Dorothy Day was a material girl." My seminar students laughed when I said that in the middle of a discussion of The Long Loneliness, but I wasn’t trying to be clever. Fifty years after its first publication, two generations past its initial historical moment, and a generation or so into a cottage industry of reverence, activism, and scholarship on Day, her autobiography can still speak to us, and the most engaging language in which it converses is that of sacrament, with dialects both personal and political.

Not that The Long Loneliness is the most reliable or illuminating source on Day or the Catholic Worker movement. Day omits some especially unpleasant or unflattering episodes from her radical days in Greenwich Village: her abortion (fictionally camouflaged in an early novel, The Eleventh Virgin) and her drinking bouts with fellow bohemians. (In Exile’s Return, Malcolm Cowley recounted how Day once literally drank Eugene O’Neill under the table.) While she’s bravely unapologetic about her radical politics, she does write elliptically about her opposition to American entry into World War II-a concession, wise but still misleading, to America’s postwar euphoria. Her other books are more informative about different aspects of her vocation. Loaves and Fishes (1962), for instance, contains more vivid vignettes of the New York "house of hospitality." On Pilgrimage: The Sixties (1973) chronicles her reactions to the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the New Left, and the upheavals in American Catholicism. And Robert Ellsberg’s splendid collection of Day’s articles, essays, and editorials, By Little and By Little (1983) displays the range of her interests.

Still, The Long Loneliness remains invaluable as a witness to modernity, a remarkably candid account, without piety, of her journey to faith. Day is honest and charitable (almost to a fault) about her generally shabby treatment by men. Consider the list: her relatively indifferent father (who, she neglects to tell us, tried to quash her budding career as a journalist); the bohemian lefties who slept with and abandoned her; the mercurial Forster Batterham, a man by turns attentive lover ("Forster made the physical world come alive for me," she remarks in a gentle erotic euphemism) and self-absorbed crank (he spends two weeks brooding on the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti); the brusque autodidact Peter Maurin, whose (I think overpraised) "easy essays" both inspired and lamed the Catholic Worker movement.

In each case, Day-an exemplary and ambivalent "New Woman" in the early stages of the twentieth century’s sexual revolution-enacted a complicated play of deference and defiance. She ascribes far too much credit to the endlessly yammering Maurin-this, after pages of describing her legwork-but slyly observes that he "never filled in the chasms, the valleys, in his leaping from crag to crag of noble thought." She puts up with Batterham’s moods and his anti-Catholicism, but also locks him out of their house after a nasty (and terminal) row.

Day’s relationship with Batterham highlights the eroticism that figured crucially both in Day’s conversion and in her politics. Indeed, Day writes about her romantic life before conversion without a trace of the penitential affectation that mars portions of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain (published four years before her book, to reviews more rave than those Day received). Just as she never renounces her radicalism as a sinful delusion, she never simplistically denounces her sexual freedom as a roster of fornications. Rather, she reflects sadly but not self-flagellantly on the incompleteness of her loves, their perversity in the Augustinian sense. After a night spent fishing, Batterham "came in smelling of seaweed and salt air; getting into bed, cold with the chill November air, he held me close to him in silence....I loved him for the odds and ends I had to fish out of his sweater pockets and for the sand and shells he brought in with his fishing. I loved his lean cold body as he got into bed smelling of the sea."

That’s a beautiful passage-austere in style, tactile in memory, and darkly rapturous in feeling-but we cannot understand it apart from Day’s conviction that "there would be nothing left of that love without a faith." With faith, Day lost Batterham; and while that rupture broke her heart, what remained of her love was a gratitude that transformed her life. For Day avows candidly that her bodily life with Batterham-crowned by their daughter Tamar-led her toward, not away from, God. "It was life with him," she writes, "that brought me natural happiness, that brought me to God." Batterham’s "ardent love of creation," as well as their parenthood that made them "co-creators," revealed to Day (if not to her hard-shelled lover) that material life was a portal on divinity, a sacramental reality.

Throughout the book, Day exhibits a love of the material world and of the labor that transforms it. Her early household chores of scrubbing, washing, sweeping, and cooking; her mother’s handmade dresses ("the sheen of our ginghams, pale blue and pink, the flowered challis"); her nursing duties replete with bedpans, needles, douches, and enemas-through these, Day acquired an abiding appreciation of the pleasures and pains of sensual life. "One thing I was sure of," she reflects on her stint as a nurse, "was that the fellow workers and I were performing an act of worship." Unlike most of the tired and ineffectual complaints about "materialism," Day’s belief early on was that proximity to material reality brought one into contact with God.

Day’s "personalism," her reformulation of anarchist and syndicalist ideas, rested on this materialist religiosity. She initially moved in the circle, with writers such as John Reed, Max Eastman, and Floyd Dell and cartoonists Art Young and Robert Minor, that gathered around the Masses magazine. But she gravitated toward the anarcho-syndicalist ideas of Peter Kropotkin, Leo Tolstoy, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). While Day’s conversion mandated a repudiation of sexual freedom, she retained and even deepened her radicalism, a Catholicism that leavened ultra-left political economy, not only with the aesthetic sensibility of John Ruskin and William Morris, but with the redeeming spirit of charity. The program that Day outlines-worker control of production and technology, restoration of crafts, renewal of agrarian life, decentralized factories-emerged out of a "philosophy of work" that idealized the craftsman, the artisan who, combining mental and manual labor, knew "the joy of creativity" and its ensuing "physical but not nervous fatigue." Day’s artisanal sacramentalism was a way of combating the decline of aesthetic values in the modern economy and the increasing abstractness and disembodiment of our relationship to the material world.

Day’s concerns about the immateriality of modern life were evident in her pacifism during World War II. She titles the wartime section of The Long Loneliness "War Is the Health of the State"-a phrase she borrows from an earlier antiwar radical, Randolph Bourne-and implies thereby that death is the life of the state. Day feared that the rhetoric and practice of patriotic sacrifice, actions properly focused only toward God, could be directed to the glory and power of a nation-state. Her fear of the gnostic desire to "escape from matter, from flesh, from life" that impelled the fervor of modern warfare is a durable insight into the perversity of human longing.

Day’s sacramental imagination can still be a sure light in our post-September 11 world. The human price exacted-in Afghani and American lives-for our "freedom" and "homeland security" is too easily ignored. Day’s sacramental realism should lead us to ask if a freedom so purchased is not really a servitude.

Published in the 2002-05-03 issue: View Contents

Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. He is completing The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

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