Excellence in Publishing Award, Association of Catholic Publishers
Honorable Mention, Catholic Press Association Book Award
Finalist, Religion News Association Book Award
Finalist, Washington State Book Award
A companion piece to Thomas Merton's bestselling autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax tells the story of Merton's best friend and early spiritual inspiration. Written by a close friend of Lax, Pure Act gives an intimate view of a friendship and a life that affected Merton in profound ways. It was Lax, a daringly original poet himself, who encouraged Merton to begin writing poetry and Lax who told him he should desire to be a saint rather than just a Catholic. To the end of Merton's life, Lax was his spiritual touchstone and closest friend.
Pure Act tells the story of poet Robert Lax, whose quest to live a true life as both an artist and a spiritual seeker inspired Thomas Merton, Jack Kerouac, William Maxwell and a host of other writers, artists and ordinary people. Known in the U.S. primarily as Merton’s best friend and in Europe as a daringly original avant-garde poet, Lax left behind a promising New York writing career to travel with a circus, live among immigrants in post-war Marseilles and settle on a series of remote Greek islands where he learned and recorded the simple wisdom of the local people. Born a Jew, he became a Catholic and found the authentic community he sought in Greek Orthodox fishermen and sponge divers.
In his early life, as he alternated working at the New Yorker, writing screenplays in Hollywood and editing a Paris literary journal with studying philosophy, serving the poor in Harlem and living in a sanctuary high in the French Alps, Lax pursued an approach to life he called pure act—a way of living in the moment that was both spontaneous and practiced, God-inspired and self-chosen. By devoting himself to simplicity, poverty and prayer, he expanded his capacity for peace, joy and love while producing distinctive poetry of such stark beauty critics called him “one of America’s greatest experimental poets” and “one of the new ‘saints’ of the avant-garde.”
Written by a writer who met Lax in Greece when he was a young seeker himself and visited him regularly over fifteen years, Pure Act is an intimate look at an extraordinary but little-known life. Much more than just a biography, it’s a tale of adventure, an exploration of friendship, an anthology of wisdom, and a testament to the liberating power of living an uncommon life.
McGregor recreates conversations and scenes that are as vivid as a screenplay . . . Patmos, the island on which John wrote the Book of Revelation, is where McGregor met Lax in 1985. Lax understood the younger man’s quest for a genuine way of living, and McGregor in turn was deeply impressed by the poet’s quiet simplicity and joy. This biography is a sensitive testimony to their subsequent fifteen years of friendship, and to the 'pure act' that Lax knew to be at the heart of life as God intended it.
McGregor does a wonderful job of fusing his personal narrative of visiting Lax with the poet's correspondence, poems and journals, and carefully corroborated secondhand accounts . . . Pure Act offers a beautiful arc, starting from a familiar place and ending atop the layers of Lax's ironically lush life.
The Portland Mercury
Lax, an experimental poet, is known in the United States mainly as the best friend of Trappist monk Thomas Merton. But this singular man—whose life as an artist and spiritual seeker took him from the halls of The New Yorker, into the company of a traveling circus, to a remote Greek island—warrants attention in his own right.
Columbia College Today
Pure Act is an admiring biography, one that is well-researched and written with affection...While Lax's strange life--McGregor calls it an "uncommon" life--will not cause readers to emulate it, it will provoke them to ponder what it is to be fully human. This is, of course, one of the principal functions of biography, needed now more than ever.
National Catholic Reporter
Tender, thorough, meticulous, an act of fine and generous and wonderfully sharp-eyed sharp-eared witness. The riveting mystic Robert Lax would have been delighted at the care and reverence with which Michael McGregor celebrates and resurrects and delves an extraordinary American’s many-layered life.
“It’s comforting to know that even with the vast amount of information [to] which we now have access there are still biographies to be written about fascinating individuals most of us have never heard of . . . After reading McGregor’s deeply satisfying Pure Act we conclude that Lax lived an admirable life, remaining true to his beliefs to the end, including his strongest thought that life should be lived simply and slowly.”
To read McGregor’s book is to learn that Lax was a searcher and a mystic, a poet with a profound love of life and almost instinctive ability to find God in all things . . . I never had the chance to visit Robert Lax on the island of Patmos, but somehow, in reading this book, I feel as if I have . . . There is joy in Lax’s life and joy in Lax’s work—and that same joy pervades Pure Act.”
“[Robert Lax] was invariably hospitable and welcoming, his presence gentle, humorous, and patient. In short, there’s never been anyone like him, and Pure Act, in its offering of a detailed recounting of his life and an acute presentation and analysis of his too-neglected poetry, gives him to us: the gift of a human being unlike any other.”
