Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Letters of Thomas Merton and Victor and Carolyn Hammer

We are no longer a letter writing society. A Facebook friend was lamenting that just the other day as she plotted to start her own letter writing club. At the holidays, my mother-in-law mourned the loss of handwritten letters from one side of her family. Since the matriarch had passed on,  no one who would take up the role of family scribe. E-mails, texts, Skype, and all manner of social media connect us instantly with those we know across the miles and oceans.

Alice Walker knew the power of the letter when she created her epistolary novel, The Color Purple, in which an isolated protagonist, Celie. catalogues her unspeakable tragedies through letters to God.  In Soldier, Come Home, playwright Frank Wicks uses his ancestors' letters from the Civil War to teleport audiences into the sacrifices of real soldiers and families.  In December of 2014, two academics, F. Douglas Scutchfield and Paul Evans Holbrook, Jr. brought us a collection of letters between spiritual icon, Thomas Merton, and an extraordinary couple who printed many of his writings through their small press in Lexington,KY, Victor and Carolyn Hammer. I found the trio's letters a compelling read, offering a glimpse into the lives of those working for "the greater glory."

The collection from University Press of Kentucky entitled The Letters of Thomas Merton and Victor and Carolyn Hammer: Ad Majorem Dei Glorium is fully academic in its presentation of the letters, complete with explanatory endnotes and several appendices of supporting documents and bibliography.  For the Merton scholar, these conventions could serve as a springboard to further work on the poet, social justice advocate and theologian. But for the reader who just wants to know the hearts and minds of those engaged in a calling, the letters speak eloquently for themselves.

Scutchfield and Holbrook categorize the topics of the letters in an afterword as "art and spirituality, the collaborative publications, Merton's reading list, and mutual friends."  Victor Hammer and Thomas Merton open their correspondence by discussing at length the differences between classic and modern art. Hammer, a painter and master artisan of many crafts, also excelled at printing, bookbinding, calligraphy and typography, creating several uncial typefaces. When they discuss some of the illustrations that might accompany Merton's writing, both men reveal their ideas about how the sacred should be rendered. Hammer holds that only classical concepts can truly glorify, while Merton asserts that sometimes the poverty of line and space can suggest and serve. Their subsequent letters echo this discussion throughout the book, sometimes becoming quite humorous. At one point, Hammer begrudgingly calls Picasso, "an interesting experimenter."  And Merton responds to a picture of St. Notburga that Hammer sends him with these comments:

"I like her intelligent and alert expression(even though I think the most pure tradition of sacred art demands that the saint look a bit gaga and withdrawn) and find it very edifying."

Carolyn Hammer, curator of rare books at the University of Kentucky Library during most of the correspondence, located books for Merton's research and teaching. Most of the letters from Merton include a list of the books he was seeking at the time.  Sometimes the list reflects his immediate need--books on South American cultures to help him better understand the novitiates in his charge. Sometimes the book requests were solely to inform his writings and teachings on theology, philosophy, or poetry.  I found the book lists fascinating in themselves for their far-reaching scope of interests spanning such topics as ancient clerics, modern politics and philosophy, recent history, William Faulkner, W.H Auden, Shakertown, and the Tao of Painting. 

The letters also focus on the collaborations between the Hammers and Merton. Among the most interesting are the discussions of Hammer's painting Hagia Sophia Crowning the Young Christ, a pedestal triptych tempera on gold-ground panel.  Merton discusses the feminine nature of God in his letters to Hammer about the painting. Eventually, Merton and Hammer collaborate to publish Merton's meditative poem entitled Hagia Sophia(which translates to "divine wisdom.") Scutchfield and Holbrook include photographs of Hammer's work in their mid-book graphics.

Many of the people the Hammers and Merton knew in common were writers, publishers, and musicians.  For example, The Hammers introduced Merton to John Jacob Niles with whom he later collaborated. In the letters there are several mentions of Niles performing in Lexington and even of poet, Denise Levertov. While the Hammers frequently visited Merton at Gethsemani Abbey for picnic discussions, Merton was limited in his travels to Lexington unless on official Abbey business or for medical appointments. But the letters emphasize how much he valued being able to meet with the Hammers in person. Almost every exchange includes planning for future visits to continue discussions of their favorite topics, art and spirituality for the greater glory

Over time, it is still the letter that acts as primary source for so many historians, biographers, novelists, and playwrights.  There is a built-in sense of dramatic tension to a carefully presented set of letters between real people, or even imagined characters, that makes for captivating reading. The point of view is first-person, intimate, and often very revealing of the letter-writer's ghosts and obsessions. I value The Letters of Thomas Merton and Victor and Carolyn Hammer: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam for the witness this collection bears creativity, intellect and growing friendship among those who collaborate to serve something bigger than themselves.

***This review originally ran in an edited version(for time) on AROUND CINCINNATI, on January 16, 2015.***
You can listen to the review as it aired at this link: Listen to the review

No comments: