"What impresses me most about John Smelcer, aside from his powerful writing, is
his indomitable spirit. He has never given up; he has never let others quiet his voice.
He continues to write and the world continues to listen to what he has to say."
-James Welch, American Book Award winning author of Fools Crow & The Indian Lawyer
Mentored by the legendary John Gardner (The Art of Fiction, On Becoming a Writer, On Moral Fiction), James Michener (South Pacific, Centennial, Texas) and Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth, The Hero With a Thousand Faces), John Smelcer is the award-winning author of more than fifty books, many translated into other languages. His most recent novel, Kiska, is about the internment of 881 Alaska Natives called Aleuts, who, like Japanese Americans, were also interned by the US government during WWII--one of the most untold stories in twentieth century American history. Aside from his many novels and poetry collections, John Smelcer has published books in Native Studies, history, folklore and mythology, anthropology and archaeology, linguistics, as well as anthologies, plays, screenplays, dictionaries. John Smelcer co-wrote several children's books with Ann McGovern, author of Stone Soup and one of America's most beloved children's authors since the 1960s. John Smelcer's short stories, poems, interviews, articles, essays, and blogs--read by millions--appear in hundreds of magazines and journals worldwide. He has judged dozens of national and international literary awards, as far away as Israel and Australia. John Smelcer's education includes graduate studies in literature at Cambridge and Oxford, and world religions at Harvard University. In the fall of 2017, Dr. Smelcer retired as poetry editor at Rosebud magazine, a post he held for nearly a quarter of a century. The Boston Globe once called Rosebud "the best literary quarterly in America." As poetry editor over three decades, John estimates he received and read some 250,000 poems. He now serves as Rosebud's Senior Advisor and Poetry Editor Emeritus.
FINDING THOMAS MERTON
In the spring of 2015, John Smelcer “discovered” the worldly possessions of Thomas Merton, one of the most influential figures of the Twentieth Century. Writer, theologian, philosopher, poet, mystic, and social rights and peace activist, Merton was the most famous monk in the world when he died on December 10, 1968. It has been said that Merton was the conscience of America, especially during the tumultuous 1960s. He was the author of seventy books, including his iconic The Seven Storey Mountain, widely considered one of the most inspiring coming-to-faith autobiographies in history, alongside St. Augustine’s Confessions, and listed as one of the best nonfiction books of the century. Two years later, Dr. Smelcer "discovered" a letter from the chair of the Pulitzer Prize selection committee to Columbia University that named Merton's poetry book, The Tears of the Blind Lions, as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 (Gwendolyn Brooks received the prize). For almost seventy years, no one had known of the honor, not Merton nor his publisher. Merton influenced the Civil Rights Movement, helping to inform Martin Luther King, Jr. on the nature of nonviolent protest. Both Merton and King have been hailed as "America's Prophets." With fellow priests, Daniel and Phillip Berrigan, and refugee Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, Merton was one of the most vocal critics of the war in Vietnam. It was Merton who convinced Martin Luther King, Jr. to protest the Vietnam War. In Why We Can't Wait (1964), Dr. King praised President Johnson for his practicality and genuine commitment to civil rights issues, but King lost Johnson's support after he joined Merton in protesting the war in April of 1967. Johnson had vowed never to lose the war in Vietnam. It is reported that had he lived, Dr. King was going to call for mass civil disobedience, encouraging the burning of draft notices. In 1970, Dr. King postumously won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for "Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam" (King was nominated for three Grammys, including for his "I Have a Dream" speech). While it is well known that after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the prize in 1967. What is not commonly known is that Thomas Merton also recommended Thich Nhat Hanh for the prize.
Merton corresponded with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972), who was a friend of Dr. King and who frequently marched with him (see photo below). Aside from civil rights issues and the war in Vietnam, Merton and Heschel discussed the Second Vatican Council's (Vatican II) statement on nonviolence and peace, as well as about improving interfaith relations. Merton even corresponded with Ethel Kennedy, Robert Kennedy's wife, ostensibly to better understand Bobby's and President Kennedy's views about nuclear armament, the Cold War, civil rights, and the war in Vietnam. Merton sent his condolences to Ethel Kennedy after the assassinations of both John and Bobby, and Ethel sent a letter of condolence to the monstery after Merton's death. Coretta Scott King similarly sent a letter to the monastery. In his "Cold War Letters," Merton prophesied the assassination of President Kennedy for his peace-making policies in opposition to the advice of his war-mongering military and CIA advisors who pressured him to launch a preemptive nuclear attack against the Soviet Union. President Kennedy formed the Peace Corps in March 1961, around the same time as the CIA's failed invasion of Cuba, which came to be known as the Bay of Pigs, and sixteen months before the Cuban Missile Crisis. Merton's last book, Faith and Violence (1968), published months before his death, was extremely critical of America’s war in Southeast Asia, especially of the Johnson Administration. Weeks before his mysterious death, Merton met with a then-young Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India (see photo below). Merton also corresponded with Rachel Carson in 1962 after publication of her pioneering book, Silent Spring. He increasingly wrote about environmentalism. Merton was close friends with John Howard Griffin, who wrote about racial inequality early on during the Civil Rights Movement and is best known for his controversial sociological project to pass as a Black man in the Deep South in 1959 and for his subsequent book about his experiences, Black Like Me (1961). After Merton's death, Griffin became Merton's biographer.