Drawing on his friendship with poet Robert Lax (1915–2000) and his close readings of Lax's writings, McGregor eloquently offers the definitive biography of a too often forgotten figure who influenced a number of writers and crafted spirituality out of his deep commitment to love, poverty, and justice . . . The book effectively brings to life Lax's 'pure act'—naturally living out his God-given abilities without becoming mired in judging others.
This is a biography to which I will return for inspiration.
Rev. Ted Huffman
Michael McGregor's Pure Act is an outstanding contribution to Lax studies and greatly enriches our understanding of the poet-sage, giving readers much unpublished and little-known material.
In the Beginning Was Love: Contemplative Words of Robert Lax
"Pure Act is much more than a biography. It's a real and full and personal meditation on life, and on what a life is for.
A Sudden Country
Presenting Lax as an embodiment of the 'wisdom of simplicity' and himself as a 'naïve boy who had washed up on his shores', McGregor becomes both unobtrusive character and reliable narrator in this text, connected to Lax by the author’s own need for personal searching.
The Merton Seasonal
. . . [McGregor] tells two stories in his new book Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. One is of his friendship with Lax (1915-2000), whom critic Richard Kostelanetz, in a review of Merton’s poems in The New York Times Book Review, called one of ‘America’s greatest experimental poets, a true minimalist who can weave awesome poems from remarkably few words.’ The other story is of Robert Lax’s life. As the book progresses, the story gradually shifts from McGregor’s story of a friendship to the story of Lax’s life.
Open Letters Monthly an Arts and Literature Review
A thoroughly researched and compassionate look at the remarkable life of Robert Lax. Those who know him only as a close friend of Thomas Merton will be delighted with the person they find in these pages: an influential poet, a voice for peace, a wanderer and seeker after truth. Many sought Lax out at his Patmos home; McGregor has made his wisdom available to all.
The Cloister Walk and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography
A fond biography of an unworldly man…vivid and engaging.
The New York Times Book Review
[Pure Act] is a deeply moving book concerning how one man followed his own golden string to heaven's gate, one tug at a time.
[Pure Act] will help re-awaken your idealism.
Ron Rolheiser, OMI
“This grace-filled biography is a book I have for years been hoping someone might write, and now, thanks to Michael McGregor, this has become an answered prayer. With grace and insight McGregor bears witness to the evolution of a great artist who is seamlessly connected to his art.”
Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment and Living with Wisdom: A Biography of Thomas Merton
A monkish naïve character dedicated to God and writing, Lax maintained his gnomic humour throughout. This was a man of more Beatitude than Beat. Invited by Billie Holiday to go to her apartment to smoke dope and listen to jazz records, McGregor tells us, he declined.
Times Literary Supplement
“McGregor, who discovered Lax after reading Merton’s classic book The Seven-Storey Mountain as a young man, subtitles his biography The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax. The poet, who spent most of his life living an austere, quiet life in Greece, latterly on the island of Patmos, regarded his dwelling place as 'like living in a church.'”
The Catholic Herald
Pure Act is a book to own. Beautifully written, there is wisdom within its pages. Everyone’s walk is different. Pure Act has a place along everyone’s way to be read once, slowly, and referred to again and again.
There’s something miraculous about everything that happened to Lax and every poem that he managed to write.
In clear, evocative prose, McGregor brings a triangular tale vividly to life: One side tells the story of Robert Lax’s searching into religion and poetry, a second side reveals his lifelong friendship with Trappist monk and acclaimed author Thomas Merton, and the third is a memoir of McGregor’s own development as a writer through his visits with Lax on Patmos. Lax’s story alone is as strange and gripping as any by Kafka. Read, and you will never forget Robert Lax.
“Literchoor Is My Beat”: A Life of James Laughlin, Publisher of New Directions
“Biographer Michael McGregor periodically visited [Lax] in Greece starting in 1985; his authorial reflections set the tone and character for his excellent biography, revealing the tug-and-pull of the particular in Lax's life.”
American Catholic Studies
“Michael McGregor's new biography, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, shines a welcome light on an under-appreciated figure. McGregor's writing is perceptive, intelligent, and quietly lyrical.”
Pure Act is a homage, a love letter, an apologia for a curious poetics, and a well-considered story about an uncommon man and his very uncommon life. For us, it may prove something of a wake-up call as well.
The Christian Century
When Pope Francis, during his historic speech before Congress last month, mentioned writer Thomas Merton, we were all reminded of Merton’s connection to Olean and St. Bonaventure University, as well as his close friendship with Olean native and poet Robert Lax . . . It was on the isle of Patmos that Michael N. McGregor, now a professor of English at the Portland State University (Ore.), first met Lax—a meeting that would culminate in a new biography, Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax.
The Olean Times Herald
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.
A much-acclaimed and wonderful and marvel-filled biography of one of my favorite poets and favorite sages.
New Dimensions Radio