Jim Martin dug up this gem, in his remembrance of the great publisher and editor, Robert Giroux, who died last week. Giroux was a good friend of Thomas Merton’s when the two were at Columbia just before World War II.
This comes from Giroux’s introduction to the most recent edition of The Seven Storey Mountain:
“When I was working at Harcourt Brace & Company as a junior editor, I was asked to evaluate a novel by Thomas James Merton, submitted by Naomi Burton of the Curtis Brown literary agency. The hero of ”The Straits of Dover” was a Cambridge student who transfers to Columbia and gets involved with a stupid millionaire, a showgirl, a Hindu mystic and a left-winger in Greenwich Village. I agreed with the other editors that the author had talent but the story wobbled and got nowhere. Merton was an interesting writer but apparently not a novelist.
Then, in May or June 1941, I encountered Tom in Scribner’s bookstore on Fifth Avenue. I had been browsing and felt someone touch my arm. It was Merton. ”Tom!” I said. ”It’s great to see you. I hope you’re still writing.” He said, ”Well, I’ve just been to The New Yorker and they want me to write about Gethsemani.” I had no idea what this meant and said so. ”Oh, it’s a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, where I’ve been making retreats.” This revelation stunned me. I had had no idea that Merton had undergone a religious conversion or that he was interested in monasticism. ”Well, I hope to read what you write about it,” I said. ”It will be something different for The New Yorker.” ”Oh, no,” he said, ”I would never think of writing about it.” That told me a great deal. I now understood the extraordinary change that had occurred in Merton.”