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Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century

Book Review

John Loughery & Blythe Randolph, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020.

Can any single work capture and convey the story of Dorothy Day’s endlessly fascinating and significant life?  Religiously precocious child born to nominally Christian parents.  Radical journalist and activist in her teens.   Bold bohemian in her twenties yet drawn toward spiritual awakening.  By her thirties separated from her beloved, single parent, Catholic neophyte, founding publisher, editor, and inspiring social activist.  With Peter Maurin’s encouragement and indoctrination, she would create a voluntary community, the Catholic Worker, where Gospel-grounded acts of charity and nonviolent revolution coexisted, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not.  Lifelong, she spoke truth to power and remained faithful to her vision.  Nourished by a vibrant and eclectic spirituality, she never stopped seeking ways to deepen her faith.  By the time of her death in 1980, many recognized Day as the most significant, influential, and original American Catholic of their lifetime, as noted by historian David O’Brien.

More than a generation since her death, writing a deeply informed account of her public and private life remains a daunting task.  Author of a large body of writings, some still awaiting discovery, voracious reader, and friend and acquaintance of an astonishing array of human beings, Day continues to challenge biographers.  Discovering, prioritizing, and interpreting sources and underlying themes involve herculean efforts.  Until additional specialized studies address various historical contexts and the complexities of religious radicalism, gender, labor activism, and social welfare, attempting a truly authoritative biography would be premature.

The most recent biography of the Catholic Worker co-founder, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph, aspires to portray Day as a major countercultural leader during the middle of twentieth century.  According to the authors, as an observant Catholic-cum-social radical, Day lived “profoundly at odds with much of both secular and religious thought.”  She rejected the pursuit of the individualistic American Dream and the national quest for global domination by any means necessary and offered an alternative.   Furthermore, she demanded that the Catholic church provide heartier nourishment for believers and refused to abide convenient compromise with the Gospel law of love.  This interpretation largely follows the lead of other major accounts of Day’s life, including Jim Forest’s All Is Grace and granddaughter Kate Hennessy’s The World Will Be Saved by Beauty.

What will attract readers to this new biography?  Those encountering Dorothy Day for the first time could find themselves engrossed in the lively and highly detailed portrayal of her life and her world.  The authors aimed for colorful portrayals of Day, her family, and her companions.  And they have largely succeeded.  Mary Heaton Vorse, Mike Gold, Floyd Dell, and Eugene O’Neill are among the most vivid and insightful portrayals from Day’s early life.  During her later years, portraits of Peter Maurin, Dorothy Weston, Stanley Vishnewski, Clarence Duffy, and Ammon Hennacy are memorable for the authors’ detailing of their contributions and their quirkiness.

Throughout her life, Day’s world was informed not only by observation and Gospel-grounded spirituality but by a voracious appetite for reading and attending lectures.  The authors excel in describing the ambiance of the various neighborhoods and buildings associated with the Catholic Worker.  Since Day loved to write about the fiction, drama, and nonfiction that influenced her thinking, the authors touch on some of the significant authors and literature.  Readers’ curiosity could be piqued by succinct portrayals of writers such as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Eugene O’Neill, and Sigrid Undset.   Theorists, such as, the communitarian anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin, however, deserve greater attention, as do the wartime influences of G. Barry O’Toole and John J. Hugo.

Events glossed over or ignored in The Long Loneliness receive ample coverage.  Day’s memoirs, as she admitted, were intended to explain only what led her to God and to Catholicism, rather than provide a tell-all confessional work.  Loughery and Randolph cover her two suicide attempts and detail her early romantic involvements, including an opportunistic marriage to Berkeley Tobey and speedy divorce.  Undesirable features of their coverage of Day’s life include occasional factual errors, oversimplification, and speculation.  For example, the IWW stands for the Industrial (not International) Workers of the World and 1 May celebrates international workers, not the Russian Revolution.  Without reliable evidence, speculation over whether Day had slept with Gold and O’Neill, not exactly a compelling issue, should be left to the discretion of the reader.

Loughery and Randolph’s portrayal of Dorothy Day avoids the saccharine piousness that she deplored in the lives-of-saints booklets provided by Sister Aloysia at the time of her conversion.  Accompanying Day’s sanctity, in these pages we encounter a “religious leader” possessing “more confidence than she often acknowledged” and an “all too often flailing” parent. “Snappish” when exhausted, she could be “steely” when challenged.   Day’s strength, of course, was that she held to her beliefs, including Gospel pacifism, when attacked on all sides, as she was during the Spanish Civil War and threatened with violence after the antiwar immolation of Roger La Porte.  These examples, and multiple others, display the authors’ willingness to provide a realistic portrait of Day, nor do they shy away from covering controversies, such as the retreats led by John Hugo.

A few aspects of the biography could disappoint readers.  Unnumbered endnotes do not always reveal sources.  For example, was Day a member of the University of Illinois Socialist Club, as the authors claim, or had she joined the Socialist party in Urbana as she claimed?   What is the basis for her parents’ reactions to her 1917 trip to Washington as an antiwar activist and reporter—or that she was proud of her cracked rib?  Does the unnamed “fiery” Collegiate Anti-Militarism League newsletter refer to the moderately progressive League’s little Magazine War? or to a publication by the small group of Columbia radicals?  Why use the demeaning term “suffragette” when Day and other Silent Sentinels, not to speak of historians of the women’s movement, refer to suffragists?  Does strong evidence show that Day “brought Tamar into every conversation” when she chatted with the childless Katherine Anne Porter?  Acknowledgement might have been made of the 1930s bungalow fire that certainly destroyed some of Day’s papers rather than suggesting that she was entirely responsible for the purging of her papers.

Day’s membership on the university baseball and hockey teams is supported by a note that leads the reader to a timeline rather than to the yearbook photo revealing an unenthusiastic participant.  The photo would have been a welcome addition to the uninspired and often reprinted photos chosen for the book.

This biography will probably appeal to readers eager for a juicy and detailed chronicle of Day’s life.  For those less familiar with Day’s life, Forest’s quickly paced biography, studded with a wide variety of quotations and photos, could be a better choice.  The most intimate and nuanced portrait of Day can be found in Hennessy’s book, which reveals Day’s complicated struggle to balance family and vocation, largely from the perspective of Day’s daughter Tamar.  Additionally, Hennessy explains her mother Tamar’s fierce loyalty to living out the Catholic Worker ethic, but in her own way as best she could.

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XL, No. 3, July-September 2020.