[This excerpt of Thomas Merton's autobiography, "The Seven Storey Mountain," first appeared in Commonweal in the August 27, 1948 issue]
IT WAS on one of those mornings in Oxford Street, perhaps not the very first one, that Aunt Maud and I had a great conversation about my future. We had just bought me several pairs of grey flannel trousers and a sweater and some shoes and some grey flannel shirts and one of those floppy flannel hats that English children have to wear, and now, having emerged from D. H. Evans, were riding down Oxford Street on the top of an open bus, right up in the front, where one could see simply everything.
"I wonder if Tom has thought at all about his future," Aunt Maud said and looked at me, winking and blinking with both eyes as a sign of encouragement. I was Tom. She sometimes addressed you in the third person, like that, perhaps as a sign of some delicate, inward diffidence about bringing the matter up at all.
I admitted that I had thought a little about the future, and what I wanted to be. But I rather hesitated to tell her that I wanted to be a novelist.
"Do you think writing would be a good profession for anyone?” I said tentatively.
"Yes indeed, writing is a very fine profession! But What kind of writing would you like to do?"
"I have been thinking that I might write stories," I said.
"I imagine you would probably do quite well at that, some day," said Aunt Maud, kindly, but added: "Of course, you know that writers sometimes find it very difficult to make their way in the world."
"Yes, I realize that," I said reflectively.
"Perhaps if you had some other occupation, as a means of making a living, you might find time to write in your spare moments. Novelists sometimes get their start that way, you know."
"I might be a journalist," I suggested, "and write for the newspapers."
"Perhaps that is a good idea," she said. "Aknowledge of languages would be very valuable in that field, too. You could work your way up to the position of a foreign correspondent."
"And I could write books in my spare time."
"Yes, I suppose you probably could manage it that way."
I think we rode all the way out to Ealing, talking in this somewhat abstract and utopian strain, and finally we got off, and crossed Haven Green to Castlebar Road where we had to stop in at Durston House for something or other.
It was not the first time I had met Mrs. Pearce, the headmistress of Ripley Court. She was a bulky and rather belligerent-looking woman with great pouches under her eyes. She was standing in a room in which were hung several of my father's paintings. She had probably been looking at them, and considering the error and instability of an artist's way of life when Aunt Maud mentioned the fact that we had been talking about my, own future.
'Does he want to be a dilettante like his father?" said Mrs. Pearce roughly, surveying me with a rather outraged expression through the lenses of her spectacles.
"We were thinking that perhaps he might become a journalist," said Aunt Maud gently.
"Nonsense," said Mrs. Pearce, "let him go into business and make a decent living for himself. There's no use in his wasting his time and deceiving himself. He might as well get some sensible ideas into his head from the very start, and prepare himself for something solid and reliable and not go out into the world with his head full of dreams." And then, turning to me, she cried out: "Boy! Don't become a dilettante, do you hear?"
I was received at Ripley Court, although the summer term was almost over, more or less as if I were an orphan or some kind of a stray that required at once pity and a special, not unsuspicious kind of attention. I was the son of an artist, and had just come from two years in a French school, and the combination of artist and France added up to practically everything that Mrs. Pearce and her friends suspected and disliked. Besides, to crown it all, I did not know any Latin. What was to be made of a boy who was already in the middle of his fourteenth year and could not decline mensa—had never even opened a Latin grammar?
So I had the humiliation of once again descending to the lowest place and sitting with the smallest boys in the school and beginning at the beginning.