On August 9, 1943, Austrian farmer and converted Catholic conscientious objector Franz Jägerstätter was executed by the Nazis for adhering to his Christian belief that he should not kill others for Hitler and his unjust and immoral war. From prison, he wrote whether it is right and just to kill others because your government declares it is right and just to do so in contradiction to higher laws. The story of Jägerstätter's moral courage would have been forgotten if it weren't for the efforts of American sociologist, Gordon Zahn, who published a book about him (In Solitary Witness, 1966) and his friend, Thomas Merton, who included a chapter about Franz Jägerstätter in Faith and Violence. Together, Zahn and Merton emboldened Pope Benedict XVI to declare Jägerstätter a martyr and beatified him in 2007—a step toward sainthood. President Kennedy once remarked of individuals like Franz Jägerstätter: "War will exist until the distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today." For the past few years, John Smelcer has been writing a novel inspired by Franz Jägerstätter. Jägerstätter's only surviving daughter collaborated with him on the project.
John Smelcer’s discovery was a “treasure trove” of Mertonalia. While numerous archives such as at Columbia University hold letters, notes, book drafts, etc., few of Merton’s personal belongings were known previously to exist. Merton was, after all, a Trappist monk, and therefore poor of earthly possessions by choice. The trove included all the clothing Merton was wearing in photographs from the last years of his life: photos of him in his white monk’s cowl and black hooded scapular (worn in the photo with the Dalai Lama below); photos of him in his iconic denim jackets, shirts, jeans, and sailor cap (see photo below at Frazier Museum). The collection included such sacred objects as his rosary, his flagellant whip, and his personal Trappist Psalter. It also included notes, photos, letters, and audiotapes of him talking. The objects had been protected by close friends of Merton’s—a fellow brother monk and a nun from a nearby convent. Upon learning of Merton’s death, the Abbot of Gethsemani ordered the fellow monk to collect Merton’s possessions and to get rid of them (he was worried about devotees descending on the monastery in search of Merton relics as souvenirs). Shortly thereafter, and on Merton’s advice, the monk and the nun left their respective religious orders and married. They moved to Louisville, Kentucky for years, and eventually to the Midwest. For almost half a century, the two safeguarded their friend’s belongings. The former monk, who had been imprisoned for more than a year in German POW camps during WWII after his B-17 was shot down on his 25th and final mission, died in 2009. In her mid-eighties, the former nun worried about what would happen to the collection if she passed away. For years, she had been praying to Thomas Merton to send someone to help her.
And then John Smelcer came along.
One day, an acquaintance casually mentioned to John that he knew of a nun who twenty years earlier had told him that she had all this stuff that used to belong to Thomas Merton. Coincidentally, at the time, John was writing The Gospel of Simon, the first-person account of Simon of Cyrene, the man who the Bible says was compelled by Roman soldiers to help Jesus carry his cross. The interfaith story of Jesus's gospel of love, compassion, and mercy--at once faithful yet at times daring and thoroughly modern--was inspired by Thomas Merton, known to fellow monks and friends as Father Louis. Written over twenty years, the book is dedicated to Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope Francis, who was inspired by Merton as a young priest. Recognizing the significance that if what the friend said was true and if the nun still had the collection, it wasn't long before John was standing at the nun's doorstep--the beginning of a wonderful and enduring friendship. Despite that the nun was fighting cancer, the two worked together over the next year to donate every object to museums, including the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, The Vatican, and the Smithsonian's Museum of American History.
The former nun remarked often how much she thought John Smelcer reminded her of Father Louis, which she pronounces as "Loo-ee". In a series of unlikely coincidences tantamount to nothing more than an interesting story, both Smelcer and Merton studied literature at adjacent colleges at Cambridge University. Both earned master's degrees in literature, studied the English Romantic Poets, and both wrote their thesis on poetry. Although Merton intended to earn a doctorate, he never returned to university, while Smelcer went on to complete his doctoral education in literature and creative writing (Merton did, however, receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Kentucky in 1967; the academic hood he received was part of the original Merton collection safeguarded by the former monk and nun). Both explored and published writing on Native American spiritualism and mythology. Around the same time that Merton moved into his hermitage at Gethsemani, Smelcer, who was then a little boy, lived down the road. Like Merton, Smelcer also considered a vocation as clergy, but as an Army chaplain. Smelcer was fifty-three at the time of the "discovery," the same age as Merton when he died.
