"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, Grendel), John Smelcer is the award-winning author of more than fifty books, many translated into other languages. 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, and children's picture books. His 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. For nearly a quarter of a century, he was poetry editor at Rosebud magazine, which The Boston Globe once called "the best literary quarterly in America."
JOHN SMELCER & 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, intellectual, philosopher, poet, mystic, and social rights and peace activist, Merton was the most famous monk in the world when he died in December 1968. He was the author of dozens of 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. His poetry book The Tears of the Blind Lions was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1950 (Gwendolyn Brooks received the prize). Merton influenced the Civil Rights Movement, helping to inform Martin Luther King Jr. on the nature of nonviolent protest. 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. Merton even convinced Martin Luther King, Jr. to protest the Vietnam War. In 1970, Dr. King won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for "Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam" (King was nominated for three Grammys, including for "I Have a Dream"). After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the prize in 1967. Merton's last book, Faith and Violence, published just before his death, was extremely critical of America’s war-mongering in Southeast Asia, especially of the White House administration. Weeks before his mysterious death, Merton met with a then-young Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India (see photo below).
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 habit and black hooded cowl (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). 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 Kansas City. For almost half a century they safeguarded their friend’s belongings. The former monk, who had been imprisoned in a German POW camp during WWII, died in 2009. In her mid-eighties, the former nun (Sister Mary Pius), 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, a friend 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 Louie. Written over twenty years, the book is dedicated to Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Pope Francis. 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 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 and the Smithsonian's Museum of American History. The former nun remarked often how much she thought John Smelcer reminded her of Father Louie.
In another remarkable coincidence, Merton visited Alaska enroute to India and Thailand during his fateful Asian journey in the fall of 1968. It is thought that he was considering a location to build a new monastery or hermitage. Merton gave a talk at St. John's Orthodox Cathedral near Chugiak, Alaska, where John Smelcer used to live only a few miles down the road (see photo below).
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 friends had planned a weeklong spiritual retreat at Merton’s hermitage near Bardstown, Kentucky, but King was assassinated a month before the scheduled event. Thomas Merton and Coretta Scott King corresponded about the tragedy. Merton himself died under mysterious circumstance in Thailand eight months later. (By happenstance, Merton visited the tribal region of Dr. Smelcer's tribe in Alaska during his 1968 Asian journey.) Both men exemplified the Christian obligation to seek peace, relieve suffering, and correct injustice. 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. Dr. Smelcer has been interviewed about the "discovery" on NPR, and articles about it have appeared in numerous magazines. Dr. Smelcer is currently writing a book about the experience and the unexpected spiritual pilgrimage.
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 40-50 million visits a year. (Click on the icon below to go to John Smelcer’s blog page.)
Click on "bio" to learn more about John Smelcer's life.
Click on "ethnicity" to learn about the controversy around John Smelcer's Native heritage, how the controversy ended in 2018 after it was proven conclusively that the basis for the controversy and the individuals who perpetuated it for over a decade were not credible, and to learn about the racist bullies who relentlessly attacked John Smelcer for decades regardless of the truth.
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, a severely endangered Alaska Native language, in episodes of "Ahtna 101" on Youtube.