I would not go so far as to say that I have been steeped in Dorothy Day lore, but I have been a Catholic Worker for a while, and we do talk about Dorothy quite a bit around here at the Houston Catholic Worker. I am surrounded by people who know an immense amount about her, I have had the privilege of meeting people who knew her well, I have read books by her and about her. But to be honest, I do not think I really knew much about the “real” Dorothy Day until I read this fascinating collection of her letters.
As I read, I kept exclaiming to myself, “I didn’t know that!” Some of what I did not know I am sure I should have: facts about her life, that she had been married for a short time to a rich man, for instance. Other things I did not know are not available elsewhere, and some of it is at odds with the picture of Dorothy Day that I have in my head. For example, her first existing letter was written in 1923 to Margaret Sanger, the founder of what was to become Planned Parenthood, mentioning that Dorothy would have liked a job with Sanger’s organization!
Of course, it is well known, and Dorothy was the first to admit, that before her conversion to Catholicism she was far from saintly. My favorite quote from our most recent former President is “when I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” So was Dorothy.
But even after her conversion, her letters show a person struggling mightily with the conflict between her desires and her calling. That is what saints do, I guess, but somehow I thought it would be easier for them.
In particular, her letters to Forster Batterham, the father of her child, were at times almost painful to read. She keeps imploring him to marry her, often using Tamar, their daughter, as a guilt-trip:
“Well, perhaps someday I can bulldoze you into marrying me. I certainly don’t want to ever marry anybody else. Do I have to be condemned to celibacy all my days, just because of your pig-headedness? Damn it, do I have to remind you that Tamar needs a father? And you needn’t think I’m sentimental, because I’m not. She keeps asking for you, – and you know how she loves you . . . And whenever she sees a child with her father she points it out . . . So you see, she wants you as much as I do” (p. 28).
She would never have given up her faith, but had Forster ever given in to her entreaties and married her, the impression I got from the letters is that the Catholic Worker movement might never have come into being.
But these early letters are only one part of the treasure trove that is this book. Dorothy wrote a lot of letters. She herself estimated over a thousand in one year. And she was not writing them off the top of her head. She put thought and prayer into them, “so that an hour in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament is necessary before presuming to answer some of them” (p. xvi).
She corresponded with Presidents and Cardinals, activists and contemplatives, on an astonishing variety of subjects. A partial list of her correspondents includes Daniel Berrigan, SJ, Cesar Chavez, Allen Ginsberg, and Thomas Merton, and Fr. John Hugo. I was most interested in the letters to her intimates in the Catholic Worker movement, but the book is so well organized and formatted that it is easy for readers to find letters to correspondents that match their interests.
The editing by Robert Ellsberg, a former editor of the New York Catholic Worker and the editor of two other books on Dorothy’s writings, is outstanding. Although most of the thousands of letters she wrote are lost to history (she almost never kept copies), there are still enough preserved to overwhelm any reader, had it not been for Ellsberg’s skill in choosing and editing them. To clarify the letters and put them into context, he has written an introduction to the letters as a whole, to each section of the book, and occasionally to a specific letter or correspondent. This editorial material, maybe 15 pages all together, taught me more about Dorothy Day than any book I have read.
The index does a good job of listing the people and publications mentioned in the various letters, but it lacks any references to themes and/or topics. If you are interested in what Dorothy wrote in her letters about, say, war, or about the Resurrection, you are in for a long slog. You will to have to read, or at least skim through, each letter.
But that’s not a bad idea – you will enjoy it!
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXX, No. 1, January-February 2011.