Video of Fordham Editor Talking About the Acquisition, Design and Selling of PURE ACT

I didn’t know this was available online but found it yesterday: It’s a video of my editor, Fred Nachbaur, talking about the acquisition, design and selling of my book, PURE ACT: THE UNCOMMON LIFE OF ROBERT LAX. It was presented at a conference as an illustration of what university presses can do beyond their usual markets:


A Year of Pure Act

The image here is of the bottle of vintage French wine Sylvia and I opened to celebrate signing my book contract with Fordham University Press two years ago.  Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has been out in the world just over a year now, and what a year it has been.  The unofficial end of the book’s debut year came three weeks ago when we attended the Washington State Book Awards in Seattle.  Pure Act was a finalist in the Biography/Memoir category.  It didn’t win but it was a great honor to be recognized in my home state.

All told, Pure Act was a finalist for four awards: the WSBA in Biography/Memoir, the Religion Newswriters Association Book Award for best religion book of the year, the Association of Catholic Publishers’ Excellence in Publishing Award in Biography (it won second place) and the Catholic Press Association’s Book Award in Biography (it received an Honorable Mention).  It has been nominated for an Oregon Book Award too, but the finalists for that won’t be announced until early January 2017.

For a big book by a first-time author about a little-known poet published by a small publisher, it has done pretty well.  It’s in its third printing and a paperback version will be published in March 2017.  It was favorably reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, the Times Literary Supplement in the U.K., Publishers Weekly, the Oregonian and over 20 other publications.  The American Association of University Professors recommended it as one of ten nonfiction books and only two biographies (the other was of Mark Twain) in the area of American Studies for libraries to purchase in 2016.  I’ve had a chance to read from it at bookstores, universities and community events across the country.  And it has led to my being asked to be a keynote speaker at the 2017 International Thomas Merton Society conference at Saint Bonaventure University.

I’m reluctant to let this wonderful year end, but time marches on, of course, and I’ve already drafted my next book, a memoir about a year spent in the San Juan Islands.  A huge thank you to all who were part of a marvelous experience.

PURE ACT a Finalist for a Washington State Book Award

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has been named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award in Biography/Memoir.  You’ll find a full list of finalists and information about the awards ceremony here.

If you live in the Seattle area and are interested in attending, the awards ceremony will take place 7-9 p.m. in the Microsoft Auditorium at the Seattle Public Library’s central branch (1000 Fourth Avenue).

The ceremony is free and parking is $7 in the library garage.

PURE ACT a Finalist for the Religion Newswriters Association 2016 Book Award

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has been named one of ten finalists for the Religion Newswriters Association’s 2016 Religion Nonfiction Book Award.  A full listing of finalists for all awards is here.  Winners will be announced on September 24.

PURE ACT Wins a 2016 Excellence in Publishing Award and NCR Reviews It

I learned this week that Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax has won a 2016 Excellence in Publishing Award from the Association of Catholic Publishers.  It received second prize in Biography.  First prize went to my good friend Angela Alaimo O’Donnell for her biography of Flannery O’Connor.  The ACP announcement is here.

On the same day I learned about the award, a nice review of Pure Act by Dana Greene, biographer of Denise Levertov, appeared on the website of the National Catholic Reporter.  You can read it here.

Last Portland PURE ACT Reading at 6:30 p.m. This Tuesday, February 23…and Future Plans

After over 30 readings and other appearances over the past few months, I’m down to my last scheduled talk.  It will take place at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 23, in room 333, Smith Memorial Union, on the Portland State University campus.  If you live in the Portland area, please join us.  To mark the occasion, we’ll have copies of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax available at a discounted price.

A big thank you to those who came to last week’s readings in the Bay Area, where a standing-room-only crowd listened to poet John Beer, author S. T. Georgiou and me talk about our friendship with Robert Lax at City Lights Books in San Francisco, and another good crowd heard me read from Pure Act at Pegasus Books in Berkeley.

Among those in attendance at City Lights were Gerald Nicosia, one of Jack Kerouac’s biographers, and Mike Antonucci, a Bay Area journalist who is the nephew of Lax’s first publisher and close friend, Emil Antonucci.  It was fun for me to read a passage from my book about Lax’s friendship with Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg in a space where their spirits lingered.

My readings around the country have kept me from writing as much on this blog as I would have liked, and now that they’re over, I hope to write more.  Starting some time in March, I plan to try a unique experiment.  I’ll be teaching two courses in memoir writing while working on a memoir of my own AND a book on writing about other people.  I’m planning to make two posts a week from my research and thinking, one on memoir and one on writing about others (biography).  It will be interesting to contemplate how these two types of writing, one looking inward and the other outward, parallel and diverge.

Review of PURE ACT in The Catholic Worker and Other Online Lax Posts

Peace activist Jim Forest, who has written biographies of Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day, has published a warm and intimate review of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax in the latest Catholic Worker newspaper.  This review is especially pleasing to me because Lax was a great believer in the things the Catholic Worker stands for: peace and voluntary poverty in service to the truly needy.  Lax knew CW founder Dorothy Day and was a frequent guest at CW headquarters in NYC, where he once read his poetry (and I read from Pure Act back in September).  You can read the full review here:

My writing about Lax has been mentioned in a couple of other online posts:

  1. Prophetic Voices: Martin Luther – William Barclay – Robert Lax–written by Lawrence Birney, whose Pure Vision Foundation supports a number of great causes, including The Thomas Merton Prison Project (to which my publisher just donated four copies of Pure Act).

