Thomas Merton (1915-1968) is widely considered the most important Christian writer of the twentieth century. He was born in Prades, France on January 31, 1915 to his New Zealand born father, Owen Merton, and American born mother, Ruth Jenkins. He lived in America, France and England in his early years but finally settled in America to stay when he was 20 years of age. Here he attended Columbia University where he received his B.A and M.A and finally converted to Catholicism in 1938. In 1941 he entered the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani in Kentucky and began what has become the most influential and well known monastic life that the church has yet seen.
Merton is the author of more than seventy books. He wrote poetry, personal journals, collections of letters, social criticism and wrote on peace, justice and ecumenism. He was a monk by vocation, yes, but he was also a respected writer. He wrote eloquently and forcefully, and his words have remained contemporary even today. It is rare that one speaks of the masters of spiritual experience and does not include Merton in the conversation.
Creating the Merton Artifacts collection began for me soon after I began reading his books. I quickly discovered how incredibly prolific Merton was as a writer and how widely published he was – many publishers, numerous languages, offprints, mimeographs, limited editions, periodicals, and pamphlets. It was a wonderful experience to be introduced by Merton not only to the substance of his writing but also the beauty of book-making. He worked with important private presses and had relationships with publishers who were to become legends in the field. From early on he was involved in the making of specially crafted limited edition books. His Seeds of Contemplation (1949) limited edition was released in a special buckram cloth and housed in a slip case in an edition of only 100 – truly a work of art in both substance and appearance (see the Limited Editions category). Book publishers, at least, knew early on that Merton was an important asset and that his works would stand the test of time.
Merton’s best selling book was his autobiography titled, The Seven Storey Mountain, which would quickly become one of the most important spiritual biographies of all time. It began,
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…
and soon captured a generation of readers searching for meaning and spiritual healing in a society still recovering from a world war. It has sold multiple million copies since its release in 1948 and continues to be in print today.
There are numerous interesting editions of Seven Storey Mountain but the true first edition is most elusive. This first edition actually was split between a white cloth and black cloth edition and has one particular distinction. It has a caption written beside the second photo on the back of the dust jacket which reads, “Trappists at work in the fields (The author is second from the left)”, and which was later changed to “Trappists at work in the fields (author on the left)” in subsequent editions (see the Seven Storey Mountain category). Details like this made for rich adventures in the beginnings of the Merton Artifacts collection. These were differences that few would know of but would be important for the Merton Artifacts collection as I sought to preserve the original true first edition Merton material. As my search for first editions continued I also learned of the importance that condition had on a books value, so I became only interested in items in pristine condition – as near to the store-bought condition as possible. In this way the actual essence of Merton’s published vision could be captured as it was intended to be when first released.
James Laughlin, publisher of New Directions Publishing Company, published Merton’s first book in 1944 titled Thirty Poems. It was published as part of the Poet of the Month series that Laughlin had begun in 1941. This poetry series was unique in that there had never before been a series of poetry pamphlets issued monthly on an annual subscription basis – and each being the work of a different fine press and each specially designed by a master printer. One of the unique and rarely known qualities of this series is that each year’s series was accompanied by a slipcase to house that year’s editions. In all there were 3 years of 12 issues, each with a slipcase, and a 4th year (Merton’s year) with 6 issues with its accompanying slipcase. The Merton Artifacts collection now houses the full series with slipcases in near fine condition – a perfect bookend beginning for a collection of Merton’s writing (see the Merton’s Poetry Books category).
Many unique items follow this beginning. I have had particular interest in inserting certain series of works into the Merton Artifacts collection. There is the “Collected Edition” series published by the British Publisher Burns and Oates in the 50’s and 60’s. The Merton Artifacts collection now houses what is likely the most complete set of these titles known to exist, 9 in all (in near fine condition) – a few of which have not been mentioned in previous bibliographic references (see the Collected Edition category).
…there is also the Irish Clonmore and Reynolds published series of Merton. There are now 11 in this series housed in the Merton Artifacts collection, with a few also having been missed by bibliographers (see the Clonmore and Reynolds
…and then there is the Stamperia Del Santuccio series where renowned publisher Victor Hammer collaborated with Merton in the creation of a series of what could aptly be called “masterpieces”. The most highly sought after piece from this series is titled Hagia Sophia, a poem written by Merton.
There are now 3 editions of Hagia Sophia in the Merton Artifacts collection – one being from the original 1962 limited edition of 69 in a dust jacket; the second being from the same edition but issued as a presentation copy of some sort with an unusual woven cloth binding and no jacket; and, the third as part of the 1978 limited edition of 50 copies which was published after Victor Hammer’s death by his wife Carolyn. Here she used the originally discarded pages printed by her husband in 1961 for the 1962 edition of the book, but which were later discarded and the print re-set due to the incompletion of an engraving of “Hagia Sophia and the Young Christ” that Hammer was working on. The entire Stamperia series is simply stunning and remains a favorite of book admirers worldwide (see the Stamperia Del Santuccio category). The important thing about the series is that titles like these can seldom be found now, but if they are located, they remain as individual items in various scattered collections. The Merton Artifacts collection has gathered these items into one place to be preserved and displayed as a unit.
After discussion of the first editions by Merton there begins a host of other discussions, from mimeographs (Merton’s mythically scarce private printing of many works that he was often not permitted to publish – approximately 90 of these are part of the Merton Artifacts collection, including scarcities such as Cold War Letters, 1963, Peace in the Post Christian Era, 1962, and the unpublished Notes on Art and Worship – see the Mimeographs and Offprints category);
…to original correspondences (including personal letters by Merton to friends and colleagues – beginning with 2 letters written in 1936 while Merton attended Columbia – see the Original Correspondence category);
…to signed items by Merton (over 45 in all – see the Signed Items by Merton category);
…to uncorrected proof editions (among the largest collection know to exist – see the Proof and Review Copies category);
…to foreign language editions (including a comprehensive collection of foreign language editions of Merton’s renowned Seven Story Mountain – see the Foreign Language Editions category);
…to the highly sought after limited editions of Merton writing (over 95 in all, including 3 copies of the stunning portfolio edition of Merton’s poem Landscape, Prophet and Wild-dog published in 1968 by Black Bird Press. This item remains the smallest edition number of any published Merton item, a total edition of 25 copies were printed and remains one of my personal favorite pieces in the collection – see the Limited Editions category);
…to original artwork by Merton (including an original ink drawing by Merton from 1967 – see the Artwork category);
…to periodicals containing Merton content (100’s of these are part of Merton Artifacts and are individually protected in acid-free sleeves for preservation – see the Periodicals category);
…to contributions Merton made while a student at Columbia University to it’s university magazines (including the Jester Magazine, and also Merton’s editorial debut as co-editor of The Columbian Yearbook – see the Columbia Jester/Review category); and,
…to a category containing items by Merton’s family and friends (including, for example, a few high school magazine articles and dozens of hand-written letters by Merton’s close friend Robert Lax; a large file of photographs and documentation on Merton’s brother John Paul; a collection of signed books by Henri Nouwen/Jean Vanier/Catherine Doherty; and magazine articles written by Merton’s mother from 1921 – see the Family/Friends category).
In short, the Merton Artifacts collection is, to my knowledge, the most comprehensive private collection of Merton’s work in existence. There over 2600 items catalogued including numerous items which will likely never again be made available. It is one-of-a-kind and a true commemoration to an author and monk whose words have touched millions of lives and whose effect continues to grow in a world in deep need of the spiritual substance his writing offers.
For further inquiries regarding this collection, feel free to contact me directly by email or by phone. Personal visits to view or research the collection are available by appointment.
– Albert Romkema