Columbia Library columns (v.39(1989Nov-1990May))

(New York :  Friends of the Columbia Libraries.  )



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  v.39,no.1(1989:Nov): Page 18  

Poet to Teacher

Thomas Merton 's Letters
to Mark Van Doren


In the winter of 19 35, at the age of twenty, Thomas Merton
began his studies at Columbia University. Already a seasoned
traveler (born in France, raised in the United States, France,
England, and Bermuda), Merton had just completed his first year of
undergraduate studies at Clare College, Cambridge. Having lived
the life of a wastrel while at Cambridge, and on the advice of his
guardian, Tom Bennett, a London surgeon, Merton decided to
complete his education in the United States. One of the first courses
he took at Columbia was Mark Van Doren's "English Literature
from 1590 to 1797." The following academic year Merton found
himself by chance in Van Doren's year-long class on Shakespeare.
His experience of this class and his high regard for Van Doren are
recorded by Merton in his famous autobiography. The Seven Storey

Mark's balanced and sensitive and clear way of seeing things, at once
simple and yet capable of subtlety, being fundamentally scholastic,
through not necessarily and explieidy Christian, presented these
things in ways that made them live within us, and with a life that was
healthy and permanent and productive. [His class on Shakespeare
was one of the few things that could persuade me to get on the train
and go to Columbia at all.

One aspect of life at Columbia which united Merton and his friends
(Robert Lax, Bob Gibney, Bob Gerdy, Seymour Freedgood, and
Edward Rice) was their "common respect for [Van Doren's] sanity
and wisdom." For his part, Van Doren was impressed by Merton's
literary and intellectual abilities. The two men became friends
through their shared love of literature, as well as their integrity. In
1969 Van Doren presented his personal papers to the Rare Book

  v.39,no.1(1989:Nov): Page 18