A Review of
Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century
John Loughery and Blythe Randolph
Reviewed by Erin Wasinger
Here’s the thing about the latest biography of Dorothy Day: while not a wild adventure to read, this book needs to exist.
John Loughery and Blythe Randolph’s thorough biography, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, attempts to dissect Day’s life by the light of the 20th century. It’s a necessary perspective, even among a myriad of other Day biographies, documentaries, websites. The authors benefit from hindsight for Day and our country. Much like writers today will fail to wrap their whole arms around explaining the novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s taken the forty years since Day’s death to more fully understand what Day was radical for and against.
That said, Day neophytes should pass on this title until they’ve read Day’s autobiography The Long Loneliness (Harper & Bros., 1952), or any number of other biographies about her. For similar reasons, this new biography doesn’t leave the reader with a fuller understanding of the woman or her inner life; better to seek out Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother by Kate Hennessy (Simon and Schuster, 2017).
A basic knowledge of Day is helpful to think more critically about her radical nature, so I’ll provide an incomplete snapshot. Day is a social justice hero of the last century, leaving behind a legacy of Catholic Worker houses of hospitality and the newspaper she founded by the same name. The mission was to live with, advocate for, and provide for those at the bottom of the bottom — the mentally ill, the alcoholic and homeless, the destitute. Since her death, conversations about Day tend to be generous, especially in light of how seriously she lived the message of the gospels. But during her life she was a lightning rod.
Most of her story is colored by paradox, as Loughery and Randolph explain in the opening of the book and as is evident throughout. She was an atheist turned Roman Catholic. She was orthodox but church leadership found her obnoxious. Political — arrested as a suffragette once, even — but she never cast a vote. Called both a Communist and a saint (though she famously quipped “saint” didn’t work; she didn’t want to be dismissed so easily). (In fact, she’s in the beginning phases of the long process of being considered for sainthood in the Catholic Church, the body that once asked her to please, please remove “Catholic” from her newspaper’s masthead.)
Beyond the introduction, the authors write each chapter with the precision of scientists extracting DNA sequences, sometimes to a fault. Like a protracted timeline Loughery and Randolph detail her newspaper gigs and how she got the jobs; what she wrote and who she met in the newspaper office. The narrative crawls through most of the paragraphs about these colleagues and relationships, though recognizing a few famous names adds to the sense that Dorothy’s life was full of some sort of magic or serendipity (Eugene O’Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay — what a time to be young in Greenwich Village!).
The book is strongest when it reaches outside of the tight focus on Day’s life and reminds us how she fit (or didn’t) into American culture. A deeper appreciation grows for the Catholic Worker and its leader as the reader recognizes the pure steadiness of its mission and values. Day’s strong beliefs in the moral obligation to care for the poor means more when it holds up to continually evolving challenges by America’s changing understanding of poverty. Her pacifist convictions are tested again and again, from World War II to Vietnam, making her a pariah or a hero, or something in between (such as when others asked her what, then, a country should do in response to Nazis?). Relationships based on mutuality with residents at the Catholic Worker reveal a humanity necessary to appreciate the hard, inner work of fifty years of providing hospitality to the poorest of the poor. As America changed, so did the perception of these relationships and the usefulness of the Catholic Worker. These and other examples of steadiness are threads holding the Worker experiment — and the book — together.
I’d already started the Day biography before my state’s pandemic restrictions were enacted; my brain went right to “What would Dorothy Day say?” Can we surmise her feeding program would continue? What strong words would she have for the protests about relaxing restrictions on behalf of the economy? What would she write publicly from the Catholic Worker? What would we read, decades later, in her diaries? I appreciate that after reading Loughery and Randolph’s book, the answers to those questions are a little more clear.
One last detail deserves mention in light of the novel coronavirus. Spending these weeks at home with my children, I’ve noticed them watching for the helpers — they’ve become helpers, even, in writing messages in chalk for neighbors and mailing cards and drawings to friends and relatives. I hope they remember this.
As a child of 8, Dorothy had a similar defining moment when she and her family survived the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. Amid all the destruction, she saw people helping others — did she spend her whole life trying to recreate that spirit? She writes in The Long Loneliness:
“Only then (after the San Francisco earthquake) did people really live, really love their brothers. In such love was the abundant life and I did not have the slightest idea how to find it.”
The question for us, then, becomes one that Dissenting Voice of the American Century asks, too: I wonder what we’re teaching our children now about the kind of world we want to live in. Dorothy might add: “I wonder what they’ll someday be willing to give up to get it.”