On Exhibit: A Cloistered Figure on Display at Columbia

March 25, 2015
Thomas Merton manuscript in the outline of an angel

Thomas Merton's papers are now on display at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library.  

Thomas Merton (CC’38, MA’39) was a monk, mystic, best-selling author, poet, civil rights activist and photographer. These facets of his life and more are on display at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library in a show that celebrates the centennial of his birth and showcases Columbia’s collection of his papers and photographs.

While at Columbia, Merton wrote, he was “turned on like a pinball machine” to writers like St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine and others. Spurred by his studies in medieval philosophy, Merton, who was baptized in the Church of England, converted to Catholicism and became a Trappist monk. His best-selling book about that journey, The Seven Storey Mountain, written in 1948 and blurbed by no less a literary eminence than Evelyn Waugh, has never been out of print.

The library’s exhibit includes extensive correspondence between Merton and his mentor Mark Van Doren (PhD’20), manuscripts of essays and poems, as well as photographs he took in his later years with his Alpa-Reflex camera, which itself is in the exhibit. Of his time at Columbia, Merton wrote that it was "full of light and fresh air. There was a kind of genuine intellectual vitality."