In another remarkable connection, Merton visited Alaska enroute to India and Thailand during his fateful Asian journey in the fall of 1968. In September, he spent a week in Eagle River, a small town a dozen miles north of Anchorage. It is thought that he was considering a location to build a new monastery or hermitage in Alaska. While there, Merton gave a series of talks to priests and nuns at a former convent of the Sister Adorers of the Precious Blood (Merton's nun-friend back in Kentucky was a member of the same order), which was only a few miles from where John Smelcer used to live (see photo below). Merton also visited the region of Dr. Smelcer's tribe and took a photograph of a mountain near the Matanuska Glacier that is significant in the mythology of Dr. Smelcer's tribe, called Ahtna, after the Native name for the Copper River. A framed black and white print of Merton's photo hangs on a hallway wall at the Thomas Merton Studies Center at Bellarmine University. The myth, "Stone Woman," appears in three of Dr. Smelcer's books on Alaska Native mythology. Nowadays, a State of Alaska signpost around mile 108 of the Glenn Highway retells the legend to tourists (see photo below).
In the early-to-mid 1990s, Dr. Smelcer was co-chair of Alaska Native Studies at the University of Alaska. In the mid-to-late 1990s, Dr. Smelcer was executive director of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation, whose mission is to preserve the Ahtna language and culture and to administer the tribe's scholarship program. He was also a tribal archaeologist. Dr. Smelcer is one of the last speakers of Ahtna, one of the most severely endangered languages on earth. In 1998, he published a dictionary of the language (click on "dictionaries"). He also teaches Ahtna in an innovative YouTube series called "Ahtna 101" (see below). Dr. Smelcer also speaks Alutiiq, a neighboring, yet unrelated Alaska Native language, and published a dictionary of it as well. For almost five years, Dr. Smelcer was director of that tribe's Culture and Language Preservation Project. One of the projects completed during those years was The Day That Cries Forever, a book in which every living survivor of the biggest tsunami in history gives their account of what happened that fateful day in March of 1964 when their seaside village was swept off the face of the earth. John Smelcer has published dozens of books on Alaska Native history, oral history, languages, and mythology. In 2013, friends across the nation recommended Dr. Smelcer to The White House to receive the Presidential Citizen's Medal for his enduring efforts to preserve America's Native heritage.
In his later writings, especially during the 1960s, Merton insisted that prayer and the religious life had to be equal to taking action to alleviate pain and suffering. After studying earlier religious writers like Meister Eckhart and his friend Jacques Maritain who visited Merton at his hermitage in 1966, Merton increasingly came to understand that compassion means justice and justice requires action.
The author of Ghandi on Non-Violence (1965), Merton helped inform Martin Luther King, Jr.’s practice of non-violent protest that was the hallmark of the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, the two had planned a weeklong spiritual retreat at Merton’s hermitage near Bardstown, Kentucky, but King was assassinated weeks before the scheduled event. Thomas Merton and Coretta Scott King corresponded about the tragedy. Merton himself died under mysterious circumstance outside Bangkok, Thailand eight months later and twenty-seven years to the day after he entered the monastery as a postulant. Both men exemplified the Christian obligation to seek peace, relieve suffering, and correct injustice.
Contrary to some specious thinking, Merton was not an outcast among Catholics. Indeed, Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI both considered Merton to be the greatest living Christian writer and both sent him gifts to demonstrate their affection. Pope John XXIII was inspired by Merton in writing his November 1963 encyclical Peace on Earth (Pacem in Terris), in which he wrote that the Christian must be a peacemaker. Pope John Paul II often quoted Merton in his homilies, and Pope Francis said that Merton inspired him as a young priest. In his address to the U. S. Congress on September 24, 2015, Pope Francis praised Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King Jr. as being among the greatest Americans, alongside Dorothy Day and Abraham Lincoln. Pope Francis said, "Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.”
Recent books like The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton (Turley & Martin, 2018) argue convincingly that Merton was assassinated the way Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated earlier that year. Based on these and other revelations, Dr. Smelcer has asked Pope Francis to declare Merton a martyr. Although he feels he is unworthy and undeserving of his role in preserving Thomas Merton's legacy, Dr. Smelcer is currently writing a book about the experience and the unexpected journey. Several of Merton's old friends are helping him along the way.
In the last year of his celebrated life, John Smelcer had conversations about science and religion with Emmy and Peabody Award winning scientist, Carl Sagan (see photo below). After publishing The Gospel of Simon, John Smelcer was invited to write a blog for The Charter for Compassion, a global nonprofit promoting religious tolerance, nonviolence, peace, interfaith discourse, and social justice. Founded by Karen Armstrong (A History of God) after she received the $100,000 TED Award in 2008, the award winning website garners some 50 million visits a year. (Click on the icon below to go to John Smelcer’s blog page.) Dr. Smelcer also teaches poetry globally for the Charter Education Institute.
Click on "bio" to learn more about John Smelcer's life.
Click on "ethnicity" to learn about John Smelcer's heritage and about the racist bullies who relentlessly attacked John Smelcer for decades.
To learn the truth about the 2017 PEN Center USA Book Awards, the 2004 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, The Absolutely True Fall of Sherman Alexie, and Identity Politics and Racism in the World of Native American Writers, click on "ethnicity" and scroll about half way down the web page.
Click on "dictionaries" to download Dr. Smelcer's Ahtna and Alutiiq noun dictionaries, as well as educational posters of both languages, and a bilingual children's picture book in Ahtna and English.
Click on the YouTube icon below to watch Dr. Smelcer teaching Ahtna, his severely endangered Alaska Native language, in episodes of "Ahtna 101" on YouTube.