey Mountain was sent to Naomi Burton, his agent at Curtis Brown literary agency, who then forwarded it to the renowned book editor Robert Giroux at Harcourt Brace publishers. Giroux read it overnight, and the next day phoned Naomi with an offer, who accepted it on the monastery's behalf. With Merton having taken a vow of poverty, all the royalties were to go to the Abbey community. Soon a trouble arose, though, when an elderly censor from another abbey objected to Merton's colloquial prose style, which he found inappropriate for a monk. Merton appealed (in French) to the Abbot General in France, who concluded that an author's style was a personal matter, and subsequently the local censor also reversed his opinion, paving the way for the book's publication.
Edward Rice, a friend of Merton's, suggests a different story behind the censorship issues. Rice believes the censor's comments did have an effect on the book. The censors were not primarily concerned with Merton's prose style, but rather the content of his thoughts in the autobiography. It was "too frank" for the public to handle. What was published was a "castrated" version of the original manuscript. At the time Rice published his opinion, he was unable to provide any proof; however, since then early drafts of the autobiography have surfaced and prove that parts of the manuscript were either deleted or changed. In the introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of the autobiography, Giroux acknowledges these changes and provides the original first paragraph of Merton's autobiography. Originally, it began "When a man is conceived, when a human nature comes into being as an individual, concrete, subsisting thing, a life, a person, then God's image is minted into the world. A free, vital, self-moving entity, a spirit informing flesh, a complex of energies ready to be set into fruitful motion begins to flame with love, without which no spirit can exist..." The published autobiography begins with "On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French Mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world."
In the summer of 1948, advance proofs were sent to Evelyn Waugh, Clare Boothe Luce, Graham Greene and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who responded with compliments and quotations which were used on the book jacket and in some advertisements. The first printing run was increased from 5,000 to 12,500. Thus the book was out in October 1948, and by December it had sold 31,028 copies and was declared a bestseller by Time magazine. The New York Times, however, initially refused to put it on the weekly Best Sellers list, on the grounds that it was "a religious book". In response, Harcourt Brace placed a large advertisement in The New York Times calling attention to the newspaper's decision. The following week, The Seven Storey Mountain appeared on the bestsellers list, where it remained for almost a year.
Comparison with Augustine of Hippo
In The Seven Storey Mountain Merton seems to be struggling to answer a spiritual call; the worldly influences of his earlier years have been compared with the story of Augustine of Hippo's conversion as described in his Confessions. Many of Merton's early reviewers have made explicit comparisons. For example, Fulton J. Sheen called it an "A Twentieth Century form of The Confessions of St. Augustine."
The Seven Storey Mountain is said to have resonated within a society longing for renewed personal meaning and direction in the aftermath of a long, bloody war (World War II), and at a time when global annihilation was increasingly imaginable due to the development of atomic bombs and even more powerful thermonuclear weapons. The book has served as a powerful recruitment tool for the priestly life in general, and for the monastic orders in particular. In the 1950s, Gethsemani Abbey and the other Trappist monasteries experienced a surge in young men presenting themselves for the cenobitic life. It is a well-known bit of Catholic lore that, after the book's publication, many priests entered monasteries or seminaries with a copy in their suitcase.
One printing bears this accolade on the cover, from Graham Greene: "It is a rare pleasure to read an autobiography with a pattern and meaning valid for us all. The Seven Storey Mountain is a book one reads with a pencil so as to make it one's own." Evelyn Waugh also greatly (although not uncritically) admired the book and its author. He admired the book so much, he edited the autobiography for a British audience and published it as Elected Silence.
The Seven Storey Mountain has been credited as being the first major Catholic book to achieve widespread popularity in America, breaking the liberal Protestant monopoly on middlebrow spirituality and helping to spread the notion of the "Judeo-Christian tradition."
Later life and criticism
Some activists and ecumenical thinkers within the Roman Catholic Church were dismayed by what they perceived as the pietistic, condescending tones used in The Seven Storey Mountain to refer to non-Trappist religious communities within the Catholic faith, and to non-Catholic forms of Christianity in general. The Roman Church later stepped away from these attitudes during the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Merton, however, had been continuously expanding and maturing his spiritual perspectives, and soon realized the irony of the public's continuing interest in the figure that he presented in The Seven Storey Mountain. In The Sign of Jonas, published in 1953, Merton says that “The Seven Storey Mountain is the work of a man I have never even heard of.” More reflectively, Merton penned an introduction to a 1966 Japanese edition of The Seven Storey Mountain saying "Perhaps if I were to attempt this book today, it would be written differently. Who knows? But it was written when I was still quite young, and that is the way it remains. The story no longer belongs to me...." 
