As the twentieth century recedes ever further into the past, Robert Hudson invites us to revisit it through an unexpected passageway: the troubled circumstances in which two of its most brilliant poets found themselves as the 1960s broke loose. Hudson calls The Monk’s Record Player: Thomas Merton, Bob Dylan, and the Perilous Summer of 1966 a “parallel biography,” but it’s weighted heavily toward Merton. And anyway, it’s really more a tale, a comic tale, of two men seeking a way through the age’s “baroque obscenities,” in Merton’s piquant phrase, to a place of solitude and hope.
The unlikely pairing of Dylan and Merton is the charm of the book. Merton and Dylan were a duo that never quite became a duet. They had no acquaintance, and so far as influence goes, it went in one direction. Merton, introduced to Dylan’s music in 1966 by a fellow monk, responded with instant affirmation in a letter to his editor. “Incidentally,” he wrote, “I heard a record of Bob Dylan lately and like him very much indeed. Respond extremely to that, very much at home in it.”
The record in which Merton felt himself at home was Highway 61 Revisited, and Merton’s “baroque obscenities” line was his description of the absurdist running commentary on the world beyond the gates of Eden Dylan was frenetically and gleefully dispatching. Merton was so taken with Dylan’s vision and approach that he quickly produced Cables to the Ace, Or Familiar Liturgies of Misunderstanding (1968), a book Hudson describes as a “long anti-poem” for which “Dylan’s work was the ongoing frame.” Hence Hudson’s arresting judgment: “although they lived their lives a thousand miles apart, their souls were next-door neighbors.”
The conditions that sparked such intimacy had to do with intimacy of another kind, and this now-familiar story is at the heart of Hudson’s tale. He tells it well. In Louisville for back surgery in the spring of 1966, Merton, age fifty-one, convalesced under the care of Margie Smith, a student nurse. She was half his age and engaged to a soldier, but their souls, too, established an easy company. “The sufferings of the soul that thirsts for God are blended with mystical joy,” Merton once said, and Margie infused no small amount of it into an aging, sojourning monk. For a season, in the spring and summer of ’66, Merton and Margie wrote, telephoned, and even, with the help of several accomplices, arranged the occasional rendezvous; Merton’s journals reveal that they managed over many weeks to talk by phone more than once every two days. Their predicament loomed embarrassingly large. What was a monk to do?
For his part, Dylan by that summer found himself in his own conundrum, one that also involved a kind of trap: fame. “Privacy is something you can sell,” he would wryly observe, “but you can’t buy it back.” He tried, though. Having loosed himself from the folk-music establishment the year before by, famously, going electric, he now wished, as Hudson says, “to go undercover and stop being Bob Dylan.” A mysterious motorcycle accident of uncertain severity became the pretext for his “own search for solitude.” And so Dylan would go underground for three years at his home in Woodstock, New York, writing and recording music, living convivially with family and friends, and avoiding the audience he had so assiduously sought. It sort of worked, for a time, Dylan’s “so-called hermit years.” But even his rural retreat became, as he put it, “a place of chaos”—its end symbolized by the cartoonish invasion in August 1969 of tens of thousands of young people in one of the age’s emblematic events. Solitude was very hard to come by, even in Woodstock. So was home.