Merton and Rice had become acquainted at Columbia University, where they were both working on their undergraduate degrees. Merton had only just transferred to Columbia in his junior year, having completed his freshman and sophmore years at Cambridge University. They first met while working on Columbia's student literary publication 'Jester.' The friendship they developed at Columbia was life long. When Merton made the decision to enter the Catholic Church in 1938, it was Rice that Merton asked to act as his godfather. Although Rice had drifted away from the church during his student years, he agreed. Perhaps because of the influence Merton had on his life, Rice rediscovered his faith and went on to found and edit the Catholic magazine, 'Jubilee.' The content of much of the correspondence in this collection has to do with the publishing of this magazine. Merton, who was a frequent contributor, provides advice and encouragement to his friend Rice, who not only had to overcome the hurdles set up by the Trappist censors, but the financial woes of trying to keep an independent publication afloat. Although Merton and Rice had corresponded throughout their adult lives, the letters included in this collection reflect the interests that would dominate the last years of Merton's life, and for which work is most recognized: the peace movement, the ethics debate over atomic weapons, and Eastern spirituality. His friend Jim Forest of 'The Catholic Worker,' and a friend of Thomas Merton's, referred to this period in Merton's life as one when he reentered the world from his previous cloistered existence in the monastery at Gethsemani and, through his writings, became actively engaged in advancing the public discourse on the great moral issues of that age. It certainly was his most prolific, with Merton producing scores of articles, reviews, and books, along with maintaining a large correspondence.
Several of the letters found in this collection are referred to by Edward Rice in his semi-biographical work on Merton 'The Man in the Sycamore Tree.' In contrast to the image of the contemplative hermit, the Merton that is revealed in these letters harkens back to that of his student days at Columbia University. The tenor of the correspondence is light-hearted, often revealing a playful and irreverent side to Merton. Bro. Patrick Hart, who wrote the forward to the volume of published correspondence between Merton and the philosopher Robert Lax, another friend of Merton's from his days at Columbia, refers to the style of writing one sees in these letters as those of 'anti-letters,' for their free-style form and content.
Rice, Edward. "The Man in the Sycamore Tree: The good times and hard life of Thomas Merton" (Garden City: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1970).
Labrie, Ross. "The Art of Thomas Merton" (Fort Worth, TX: The Texas Christian University Press, 1979).
Shannon, William H., ed. "Witness to Freedom: The Letters of Thomas Merton in Times and Crisis" (New York: Farrar, Strauss, Giroux, 1994).
"A Catch of Anti-Letters: Thomas Merton Robert Lax" (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, Inc., 1978).
Wilkes, Paul, ed. Merton: "By Those Who Knew Him Best" (San Francisco: Harper and Row Publishers, 1984), esp. essay by Jim Forrest.