Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, And The Protection Of All Beings – A Review

Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, And The Protection Of All Beings is a book by Bill Morgan soon to be released by BEATDOM BOOKS. While the book is rather short, about a 100 pages, it is one of those “pandemic projects” that creative people were taking on in 2020 and 2021.  We are all the wiser for the fascinating story of two men, from very different circles, both “yearning to discover a spiritual basis for life” and their correspondences while Ferlinghetti attempted to publish a journal for City Lights Books called  Journal for the Protection Of All Beings.

Thomas Merton had a best selling book The Seven Story Mountain which sold over a million copies.  After writing that book Merton went on to pursue spirituality in the Catholic tradition, eventually becoming a Trappist Monk in a monastery in Kentucky. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, on the other hand, was a founding partner in City Lights Books in San Francisco and wrote such classics as A Coney Island of the Mind. One would think that these two men would be very different, however they became pen-pals and had a lot of mutual respect for one another.  They both became bound by their pacifism and spiritualism and a searching for a deeper meaning to life.

Poets come out of your closets,
Open your windows, open you doors,
You have been holed up too long
in your closed worlds.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The concept behind Journal for the Protection Of All Beings was to have contemporary writers submit essays and poems to shed light on the current situation in the world. Of course, the existential threat at the time was the atomic bomb and the constant threat of nuclear war.  Thomas Merton had recently written a poem  Original Child Bomb, written in a sort of detached objective style which  called for pacifism. In the Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, And The Protection Of All Beings, there is much back and forth about including Original Child Bomb in the Journal for the Protection Of All Beings. Merton had to get all his published writings approved by the Catholic church which was often tentative about Merton being associated with the Beats. In the end, it was published in the journal along side a wide range of submissions. Such was the travails of publishing something from authors in different circles in 1961.

If you are visiting San Francisco, and want to get a sense of who the Beats were and a feeling for how San Francisco was in the 1950s and 60s Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, And The Protection Of All Beings is a great start. So often the Beats are seen only from the anarchistic, bleary-eyed, drug crazed, sometimes homosexual counter-culture lens, but they were of course much deeper. Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, And The Protection Of All Beings gives you a view into this world of people who were deep readers, writers and thinkers.

Merton underwent a similar type of visionary experience on a street corner in Louisville Kentucky. On March 18, 1958, as he was walking through the downtown shopping district, he stopped at the corner of Walnut and Fourth Streets, where he was “overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another though we were total strangers.” “If only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. They were all walking around shining like the sun,” he later explained. He saw that everyone was sacred, just as Ginsberg had declared that everyone was “holy.”
Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, And The Protection Of All Beings

Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg all looked upon industrialized civilization and hoped for its demise. They saw all humans as “sacred” or “holy.” Some went on a spiritual path through Catholicism others through Zen Buddhism. One opened a bookstore and lived to be over one hundred.

What is interesting to this reader is the idealism of those times. San Francisco was much more bohemian than it is today. There must have been a sense that publishing poems and short essays could actually do something to bring about world peace. Having Original Child Bomb in the journal would somehow aid in nuclear disarmament. Reading a poem could not only change one person but the entire planet. Poems and literature actually mattered. What rose-colored glasses!

What a different world that was and how the city of San Francisco has changed. You got a little sense of that idealism in the early days of the internet but that period is long gone. San Francisco is primarily about digital technology and now more often about libertarian get rich schemes, venture capital, startups and a sort of selfish individualism.  Automated driverless car technology and mining people’s personal data for profit. Individuals are no longer “sacred” or “holy” but a mass of data points. Surely, there is still a creative vibrancy, but the rents are high and the parking tickets and bridge tolls steep. Everyone needs a day job to make rent. There are surely no poets today in San Francisco that have the delusion that their poems are going to change the world. Sorry for the buzz-kill folks.

While reading Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, And The Protection Of All Beings I could not help but imagine a screenplay of this book. It could be  a low budget film with historic photos and videos of San Francisco. The notion that these two men, in very different places had such a deep literary and philosophical relationship, simply draws you in. You can almost hear the fog horns, seagulls and a typewriter tapping away from a little apartment in North Beach. I am still undecided if I would have the tragic, accidental death of Thomas Merton, electrocuted in a bathtub in Thailand at the beginning or the end. Perhaps both.

DISCLAIMER:  This book reviewer received an advanced copy of this book from the publisher.

One Reply to “Thomas Merton, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, And The Protection Of All Beings – A Review”

  1. For such a slender volume, this book really packs a wallop. The correspondence between Ferlinghetti and Merton around the Trappist monk’s submissions to The Journal for the Protection of All Beings touches on the existential issues of the era, including the Holocaust and the threat of nuclear extinction, while at the same time providing a window into the state of small press publishing at the time and the censorship Merton had to contend with from his religious order. In tracing the friendship that grew between Merton & Ferlinghetti, Morgan provides some insightful analysis on just how much the two writers had in common. A thought-provoking and enjoyable read!

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