The subtitle of Robert Hudson’s brilliant new book, The Monk’s Record Player, says it all: for Thomas Merton and Bob Dylan, the summer of 1966 was particularly perilous.
Merton, the Trappist monk, peace activist, and prolific author, had been granted permission to move into a hermitage on his own the previous year, something he had long sought and been denied by his superiors. The move came nearly 25 years into his time at the Abbey of Gethsemani, at a time when everything in Merton’s world was changing, if not falling apart. Vatican II permanently changed the Roman Catholic Church, and he wasn’t entirely enthused. Meanwhile, of course, there were the broader cultural upheavals of the 1960s. It was an unsettling time to be a monk, not to mention a world-famous one with a constant parade of visitors, welcomed and otherwise. But such was the nature of Merton’s “unusually chaotic version of solitude.”
Then there was the back surgery in April 1966 and the nurse with whom he fell in love. For a man who had already taken solemn vows, but who wished in vain to join an even more austere order that would go so far as to require vows of silence, the affair was the most obvious example of a profound identity crisis Merton was experiencing that summer.
Around that time, the hermit managed to procure some recent records from the folk-singer-turned-rock-star Bob Dylan. An obsession was quick in taking hold. “One does not get ‘curious’ about Dylan,” he wrote at the time. “You are either all in it or all out of it. I am in his new stuff.” Merton regarded Dylan’s poetry as “prophetic,” which, in Hudson’s words, meant “both a high level of truth-telling and the state of being ahead of one’s time.” For Merton, there was no higher praise.
Dylan, meanwhile, was having a momentous summer of his own. Having played a pivotal role in the folk music revival of the early 1960s, he had been dubbed the “spokesman of a generation.” Then he went electric in the summer of 1965 at the Newport Folk Festival and everything went haywire. Both love and hatred for his music and everything he represented metastasized. His life as a celebrity had become an unwanted burden.
After moving to the quiet town of Woodstock in upstate New York (remember, Woodstock wasn’t Woodstock yet), Dylan and his family tried to settle into quieter, more sustainable rhythms of life. It wasn’t until his mysterious motorcycle crash in July 1966, however, that he was fully able to take a step back from the limelight for an extended period of time. In light of his new reclusive way of life, he became known for a time as the “hermit of Woodstock.”
Although Dylan’s so-called “Christian phase” wouldn’t begin for more than a decade, the deep spiritual undertones woven into his 1967 album John Wesley Harding (an estimated 61 biblical allusions in 34 minutes) reveal that this celebrity-turned-recluse hadn’t fully hit the pause button while convalescing at home. Instead, he’d been reading his Bible. A lot. As his mother would say, “In his house in Woodstock today, there’s a huge Bible open on a stand in the middle of his study. Of all the books that crowd his house, overflow from his house, that Bible gets the most attention. He’s continuously getting up and going over to refer to something.”
So it was that Dylan was finally finding some peace and quiet just as Merton was risking the vocation he held dear for the sake of a woman he knew he could never be with. Meanwhile, his obsession with Dylan going strong, Merton was attempting to write an article on the artist’s work, though that essay never materialized. He was also writing a book of poetry – or, rather, one long “antipoem” – that was, as he put it, “a bit Dylan-like in spots.” He decided he wanted his poems set to music, just like his poetic hero, and even petitioned Joan Baez to take that project on. She didn’t bite.
Dylan and Merton never met, and it’s unclear how familiar the onetime self-described “song and dance man” was with Merton’s work. And that’s precisely why this book, which weaves their stories together, is such an imaginative delight. Hudson, a Bob Dylan scholar who is also a member of the International Thomas Merton Society, writes from the heart about two figures that have meant a lot to him over the years – and it’s infectious.
Now, I suppose, is as good a time as any to admit I’ve never actually read any of Merton’s work. I tried reading The Seven Storey Mountain many years ago but never got more than a few pages in. Wrong place, wrong time, I guess. Most of what I knew about him before this book came from Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own, a literary biography of Merton and three other Catholic writers of the twentieth century.
But the very premise of The Monk’s Record Player – a conflicted hermit with an affinity for the elusive rebel poet who had burned bridges by going electric – was plenty to hook this Dylan fan and to keep me hooked, even though Merton is the main character here by a long shot.
We get the sense that we truly come to know Merton in these pages – what he thinks about, what drives him, how he spends his days – not just because Hudson is a fabulous storyteller (which he is), but also because Merton kept fairly meticulous journals that did not shy away from even the most damning of thoughts, motivations, and actions (Merton himself stipulated that the journals be made public, but not until 25 years after his death). Taken together, they provide a full-color picture that wouldn’t otherwise be available to us – something no Dylan biographer will ever enjoy, for better or worse.
The Monk’s Record Player is one of those rare books that defies comparison. So instead of trying to do that, I’ll just say it’s a delight and leave it at that. As you make your summer travel plans, you could do a whole lot worse than tucking this handsome hardcover into your tote bag. And if you do decide to pick it up, consider ordering it from Hearts & Minds. Byron and Beth Borger are the best booksellers you’ll ever meet, and in important ways, this book epitomizes what they’re all about.