Thomas Merton died in 1968 of accidental electrocution while attending an international monasticism conference in Bangkok, Thailand. Various writers have noted the irony of his life’s tragic conclusion, given that The Seven Storey Mountain closes by admonishing the reader to “learn to know the Christ of the burnt men” (see, e.g., The Man in The Sycamore Tree, 1979). The Seven Storey Mountain propelled Thomas Merton into a life of paradoxes: a man who left an urban intellectual career for a labor-oriented rural existence, only to be led back into the realm of international opinion and debate; a man who spurned the literary world for the anonymity of cenobitic life in a Trappist monastery, only to become a world-famous author; and a man who professed his devotion to remain fixed in the confines of a monastic cell, only to fulfill an urge to travel throughout Asia.
Best books lists
The Seven Storey Mountain has been extensively praised in lists of the best books of the 20th century. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has it on their list of the 50 best books of the century and it was at Number 75 on the National Review's list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century.
- The Seven Storey Mountain, 1948, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1998 50th anniversary edition: ISBN 0-15-100413-7 (hardcover), ISBN 0-15-601086-0 (paperback), ISBN 0-8027-2497-3 (large print), ISBN 1-59777-114-7 (audio CD, abridged), ISBN 5-553-67284-8 (audio cassette tape) (All Libraries)
- "Religion: The Mountain". Time. April 11, 1949.
- "FICTION: 1949 BESTSELLERS: Non Fiction". Time. December 19, 1949.
- College Walk Columbia University Magazine
- "Religion: Merton's Mountainous Legacy". Time. Dec 31, 1984.
- Petersen, William J.; Randy Petersen (2000). 100 Christian Books That Changed the Century. F.H. Revell. p. 78. ISBN 0-8007-5735-1.
- Merton, Thomas (1998). The Seven Storey Mountain. Harcourt Brace. p. 410. ISBN 0-15-100413-7.
- "Books: Silent Prophet". Time. November 3, 1980.
- "Religion: The Death of Two Extraordinary Christians". Time. December 20, 1968. pp. 3, 4.
- Cooper, David (1997). Thomas Merton and James Laughlin: Selected Letters. W.W. Norton & Company. p. 10.
- Mott, Michael (1984). Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton. Houghton Miflin Company. p. 226.
- Montaldo, Jonathan (1996). Entering the Silence. HarperSanFransico. p. 31.
- Burton, Naomi (1964). More than Sentinels. Doubleday & Company. p. 243.
- Rice, Edward (1985). The Man in the Sycamore Tree. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 55. ISBN 0-15-656960-4.
- Merton, Thomas (1998). The Seven Storey Mountain. Harcourt Brace. p. xiv. ISBN 0-15-100413-7.
- Merton, Thomas (1998). The Seven Storey Mountain. Harcourt Brace. p. 3. ISBN 0-15-100413-7.
- Robert Giroux (October 11, 1998). "Thomas Merton's Durable Mountain". The New York Times.
- "Advertisement for The Seven Storey Mountain". The New York Times. February 21, 1949.
- "Advertisement for The Seven Storey Mountain". The New York Times. April 11, 1949.
- Merton, Thomas (1949). Elected Silence. Hollis and Carter.
- Hedstrom, Matthew S. (2013). The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Merton, Thomas (1953). The Sign of Jonas. Harcourt, Brace and Company.
- Foster, Richard J.; Gayle D. Beebe (2009). Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion. InterVarsity Press. p. 334. ISBN 0-8308-3514-8.
- Rice, Edward (1953). The Man in The Sycamore Tree. Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich.
- 50 Best Books of the Twentieth Century
- National Review's list of the 100 best non-fiction books of the century National Review website
- Forest, James H. Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991
- Furlong, Monica. Merton: A Biography, Liguori, MO: Ligouri Publications, New Edition 1995.
- Hart, Patrick, Montaldo Jonathan (editors). The Intimate Merton. His Life from His Journals, San Francisco: Harper Collins 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005
- Merton, Thomas. Elected Silence, London: Hollis and Carter, 1949.
- Merton, Thomas. The Seven Storey Mountain, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1948.
- Merton, Thomas. The Sign of Jonas, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1953.
- Merton, Thomas. Ed. Jonathan Montaldo. Entering the Silence: The Journals of Thomas Merton, Volume Two, 1941-1952, Harper San Francisco, 1996.
- Mott, Michael. The Seven Mountains of Thomas Merton, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
- Neuhoff, Andrea. Making America's Monk: Editing The Seven Storey Mountain, University of California, Santa Barbara, 2010.
- Rice, Edward. The Man In The Sycamore Tree, San Diego: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1985.
- Shaw, Jeffrey M. Illusions of Freedom: Thomas Merton and Jacques Ellul on Technology and the Human Condition. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014.
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