Staten Island Spirituality

Dorothy Day’s “True Story” Columns
Dorothy Day is depicted in a stained-glass window at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in the Staten Island borough of New York City (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

In early 1931, Dorothy Day and her five-year-old daughter Tamar returned to New York from a lengthy sojourn in California, Mexico, and Florida. Eager to settle into her modest Staten Island beach house, Day sought employment with the local newspaper, the Advance. Her travels had been occasioned by her conversion, a decision that led to a break with her partner, William Forster Batterham, who objected on principle to marriage before church or state. As a practicing Catholic, she could no longer live with him.

Day contributed two columns to the Advance that spring. One was a gardening column that showcased local flora and provided “advice to local planters.” Accompanied by Tamar, Day drove her secondhand Ford around the island to admire flower beds and interview home gardeners. Not surprisingly perhaps, this column reveals little about her life and beliefs. But before this she had written another column titled “True Story Fictionalized: An Island Diary.” It ran for a month. “True Story” featured a plucky family challenged but undefeated by the economic ravages of the Great Depression. Besides their entertainment value, the upbeat stories of everyday life offered hope and practical tips for getting by. Extolling the island’s access to nature’s bounty and beauty, Day, who once worked for an island real-estate agent, engaged in unabashed boosterism. More unobtrusively, the column revealed the new convert’s thoughts about faith, family, and community during an otherwise obscure period in her spiritual development. Day was already sketching an impressionistic version of the radical Christianity that would be associated with the Catholic Worker movement.

The first installment of “True Story” appeared on March 19, 1931, the feast of St. Joseph, to whom Day would later appeal as the protector of the Catholic Worker. The column was written in Day’s signature style—intimate, lively, and richly detailed. Around that time, she had also been writing a few articles for the New Masses, a Communist magazine edited by her old friend Mike Gold, and for Commonweal. But writing for the Advance enlarged and broadened her audience and guaranteed a predictable, if temporary, income. Then, too, writing was a way to address, and perhaps to resolve, troubling personal matters.

Day lightly embellished material culled from her diaries, which burned in a fire during the mid-1930s. Fragments from these journals would reappear, scattered throughout early issues of the Catholic Worker and in her autobiographies. The similarity of the Advance stories to some of Day’s later nonfiction hints at their authenticity. In truth, Day’s writing was always at its best when conveying what she had experienced, witnessed, or heard. (Her efforts at pure fiction were less successful.)

 

Surrounded by poverty in Chicago and New York as a child and young adult, Day had already grasped the radical implications of Jesus’ teaching.

“True Story” highlighted the activities of a Catholic working-class family of five, headed by a fictionalized couple, Dorothy and Bill Day. Bill appeared only occasionally, since he was traveling from city to city to search for employment, and when he found work, could only return on weekends. The resilient Days sometimes sat down to a plain dinner of “boiled carrots, hot biscuits, honey, and tea.” The three children, Bill Jr., Jerry, and Teresa, absorbed their mother’s enthusiasm for the simple life. They learned by example “to economize—to recognize the value of money” and developed their “creative instinct” and “initiative” by making their own toys. When the eldest, Bill Jr., collected loads of driftwood, he proudly announced that using the wood for heating would “save on coal bills.” As cash-strapped Staten Island readers worried about how to pay the bills (this was the second year of the Depression), Day enthused about the bounty of the bay, beach, woods, and gardens. Such abundance, free for the taking, could feed poor islanders. Staten Island’s seasonal manna consisted of plentiful seafood and wild greens, such as dockweed, dandelion, and chicory. Even a child could gather lobster, blue shell crab, eels, and shrimp at low tide. Inexpensive activities such as bird watching and fishing enabled families to appreciate nature while releasing them from the grip of the acquisitive culture of nearby Manhattan. On one nature walk, the Days returned with “club moss to grow in the house,” gorgeous daylilies for transplanting, specimens for the children’s collections, and a perch for dinner. Indoors, a comforting cup of hot tea and “the latest books from the library” provided Mrs. Day with a few moments of relaxation. “Those who want the least” could become “the happiest in this world,” Day concluded.

The Day family’s simple-living ethic contained the seed of a radical critique of contemporary society. Its adoption would permit ordinary folks to undermine the profit-seeking capitalist economy by cutting needless consumption (and debt) and by promoting self-reliance. Even modest household changes could amount to a first step toward a nonviolent revolution. Much later, Day would endorse the “little way” of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, which emphasizes the spiritual importance of even our smallest activities. But Day was already concerned with the larger social implications of seemingly trivial routines when she wrote the “True Story” columns. Her abiding concern for social justice shone through the comforting domestic vignettes. In her first column, Day skewered Manhattan landlords for gouging poor tenants by dividing up apartments and raising rents. In later installments, she aimed her criticism at the capitalist system itself and the consumer habits that enabled it.

