Between the Lines

In a brief letter to the editors (November 3, 1939) commending Commonweal on the occasion of its fifteenth anniversary, Dorothy Day wrote that Catholic Worker cofounder Peter Maurin "always says that it is the duty of the journalist to make history as well as record it." By Maurin’s standard, few journalists accomplished as much as Day herself. Fifty years after Commonweal printed an excerpt from her then forthcoming autobiography, The Long Loneliness ("The Story of Steve Hergenhan," January 11, 1952), Day remains one of the most unusual journalists in the history of American Catholicism: she made-and is still making-history.

I first read The Long Loneliness after coming to the Catholic Worker in New York and meeting Dorothy Day. Rereading it once again, I am struck at how quintessentially Day it is, in both substance and style. There are the cadences, the stories, the pointed references, the setting-matters-straight. There are her repetitiveness, her irony and complexity (early on, she quotes Chesterton on tradition, and in so doing lays the groundwork for her understanding of Christian anarchism; later in the book she quotes the agnostic William James to argue for a rediscovery of the religious value of voluntary poverty). There are Day’s purposeful ambiguity-to protect her privacy and that of others-coupled with remarkable self-revelations; her keen, invigorating descriptiveness; layers of self-deprecating humor; and sometimes a wearying polemicism. Altogether, these bring to mind long afternoon conversations with Day.

In recent years I have read quotes from Day-transcribed from tape recordings-that for all their recorded accuracy don’t truly sound like her. Just as perplexing have been the mounting reams of academic papers examining her life and thought. Some read like exercises in self-validating theory rather than accurate assessments of Day herself. One recent commentator, for example, intent on substantiating Day’s journalistic acumen, says that her famous postscript in The Long Loneliness ("We were just sitting there talking...") would better have read, albeit less poetically, "We were just writing there when...." No, the point of the matter in The Long Loneliness, as elsewhere in her writings, is that though Day was a professional journalist-and a gifted one-she was first and foremost a conversationalist. And while The Long Loneliness is her most sustained, disciplined, and stylistic piece of writing, it is, nonetheless, at heart a broad-ranging conversation.

In her later years, Day repeatedly threatened to write her "real autobiography." In fact, she took the winter months of 1974-75 away from Manhattan’s Saint Joseph House to do so at the Catholic Worker’s modest beach bungalow on Staten Island. She intended to call the new book All Is Grace. My impression at the time was that she wished to be more candid about her past than she had been in The Long Loneliness, and that she wanted to write at greater length about a number of people she had known, loved, and worked with.

She never got far with the project. I think at that point (she was seventy-seven at the time) Day was close to being worn out, and that she would rather spend hours talking with old friends like Marge Hughes, who happened to be living that winter in the adjacent bungalow. By the spring, Day had passed on the notes she had accumulated to her later biographer, William Miller. (Along with his 1982 biography of Day, in 1987 he published a slim volume titled All Is Grace [Doubleday]. It consisted largely of selected entries from Day’s retreat notes, diaries, and letters.)

What might Dorothy Day have written in her "real" autobiography? A great deal, no doubt. The Long Loneliness had been completed twenty-five years earlier (and what years those had been: sole leadership of the Catholic Worker movement following the death of Maurin; Vatican II; the civil rights movement and Vietnam; travels to Asia, Africa, Russia, and Australia). Furthermore, in rereading the 1952 book I am struck at just how much is left unsaid, at how much there is "between the lines." (What motivated her first trip to Europe after World War I? Why had she failed to mention the title of her autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin? What had it been like to argue World War II pacifism with friends like Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward?) A revised, expanded autobiography must have held great appeal for her. (Her 1963 book, Loaves and Fishes [Harper and Row], had updated the ongoing story of the Catholic Worker, but it was not truly an autobiographical sequel.)

Could Day have done better than The Long Loneliness? I have my doubts. It is a twentieth-century classic, and besides, by the 1970s she was too overextended to complete such an assignment. Furthermore, The Long Loneliness does brilliantly what she had intended it to do: tell the story of her conversion (or, in Saint Paul’s terms, give reasons for the faith that was in her). Between the book’s opening chapter-in which Day links writing an autobiography with going to confession-and the book’s postscript-in which she ties community and conversation to receiving Communion-she leaves us with the best glimpse we need as to the why and the how of her life. The world and the church have changed decidedly since 1952. But the integrity of Dorothy Day’s life-well lived and beautifully told in her autobiography-holds steady and luminous.

Published in the 2002-05-03 issue: 

Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

Also by this author
Prophetic Stringency

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Culture
Books