The following is an excerpt from Bill Morgan‘s forthcoming book, Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and the Protection of All Beings.
One afternoon while Lawrence Ferlinghetti and I were lingering over lunch at the old U.S. Restaurant on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco’s North Beach, we found ourselves talking about Thomas Merton. The U.S. was one of Lawrence’s favorite restaurants and every time we stopped there he told me the same story – that the U.S. didn’t stand for the United States, but instead stood for “Unione Sportiva,” a group of Italian sports teams that once thrived in that old Italian neighborhood of San Francisco. How the conversation turned towards writers and Thomas Merton in particular I’ll never be able to remember, but it did. Ferlinghetti told me that he had known Merton and that when “Father Louis” (as he was known within the church community) had flown to Asia on what was to be his final trip, he had stayed overnight at the City Lights apartment. “I took him to the airport and that was the last anyone ever saw of him,” Lawrence said, referring to the fact that Merton had died accidentally in Thailand of a fatal electrical shock not long afterwards.
Lawrence’s memory wasn’t exactly accurate, or more likely he wasn’t allowing the facts to get in the way of a good story. His version was more dramatic than the actual story, but it intrigued me at the time and I asked him about his relationship with Merton several times over the following years. I could tell that Ferlinghetti admired Merton as both a writer and as a man and it was always interesting to discover who Lawrence’s heroes were.
Decades later, I still found myself thinking about their relationship and how odd it seemed to me that these two men had become friends. Amid the Covid-19 pandemic in early 2021, I broached the subject of writing a book on the friendship between Merton and Ferlinghetti with Nancy Peters, Lawrence’s closest friend, business partner, and confidante. Nancy was the one person who Ferlinghetti always deferred to on editorial matters during the fifty years I had known him. At the time, Lawrence was bedridden and could barely see, so I wanted to check with her before I said anything to him on the phone. Soon after I wrote to her, she spoke with Ferlinghetti and asked him what he thought about the idea. He replied that it seemed “Wonderful.” Sadly, he passed away a few weeks later – just before his 102nd birthday – and I never had a chance to talk to him again. I felt that through his single word, he had given me the approval I needed to pursue the topic.
Initially, I believed that there was little in common between the two men. True, they were both poets and writers, but one had lived a monastic life for more than twenty-five years and died at a relatively young age, while the other had described himself as an anarchist and an international gadfly who lived to be more than a hundred. Ferlinghetti delighted in intentionally provoking the establishment by criticizing and challenging nearly every existing convention in America. By contrast, Merton always endeavored to obey the dictates of his Trappist superiors and strove to adhere to orthodox Catholic doctrine as strictly as he could. As I became more involved in my research, I came to understand that these outward differences belied underlying similarities.
Ferlinghetti first heard of Thomas Merton when the monk’s book, The Seven Storey Mountain, became an unexpected best seller late in 1948. When the book first came out, no one, except maybe his editor, Robert Giroux, expected it to stay on the best sellers list for years, sell more than a million copies, and be proclaimed as one of the greatest books of the century. Who would imagine that an autobiography of a thirty-one-year-old, cloistered Trappist monk could have any impact on the world? Surprisingly, at that same time in the late forties, Lawrence recalled that he was reading St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and a lot of Catholic literature. He had just returned to America from France, where on one occasion he had visited the Benedictines at the Solesmes Abbey and had become particularly interested in Trappist discipline and their way of life. “[Merton] was probably the first modern Catholic writer that I had ever read… I identified with him quite strongly,” Lawrence told film-maker Paul Wilkes in an interview.
Both Merton and Ferlinghetti had roots deep in France. Thomas Merton had been born there in 1915, making him just a few years older than Lawrence. Although Lawrence had been born in Yonkers in 1919, he had been taken to France as a baby and raised there by his aunt. He learned to speak French before English, one of many things the two writers had in common. Ferlinghetti’s father died before Lawrence was born and his mother was committed to a sanitarium shortly after his birth. Merton’s mother died when he was six years old and his father passed away in 1931, just before Thomas’ sixteenth birthday. As a result, both boys had been essentially orphaned and were shuffled from place to place, each growing up with no real sense of security or roots. In the introduction to Thomas Merton and James Laughlin: Selected Letters, editor David D. Cooper points out that as a boy Merton was a ward and an “object of charitable concern.” Those same words could easily describe Ferlinghetti. After returning to the United States as a young boy, Lawrence was abandoned by his aunt on the doorstep of a wealthy family who raised him as a charity case. While growing up, both boys had their share of run-ins. A friend recently reported that his mother had known Merton in college and was quick to mention that “he was no saint.” Ferlinghetti was no saint either, and one of his favorite stories was that he had been arrested for shoplifting the same week he was made an Eagle Scout.
After spending an unproductive year at Clare College in Cambridge, Merton relocated to New York City and enrolled at Columbia College in the winter of 1935. By coincidence, Ferlinghetti would also attend Columbia but not before finishing his undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina. After his World War II service in the Navy, Lawrence was discharged and attended Columbia on the GI Bill, where he earned his master’s degree in English literature in 1947, enabling him to continue his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, graduating with a PhD in 1950. There he began to study Catholicism. In an interview with Barry Silesky, his biographer, Ferlinghetti stated that “If you live in Paris, you can become completely entranced by the aesthetic of the Gothic, the aesthetic of Catholicism…” He went on to say that “The whole aesthetic of the Gothic church has a very powerful effect, even if you’re not interested in theology. The Catholics weren’t dumb when they used incense and the Latin mass and organ music. It’s like an ancient magic. You can become completely wrapped up in the aesthetic without being persuaded by the theology of it at all.” He made friends with a Jesuit priest and they had frequent, often heated discussions about Catholic doctrine. For Ferlinghetti, it was a period of great discovery and intellectual stimulation.
By the time Ferlinghetti entered the Sorbonne in the late forties, Merton had already finished his academic work. He had earned his degree from Columbia in English literature and had begun graduate work focusing on the poetry of William Blake. In 1938, a friend, Dr. Bramachari, had suggested to Merton that he read The Confessions of St. Augustine and this combined with his Blake studies helped fuel an interest in a spiritual life and in Roman Catholicism in particular. In The Seven Storey Mountain, Merton explained the importance of his Blake studies in his decision to become a monk:
The Providence of God was eventually to use Blake to awaken something of faith and love in my own soul – in spite of all the misleading notions, and all the almost infinite possibilities of error that underlie his weird and violent figures. I do not, therefore, want to seem to canonize him. But I have to acknowledge my own debt to him, and the truth which may appear curious to some, although it is really not so: that through Blake I would one day come, in a round-about way, to the only true Church, and to the One Living God, through His Son, Jesus Christ.
The following year, Merton decided to join the Franciscans, but he felt he didn’t quite fit into the Franciscan world and so, after teaching for a year at St. Bonaventure University, he turned to the Trappists instead. In 1941, a few days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, where he remained until his death. By contrast, a few months earlier, Ferlinghetti had enlisted in the Navy, where he was to spend the duration of the war, a period that was to dramatically shape his future worldview.