Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice

July 8, 2020 at 4:02 pm | Posted in American Catholicism, Dorothy Day, The Catholic Worker | 2 Comments

The following is a review published in the July edition of Gumbo, the monthly publication of the United States Grail. I have retained references to the Grail because they may be helpful to those of you who have never heard of, or know very little about, the Grail.
Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century. By John Loughery and Blythe Randolph.

Simon and Schuster. 2020. 378 pp.

In September 2015, Pope Francis addressed the U.S. Congress, something no pope had ever done before. In his talk, Francis spoke of four Americans who offer us a new way of seeing and interpreting reality: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, and Dorothy Day.

Everyone had heard of Lincoln and MLK, of course, and even Merton is widely known, due to the sale of millions of copies of his 1948 autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. But what about Dorothy Day?

 

Many Grail members know very well who Dorothy Day is, because she is a small but significant part of the history of the U.S. Grail. The first recorded contact between the Grail and American Catholics was a 1936 letter to her from the co-founder of the U.S. Grail, Lydwine van Kersbergen. In 1943, with the Grail planted in the Midwest, Day, on sabbatical from the Catholic Worker, participated in a three-week Grail program on rural living, liturgy, and the women’s apostolate. She later made a silent retreat at Super Flumina, the Grail’s farm in Foster, Ohio. Over the years, she also sent women to the Grail from the Catholic Worker, including Helen Adler and Jane O’Donnell. She did so, I once heard, because she thought such women were better suited to the Grail’s order than to the Catholic Worker’s anarchy. I myself have a postcard from her which I received when I was part of the Grailville community in the 1970s.

Today, Dorothy Day’s reputation has grown considerably, in part because of the pope’s 2015 invocation, but also, and somewhat ironically, because her cause for canonization is advancing in the Catholic Church. Dorothy herself once said that being called a saint constituted “marginalization,” though she also evidenced considerable devotion to the saints.

Another sign of the growing interest in Dorothy Day is the publication of a new biography, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, by a major secular publishing house, Simon and Schuster. Authored by a noted writer of non-fiction, Joseph Loughery, and an experienced biographer, Blythe Randolph, the book updates the many previous studies of Dorothy Day (hereafter referred to as DD) and is, perhaps even more importantly, a terrific read.

At one level, the book leads us through the various stages of DD’s life in interesting detail, enabled by its 378 page length: from her birth into a solid, middle-class Republican family in Brooklyn in 1897 through the life changing experience of the San Francisco earthquake in 1906: her years in Illinois where she developed a religious sense and was baptized as an Episcopalian, through her years in New York City, after having dropped out of university, writing for radical newspapers, and becoming a Communist activist; her conversion to Catholicism after giving birth to a daughter, Tamar; her extraordinary encounter with the peasant philosopher, Peter Maurin, and their founding of the Catholic Worker newspaper and the Catholic Worker community. Equally galvanizing are the descriptions of DD’s arrests for protesting US militarism in its many manifestations and the conflicts within the Catholic Worker over DD’s strict enforcement of pacifism as a primary principle during World War II and thereafter. Also engaging are descriptions of the struggles DD herself underwent during her lifetime residence in Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, given their inclusion of not only poor but often crazy or violent men and women. And the relational struggles with her own daughter Tamar, and Tamar’s nine children.

Loughery and Randolph weave engaged threads throughout this narrative. One that engrossed me, as a reader/writer, was DD’s serious absorption in books, especially modern fiction, from her high school years on. The authors rebut allegations that DD was a rigid and traditionalist Catholic by exploring the wide range and sometimes distinctly extra-pious quality of that reading, including works by George Orwell, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and many others. Also fascinating is the history of DD’s relationships with significant intellectual figures throughout her life, from Eugene O’Neill and William Carlos Williams in the 1920s to Thomas Merton, Ignazio Silone, W.H. Auden and others in later years

 

Another thread, one that may well constitute the book’s primary contribution, is its emphasis on the tensions, even contradictions, within DD’s beliefs, commitments and activism. Loughery and Randolph note that already in 1963, A Commonweal review of DD’s book about the Catholic Worker, Loaves and Fishes, calls her “the most admired sign of contradiction in American Catholicism.” Her objections to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, including contraceptive use, alongside her relentless anti-war activism, serve as one example of such tensions, as well as her demands that activists respect those in authority, even those with whom they (and she) disagreed fiercely.

Such demonstrations of DD’s contradictions by the authors can play an important role in the ongoing canonization process, in which DD risks being prettied up to serve the purposes of the institutional church. I was amused by their quotation from Cardinal Spellman, the fierce proponent of the Vietnam War, that DD was “not a sufficiently dutiful daughter of the Church.” A few years ago, New York’s Cardinal Dolan, at an event in DD’s honor, described her as “an obedient daughter of the Church.” Truth is, both contentions are correct, depending on the issue.

Another of the book’s strengths is that Loughery and Randolph don’t take sides on questions that often divided the Catholic Worker community. I was struck particularly by their treatment of DD’s s position on homosexuality. Already in the 1950s, in line with her strict acceptance of Catholic sexual teaching, DD had described homosexuality as “loathsome.” At the same time she certainly had, and knew she had, a number of political and literary associates who were gay. Quite a few Catholic Workers living in houses of hospitality were as well. In the 1970s, when the Catholic Worker received a letter thanking the paper for its opposition to anti-Semitism and then asking why it didn’t address the oppression of gay and lesbian people as well, DD opposed publishing the letter. “In effect, ’Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ had been the Catholic Worker policy for decades,” the authors conclude. I was especially struck by the non-judgmental nature of this description when, in the Acknowledgements section, both of the male authors thank their husbands for their support.

There is much more to recommend about this book, including the authors’ amusing parenthetical comments throughout, and the fact that Loughery/Randolph’s narrative of DD’s life provides an amazing overview of the twentieth century. You may not feel inclined to read a nearly 400- page book, but in these strange times, there may not be anything better to do than curl up with Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century.

2 Comments »

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  1. I love this review and it makes me want to read the book for real! I love your details about the contradictions. Both authors thank their husbands! Hilarious.

    So, it looks like the Tropical Storm may have passed by Sunday, but we will keep a lookout at the weather! Can’t wait, either this Sun or next, but I hope this Sunday ❤.

    XOXO

    Like

  2. Thanks, Julie dear. It really is a terrific book. And yes! Really hoping for a rain-less Sunday. Xox.

    Like


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