  2. The Pure Act of Robert Lax–a lovely meditation on living humbly in the moment by a blogger named Robert Sylvester, inspired by my essay on Lax, Poetic Man of God, in the Winter 2015-16 issue of Notre Dame Magazine.

Lawrence Cunningham Reviews PURE ACT in Commonweal Magazine

‘Pure Act’

 Review by Lawrence Cunningham, John O’Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame

Robert Lax (1915-2000) is today best known in this country as Thomas Merton’s closest friend. Having met when they were both students at Columbia University, the two exchanged letters until Merton’s death in 1968. It is the purpose of Michael N. McGregor’s new biography of Lax to move him out from under the shadow of Merton’s powerful personality and give him his own place in the sun. This is not an easy thing for an American biography to do, both because Lax spent so much of his adult life outside the United Sates and because of his commitment as a poet to seeking the purest and sparest language possible, a commitment that makes his hermetic poems a challenge for many readers. While Lax enjoyed a certain measure of fame in Europe during his lifetime, it was only late in his life that his writings found a place in the American literary scene.

After Lax graduated from Columbia in 1938, he got off to a promising start. He landed jobs at the New Yorker and Time, and even spent some time as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. But a lifelong restlessness led him away from the well-beaten path of literary success. He traveled with a circus, lived for a short while in Paris and then in a poor neighborhood of Marseilles. He spent some time at a religious retreat near the shrine of La Sallette in France, and eventually settled—if that’s the right word—on the Greek island of Patmos. Finally, old age and illness brought him back to his upstate hometown of Olean, New York, where he died in 2000.

Born into a largely nonobservant Jewish family, Lax was baptized a Catholic in 1943. Ed Rice, who was Merton’s godfather, was also Lax’s. In the early 1950s, Rice founded Jubilee magazine, for which Lax served as a “roving editor” from Europe. That job was one of a number of threads that kept him somewhat tied to the American scene. He also kept up a correspondence with Mark Van Doren, the legendary Columbia professor, and thanks to his friendship with the graphic designer Emil Antonucci (who did a lot of work for Commonweal over the years), Lax’s great long poem The Circus of the Sun was published in this country. During all his years abroad, he wrote constantly. His poetry became gradually more pared-down, more minimalist. While he found sympathetic publishers in Europe, he remained little known and little published in this country, garnishing a certain reputation among better-known poets such as John Berryman (another classmate at Columbia) and John Ashbury.

McGregor got to know Lax by accident on a trip to Greece when someone on Patmos told him of the greatly admired American who lived on the island. McGregor sought him out and over the years they became friends. In fact, a fair amount of this biography frames itself around McGregor’s many visits to Patmos and the time he spent with Lax doing the things Lax loved most: walking around the island, swimming, and spending time in his modest home drinking tea, discussing books, sharing poems, and at times, sitting quietly. Toward the end of his life, Lax depended on McGregor to assist him with his papers and to help him return to upstate New York before the end of his life. Lax’s way of life, which McGregor observed in Patmos, had been established decades before: “living simply among those at the bottom of society, watching and writing down his observations, offering peace and whatever else he could to those in spiritual or physical need.” There was something almost monastic about it; it was in some ways similar to the life that Merton lived. Not surprisingly, Lax was, like Merton, a lifelong pacifist.

The title of this book derives from some lines Lax once wrote, obviously under the influence of the Thomism he learned during his Columbia days. God is pure act with no potency within Him, while everything else in the universe is in potential: on its way to pure act and thus on its way to unity with God. To really see something is to grasp that it is oriented toward pure act—which is to say, toward God. Perceptive critics were able to grasp this fundamental philosophical orientation in Lax’s austerely minimalist poetry. Mark Van Doren said that Lax expressed the “purity of the object and reverence in the beholder.”

Both Lax’s way of living and his poetics raise the question of his religious orientation. Lax never rejected his Jewishness after his entrance into the Catholic Church. He continued reading deeply in Jewish sources and was a close reader of Martin Buber. McGregor cites a long journal entry from late in Lax’s life where he writes that it is important to find the “right” religion and the right culture, but even more important “is the progress you make—the progress you find you can make—once you have found it.” The end, however, is to get beyond being a “good” Jew or Catholic in order to become a “contemplative, yes to be a mystic, yes.” In that context, Lax loved the line of Teilhard de Chardin: “Everything that rises must converge.”

McGregor wants to see Lax in his own right, and, true to that aim, he has written an intellectual biography that is as full and fair as one could expect. As a longtime reader of Lax, I learned a great deal from this finely researched book. It is not perfect: it is stronger on Lax the poet and essayist than on Lax the spiritual writer. On the latter topic one should consult Steve Georgiou’s The Way of the Dreamcatcher (2002). But Lax the poet deserves the attention he gets here, and the poetry, now mostly overlooked, is a good way into Lax’s mysticism.

News from Across the Pond: PURE ACT in the Times Literary Supplement

Today’s news from London: There’s a thoughtful, careful and worthy review of Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax by poet Jules Smith in this week’s edition of the Times Literary Supplement, the most important book review publication in the English-speaking world (outside the U.S., anyway).  You can read the full review here: Pure Act – TLS.  As far as I can tell, Lax and I are the only American writers other than Joyce Carol Oates, to be reviewed in this issue.  I’m amazed and pleased.

CORRECTION: I just learned that a book by my Portland State University English Department colleague Josh Epstein is in the same issue of the TLS–another American!  You can read the review of his book, Sublime Noise, here: