Dorothy Day review: biography of a radical rebel is the masterpiece she deserves

John Loughery and Blythe Randolph achieve wonders in their life story of one of Francis Is four morally exemplary Americans

An iconoclast with a long, peripatetic life is an ideal subject for a biography. Add in motley enthusiasms and fierce convictions, plus connections to many of the most audacious artists and activists of her time, and you have the makings of a masterpiece.

Of course these elements must fall into the right hands. Biographers must be imaginative researchers, sophisticated thinkers and most importantly fluid writers. If they can illuminate all of the nuances of the eras their subject inhabited, their storytelling can become compelling history.

In the kind of literary alchemy most authors can only dream of, John Loughery and Blythe Randolph have blended all of these elements to produce this masterful biography of Dorothy Day, a great anomaly in American life: an orthodox Catholic and a political radical, a rebel who courted controversy whose life ran from the Spanish-American War to the election of Ronald Reagan.

At a moment when a pandemic is bringing all the failures of unbridled capitalism into stark relief, nothing could be more timely than the biography of a convert to Catholicism who preached that the New Testament called on all believers to fight racism, war and poverty or it meant nothing at all and for whom faith was less about solace than a call to action and disruption. Piety and conformity to social norms had little to do with each other.

In 2015, speaking before Congress, Pope Francis I named Day one of four morally exemplary Americans, along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr and Trappist monk Thomas Merton.

Born in New York City in 1897, Day moved when her father, a reporter in love with the race track, got a job with a San Francisco paper. The experiment lasted just three years, ending when the earthquake of 1906 leveled her fathers place of employment. They moved to Chicago.

At 12, Dorothy had a kind of victory when her non-religious parents allowed her to be baptized as an Episcopalian a way station on her path to Catholicism, because her father believed only Irish washerwomen and policemen are Roman Catholic.

In a deep irony the authors barely acknowledge, the future radicals career was launched by a $300 scholarship from the Chicago Examiner, one of the many newspapers owned by the deeply reactionary William Randolph Hearst. At the University of Illinois in Urbana, politics entirely displaced religion as [Days] great preoccupation. She also took up smoking and cursing, habits that would serve her well when she left college long before graduation to move to Greenwich Village.

Snaring a job at The Call, New Yorks only daily socialist paper, with a circulation of 15,000, Day crossed paths with everyone from birth control advocate Margaret Sanger to Edna St Vincent Millay and Eugene ONeill. Her deep but brief friendship with ONeill looked like an affair to friends, although Day insisted it was only affectionate companionship.

The authors portrait of bohemian Greenwich Village at its height is one of the books first and greatest pleasures, including a fine description of the Provincetown Players, an avant garde group of playwrights who relocated in 1915 from Cape Cod to a brownstone at 139 MacDougal Street. Besides ONeill, Days acquaintances there included John Reed, Louise Bryant, Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams.

The Village offered something unconventional and sustaining a spiritual haven a great anomaly in Gods Country, a sort of liberal radical small town filled with political rebels, intellectuals, gay men and lesbians and those who had been misfits among their families, the kind of people Bob Dylan, a denizen of the same milieu 50 years later, would celebrate as every hung up person in the whole wide universe.

For Day, a night of carousing at the Hell Hole on Sixth Avenue, a dive of the shadiest kind, might be followed by a visit the next morning to St Josephs Church not to repent but to see if she could fathom what it was the silent worshipers were feeling, what it meant to pray and seek a communion with a higher power. It was a call, inexplicable at the time even to herself, which led her to be baptized as a Roman Catholic in her late 20s.

In 1920, she had a passionate and abusive affair with a charismatic newsman, Lionel Moise, which ended with a pregnancy and an abortion, a decision she regretted all of her life that was followed by two suicide attempts.

Days Catholicism took on a whole new meaning when she met a French immigrant laborer and idiosyncratic intellectual, Peter Maurin. With him she founded The Catholic Worker (a still-extant monthly) which eventually reached 100,000 readers. It turned out to be the eclectic forum Day had been looking for a periodical that allowed her to travel the country to report personally on labor strikes and corporate abuses, to send her reporters out to document examples of home foreclosures and racial discrimination and, most importantly, to offer a lacerating critique of Americans materialist values, all in a context that invoked Christs teachings, the example of St Francis of Assisi, and papal encyclicals about social issues.

Day
Day attends an anti-Vietnam war planning session with fellow activist Father Daniel Berrigan. Photograph: Lee Lockwood/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Even while she devoted her whole life to raising up the downtrodden, Days lifelong adherence to orthodox Catholic views kept her apart from other liberal Catholics.

After Days period of sexual experimentation, Loughery and Rudolph write, she certainly agreed by the 1930s with the Churchs teachings on abortion, birth control, masturbation and premarital sex Obedience to religious authority itself became a virtue, not only as a matter of belief but as a spiritual gesture a means by which to humble the ego and circumscribe ones individuality. If a healthy ego and a strong sense of self, sacred notions in the west, were obstacles to knowing God, they must cease to be all important. Those ideas were not easy to convey to the young people she was surrounded by in the whirlwind of the 60s.

In the second part of her life, Day was an exceptionally early opponent of intervention in Vietnam, beginning with a piece in 1954 for the Catholic Worker which expressed dismay over French occupation. Even as the French were seeking aid from Eisenhower, it was an implicit warning of the danger of a US commitment to land war in the jungles of Vietnam.

In the 1960s, she was again way ahead of the curve when she threw her support behind striking farm workers in California after meeting their leader, Cesar Chavez. Having become disillusioned with other labor leaders who she decided were uninterested in fundamental changes in American capitalism, she found a soul brother in Chavez, a devout Catholic who lived humbly, supported the cause of nonviolence, and believed that his was a spiritual and not merely an economic mission.

Loughery has written three other biographies, including one about the painter John Sloan which was a finalist for a Pulitzer. He is also the author of The Other Side of Silence, the single finest gay history I have ever read. Randolph has published books about Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh.

With this collaboration, both have done the finest work of their lifetimes.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/apr/19/dorothy-day-review-biography-john-loughery-blythe-randolph

Leave a Reply:

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.