By Byron Borger
The radical activist turned Catholic agitator, Dorothy Day, visited Pittsburgh often from her impoverished Manhattan neighborhood where she served the poor and destitute. Once she spoke at a gathering at the activist-oriented Thomas Merton Center, then located on the city’s South Side. Few people in the room had been arrested for civil disobedience as often as Dorothy Day, although she would grow to admire several legendary Pittsburghers who took their faith from the pews to the streets, protesting the nuclear weapons business of Rockwell International and starting missions of mercy like Jubilee Soup Kitchen and the Duncan + Porter House of Hospitality, which was inspired by her own Catholic Worker houses.
Even the secular unionists and socialist comrades were in awe of a woman who seemed to be a blend of the charitable Mother Teresa and the liberation theologist Oscar Romero, perhaps one of the most potent social critics of the 20th-century. It was a significant evening; even the Center’s namesake, the monk Thomas Merton, hadn’t met the woman who published his underground essays, penned under a pseudonym.
The event is not mentioned in the exceptionally detailed new biography Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph, although Pittsburgh shows up several times in the hefty volume. After her 1927 conversion to Roman Catholicism, Dorothy Day often took retreats with a Father Hugo in Oakmont and in the 1930s she was enthralled with progressive labor activism, visiting steelworkers and coal miners here.
Mr. Loughery and Ms. Randolph have both earned acclaim for their skillful work as biographers. Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice is magisterial and glorious; it captures intimate details and offers new insights into Day’s colorful life even as it places her in the broader context of radical movements and the landscape of causes during the 20th century. It understands her “long loneliness” set alongside the sorts of injustices documented in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.
There have been many smaller biographies and books about Dorothy Day and her Catholic Worker movement. It has been decades since a major work has been produced on her; and it may be that Mr. Loughery and Ms. Randolph have given us the definitive biography. Dorothy Day’s quite readable prose and deep understanding of social history also captures her fascinating, enigmatic — some might say aggravating — devotion to Jesus Christ and the Catholic church even as she railed against injustice, war, church duplicity and compromise. As the biographers put it: “An impassioned critic of unfettered capitalism, U.S. foreign policy, the nuclear arms race and the debacle of the Vietnam War, Day was at the same time as skeptical of many of the tenets of modern liberalism as she was of political conservatism. She was outspoken as well about what she saw as the complacent, conflicted role of religion in our national life.”
Before her Christian conversion, Dorothy Day lived a life of left-wing activism — knowing Wobblies and Communists and anarchists and pacifists — rooted in her excitable, bohemian lifestyle. She met and befriended many of the leading literary lights of those days (Edna Saint Vincent Millay, Eugene O’Neill, Hart Crane, Mary Gordon.) Mr. Loughery and Ms. Randolph know well the arts and literary scenes of the first quarter of the century and tell us the significance of the plays she attended, the novels she read, the writers she worked with (or slept with) in Chicago, New Orleans or New York.
That she was writing for banned socialist magazines, crossing paths with John Reed (think of the movie “Reds”) and getting arrested with suffragettes even while debating Dostoevsky and e.e. cummings with artists and playwrights, makes her story fabulously entertaining. The authors are excellent guides to the politics and cultural reformers who so influenced the era and the 20-something Day. The biography becomes, in the words of Barbara Ehrenreich, “a surprisingly intimate history of twentieth-century America.”
There is a moving chapter explaining Dorothy Day’s decision to baptize her daughter (born out of wedlock) and her own compelling conversion to Catholicism. As always, Mr. Loughery and Ms. Randolph report what Day was reading (in literature, theology, philosophy and politics; it becomes evident that one simply cannot understand Dorothy Day without diving deep into her own reading and intellectual questions). The final three-quarters of this 400- plus page book explores the founding of the Catholic Worker newspaper (at its zenith with a subscription of more than 100,000), the houses open to the poor and mentally ill, the farms, the communes, the fights, the prayers and the protests.
The chapter on her 1980 death and funeral begins with these lines: “Dorothy Day’s passage from this world was in the spirit of the Catholic Worker itself: intense, chaotic, spare, sad, passionate, celebratory, anti-intuitional, and personalist to the last.” Mourners poured in, more than 800 “who represented the disparate strands of Dorothy’s life.” These included Cesar Chavez, I.F. Stone, Abbie Hoffman, Robert Ellsberg, Frank Sheed, Daniel Berrigan and Newsweek’s Kenneth Woodward. The biographers know, though, that Dorothy Day’s service to the hungry received no reprieve, and neither could her followers. They continue.
After the funeral, mourners went back to Maryhouse, where a 10-gallon kettle of pea soup was simmering and loaves of brown bread and baskets of oranges were filling a table nearby. There were so many to feed that day.
(The book was published by Simon & Schuster. It can be purchased through Hearts and Minds bookstore – www. heartsandmindsbooks.com. This review originally ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this year.)
Byron Borger owns, with his wife, Beth, Hearts & Minds, an independent bookstore in Dallastown, PA. He regularly reviews books at their store newsletter, BookNotes (www.heartsandmindsbooks.com/ booknotes). He served on staff of the Thomas Merton Center in 1981.
NewPeople Newspaper VOL. 50 No. 4. May/June, 2020. All rights reserved.