success stories

Thomas Merton
Part II

The Hypnotic Charm in his Writings:
Lessons on Writing We Can All Profit By

by Dennis McInerny

When we attempt to explain Merton's popularity as a writer, it is well not to neglect the element of style. Merton was widely read in great part because of the simple fact that it is a pleasure to read him. . . .

Merton's writing style does not call attention to itself. It leads immediately into the heart of the author's message.

Therein lies the key to the effectiveness, even brilliance, of Merton's style: it does not call attention to itself. When one reads someone like Henry James, or to a lesser degree, Waugh, one often finds it difficult to grasp the "what" is being said for the "how" it is being said. In other words, style in these authors very much makes it presence felt; it often distracts, and sometimes it even obstructs. The perfect style would be one in which meaning and expression are so masterfully blended that the reader is virtually unconscious of the difference between the two. I will not say that Merton possessed a perfect style, but I will say that he was able to write in such a way that primary importance was always given to the "What" was being said.

Specifically, there were three characteristics which marked his style: it was concrete; it was conversational; and it contained a healthy amount of humor. For most of his life Merton maintained a theoretical antipathy towards abstraction, the obsession for which he regarded as the cause of much of the world's ills. Saturation bombing of civilian populations, for example, can only be carried out, he concluded, when people in those cities are no longer looked upon as human beings, but simply as abstractions the enemy, the Japs, or 57,123. If given the choice, one should always prefer the concrete over the abstract because by adhering to the concrete one stands in less danger of losing hold of one's humanity; and this is applicable to style as to anything else. His preference for the concrete was manifested practically in his own style. His vocabulary was precise and down to earth, well calculated to get the idea across to the reader as directly and unambiguously as possible. Even when he was writing about difficult and highly complex subjects, he consistently used the simplest, clearest words he could find.

One never gets the impression in reading Merton of being talked down to. There is nothing stodgy or forbiddingly formal about his writing. It consistently displays the relaxed immediacy of the conversation. To sustain this conversational tone is no mean feat, and yet it is common to most of his books, even those like "The Ascent to Truth, which have a fairly formal object in mind. It is this more than anything else which makes his books easy to read, which lends their style its effortless flow. This and the abiding sense of humor which one finds throughout Merton. His ability to see first what was funny about himself which made him so quick to detect the humor in the world about him. His sense of humor was not overt not guffawing and back-slapping, so to speak but rather Celtic and sly. Through it he draws the reader deftly to himself, for there is no easier and more effective way of winning confidence and breaking down barriers than eliciting a smile or a chuckle. Humor is perhaps the most reliable sign of humanness. But he also used his sense of humor as a means of emphasizing a point, sometimes a very serious point. This is a quite effective literary device, as proven by a novel like Joseph Heller's Catch 22. Laughing calls our attention to things we may have been oblivious of, and we begin to notice them, and think about them, in ways we had not done before.

In sum, Merton's prose style was a very accurate reflection of the man behind it honest, straightforward, unquestionably sincere.