Tuesday, September 13, 2011
Dorothy Day, radical conscience of America, lives on in All Is Grace
(To the left is a photograph of Dorothy Day in 1934.)
I didn’t waste much time when I learned that a new biography of Dorothy Day had been published. I had to order it, of course, since books by or about Day seem never to find themselves to the shelves of your local corner bookstore.
At last it arrived, All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, by Jim Forest, published by Orbis Books, and even though I’ve read and studied her life many times, I’ve now learned that there was so much I didn’t know about this enigma in American literature and social consciousness.
Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, social activist, newspaper editor and writer, author of the classic autobiography The Long Loneliness, and resurrectionist of the grand-but-almost-forgotten tradition of Catholic social teaching, is a haunting, even troubling figure in modern-day America.
Few have stood farther to the Left on many social issues—from labor rights to civil rights—or bore as many bona fide credentials—from her jailing as a card-carrying IWW Wobbly during the original Red Scare at the end of World War I to marches with United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez and with civil rights leaders in the segregated South in the 1960s.
Yet her Christian faith was unwavering, a faith that embodied both a clear-eyed look at the cold realities of this earthly life and a mystical union with the crucified Son of Man and the church he entrusted to his disciple Peter.
Forest, an old hand at the Catholic Worker and friend of Day, captures this dichotomy well. I’ll make a confession here: I’ve not yet completed the book. I plan to read it slowly, too slowly to wait before offering this review. However, I’ve read enough to know that it provides a new, in-depth look at Dorothy Day, filling in many gaps with wonderful details about her life and her views. Yet perhaps what I love best about it are the photographs.
The photographs are wonderful—from the book’s cover photo by Bob Fitch showing her busy at her typewriter in a cluttered room with her beloved books lining the shelves behind her to the closing photographs of her funeral procession through the streets of New York in 1980.
The story of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker is familiar to many, but it’s still a fascinating one. The daughter of an itinerant sportswriter, Day saw poverty and the marginalized up close and personal at an early age. A radical and a rebel from her last days in high school and first days at the University of Illinois, she dropped out of school and launched her writing career with socialist publications like The Call. She had a lover, became pregnant, had an abortion, lived the bohemian life in New Orleans and later Provincetown, befriending playwright Eugene O’Neill, and taking in a common-law husband who was an atheist. Pregnant again, she vowed she would have this child, and the religious impulses that she had long resisted became too strong to ignore.
An Episcopalian by birth, she found herself drawn to the Catholic Church and had her daughter Tamar baptized in it. She and her common-law husband parted. Later in New York she met the vagabond French poet and philosopher Peter Maurin, who with her co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement at the beginning of the Great Depression and the Catholic Worker newspaper that was at the movement’s heart. They and a long line of volunteers who would eventually include such folks as The Other America author Michael Harrington fed and sheltered the poor and jobless in the movement’s “houses of hospitality” while growing their own food at communal farms outside New York and elsewhere. Meanwhile, they put out a newspaper that hit hard at the issues of the day while searching the issues of the soul as well.
Day, whose father came from Tennessee, kept an eye on the South even as she wrote about urban life in New York. The first issue of The Catholic Worker (cost: 1 cent per edition, 25 cents per year’s subscription—still true today) in May 1933 dealt with the treatment of black labor on the river levees in the South. The newspaper’s third issue focused on child labor and the Carolina textile mill strikes.
In 1936 Day traveled to Memphis to get a first-hand look at the Southern Tenant Farmer’s Union and its struggles to improve workers’ lives in the area. “During that trip I saw men, women, and children herded into little churches and wayside stations, camped out in tents, their household goods heaped about them, not one settlement but many—farmers with no land to farm, housewives with no homes. I saw children ill, one old man dead in bed and not yet buried, mothers weeping with hunger and cold. I saw bullet holes in the frame churches, and their benches and pulpits smashed up and windows broken. Men had been kidnapped and beaten; men had been shot and wounded. The month after I left, one of the organizers was killed by a member of a masked band of vigilantes who were fighting the Tenant Farmers’ Union.”
Such was Day’s evocative writing, a pared-down, even simple style yet one brimming with compassion and righteous indignation against social injustice.
Day was an activist as well as a journalist. As a result of that Memphis trip, she telegrammed a plea for help to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who in turn contacted Tennessee’s governor. The governor was unmoved, and so was the Memphis Commercial Appeal, which editorialized against outsiders like Day “who came to criticize.”
My hope is this new biography will help excite further new interest in Day. A movement is already underway to have her declared a saint, something she likely she would have opposed. Her life is a testament to the validity and strength of Catholic social teaching, a tradition ignored and nearly forgotten until recently.
The phenomenon of once-staunchly Democrat Catholics, all of them immigrants or descendants of immigrants, many of them once poor, siding with the Republican Party in recent decades is, as the late and fiery Catholic labor priest Monsignor Charles Owen Rice of Pittsburgh once lamented, “another cross in my old age.”
This writer recalls attending the annual meeting of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists here in Oxford, Miss., in October 2009, and hearing one speaker attempt to brand even fascism and Nazism as sins of the Left, not the Right.
In a Labor Day speech this month, however, the head of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockdon, Calif., praised labor unions and pointed to Pope Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum in 1891 and subsequent papal encyclicals and statements as unassailable proof of the Church’s deep commitment to the right of workers everywhere to unite and to be treated justly as workers and human beings regardless of claims against them by capital.
Dorothy would approve.