In The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton reflects on his early life and on the quest for faith in God that led to his conversion to Roman Catholicism at age 23. Upon his conversion, Merton left a promising literary career, resigned his position as a teacher of English literature at St. Bonaventure's College in Olean, New York, and entered The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky. Describing his entry, Merton writes, "Brother Matthew locked the gate behind me, and I was enclosed in the four walls of my new freedom." Later, Dom Frederic Dunne, the abbot at the Abbey, who had received him as a novice, suggested that Merton write out his life story, which he reluctantly began, but once he did, it started "pouring out". Soon he was filling up his journals with the work that led to the book which Time Magazine later described as having "...redefined the image of monasticism and made the concept of saintliness accessible to moderns."
In Merton's journals, the first entry mentioning the project is dated March 1, 1946, but many scholars think he started writing it earlier than that, because the draft (more than 600 pages) reached his agent Naomi Burton Stone by October 21, 1946.
In late 1946, the partly approved text of The Seven Storey Mountain was sent to Naomi Burton, his agent at Curtis Brown literary agency, who then forwarded it to the renowned book editor Robert Giroux at Harcourt Brace publishers. Giroux read it overnight, and the next day phoned Naomi with an offer, who accepted it on the monastery's behalf. With Merton having taken a vow of poverty, all the royalties were to go to the Abbey community. Soon a trouble arose, though, when an elderly censor from another abbey objected to Merton's colloquial prose style, which he found inappropriate for a monk. Merton appealed (in French) to the Abbot General in France, who concluded that an author's style was a personal matter, and subsequently the local censor also reversed his opinion, paving the way for the book's publication.
Edward Rice, a close friend of Merton's since their college days together at Columbia, suggests a different story behind the censorship issues. Rice believes the censor's comments did have an effect on the book. The censors were not primarily concerned with Merton's prose style, but rather the content of his thoughts in the autobiography. It was "too frank" for the public to handle. What was published was a "castrated" version of the original manuscript. At the time Rice published his opinion, he was unable to provide any proof; however, since then early drafts of the autobiography have surfaced and prove that parts of the manuscript were either deleted or changed. In the introduction to the 50th-anniversary edition of the autobiography, Giroux acknowledges these changes and provides the original first paragraph of Merton's autobiography. Originally, it began "When a man is conceived, when a human nature comes into being as an individual, concrete, subsisting thing, a life, a person, then God's image is minted into the world. A free, vital, self-moving entity, a spirit informing flesh, a complex of energies ready to be set into fruitful motion begins to flame with love, without which no spirit can exist..." The published autobiography begins with "On the last day of January 1915, under the sign of the Water Bearer, in a year of a great war, and down in the shadow of some French Mountains on the borders of Spain, I came into the world."
In the summer of 1948, advance proofs were sent to Evelyn Waugh, Clare Boothe Luce, Graham Greene and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, who responded with compliments and quotations which were used on the book jacket and in some advertisements. The first printing run was increased from 5,000 to 12,500. Thus the book was out in October 1948, and by December it had sold 31,028 copies and was declared a bestseller by Time Magazine . The New York Times , however, initially refused to put it on the weekly Best Sellers list, on the grounds that it was "a religious book". In response, Harcourt Brace placed a large advertisement in The New York Times calling attention to the newspaper's decision. The following week, The Seven Storey Mountain appeared on the bestsellers list, where it remained for almost a year.