To illustrate her critique of bourgeois society, Day wrote about Lefty, who later appeared in her autobiographies as either Lefty or Smiddy. In one “True Story” column, she described him as “an admirable character” who “lives from day to day and insists on his freedom of body and soul.” Lefty believed that money was the root of evil and a source of oppression. By sheltering himself in a tiny beach shack, adopting a diet rich in seafood, and occasionally selling his catch for petty cash, he satisfied all his needs. Free from middle-class expectations, he “firmly” announced, “I am happy as I am.” His creative spirit enabled him to transform the seafood varieties scorned by others into delicious dinners. When Day called skate “repulsive looking,” he shared with her his recipe for it, which she printed for her readers. Despite his limited means, he could always offer the welcome hospitality of a big cup of coffee accompanied by “a thick slice of buttered toast.” Dorothy shared with Lefty a lengthy passage from The Varieties of Religious Experience in which William James celebrates “the strenuous life.” James thought one should choose poverty over acquisitiveness as the courageous path toward self-liberation: an “unbribed soul” was essential for “the spiritual reform which our time stands most in need of.” Day reports that Lefty heartily agreed. She touted Lefty’s simple living as a survival strategy and a path toward lofty spiritual heights. And still ignorant of modern Catholic social teaching, Day relied on James’s theories and Lefty’s lived example to confirm her long-held belief in the core teaching of the Gospel: a profound and inclusive love of neighbor.

Surrounded by poverty in Chicago and New York as a child and young adult, Day had already grasped the radical implications of Jesus’ teaching. The individualistic pursuit of gain, blessed by some prosperous Christians as a sign of God’s favor, misrepresented Jesus’ message by neglecting the needs of others. Her stories implied that by adopting a simple life, Staten Islanders could not only survive the economic downturn, but could do so without sacrificing authentic Christian values.

 

Day’s portrayals of Catholics showed them performing their religious duties unobtrusively.

Appearing during an era of increasing nativism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-Semitism, Day’s column rejected commonly held social fears. Earlier in the 1920s, harsh immigration laws imposed extremely restrictive quotas on southern and eastern Europeans. The nationwide grip of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan was targeting not only blacks but also Catholics, Jews, and all newcomers. As historian Linda Gordon writes, “the KKK may actually have enunciated values with which a majority of 1920s Americans agreed.” In a reassuring portrayal of her Staten Island community, which Dorothy described as “an international neighborhood,” Catholics, Jews, and recent immigrants threatened the well-being of no one. These were regular folks, “kindly and tolerant.” If they had flaws, they were no worse than those of their native-born neighbors. “Human failings which are common to us all,” she observed, “are excused on the grounds of our nationality.” The Days socialized with Americans and immigrants alike—among them, Swedish Britta, “a truthful woman,” and Russian Manuel, whose tall tales were “noted for their point” rather than “for their veracity.”

In contrast to common stereotypes of Catholics mindlessly obedient to a foreign power, ignorant of democracy, culturally unassimilated, and threatening to the American experiment, Day’s portrayals of Catholics showed them performing their religious duties unobtrusively. A priest reads his missal on the ferry. A foreign-born couple stops loading rocks as chapel bells chime the hour of the Angelus. The Catholic Days were themselves quintessentially American, embracing the ideals of hard work and self-reliance. They were friendly to all and generous toward the less well-off.

Day also used her “True Story” columns to try to persuade the father of her child to reconsider his opposition to marriage. Batterham was a voracious newspaper reader, though it’s impossible to know whether he saw the column or simply heard of it from friends. In any case, his resemblance to the fictionalized husband, Bill, is hard to miss. Bill and Batterham shared character traits and interests, including an obsessive love of fishing that provided what Day described as “an ecstasy of contentment.” Like Batterham, Bill worked in the city and traveled home to Staten Island on weekends.

The Day family of “True Story” shows the joys of married life. The fictional Day avoids proselytizing and counts an impressively diverse group of women among her friends. She repeatedly expresses contentment with her life as a wife and mother. She watches her children’s activities but does not try to control them. She knows, for example, that her teenage son Billy and his friends secretly drink weak dandelion wine, but she chooses to look the other way. She lovingly describes each child’s personality, hobbies, and preferences. A chance encounter with a pregnant friend leads to such unrestrained joy that Dorothy kisses her in the middle of a busy Manhattan street. “I miss a baby in my arms,” she confesses, now that her own children are older. The column functions as, among other things, the portrait of an ideal mother. Batterham was missing out.

“True Story” provides a glimpse into Dorothy Day’s early attempts as a Catholic to find a spirituality of radical Christian social responsibility. Even before her formal conversion, she had adopted an ethic of simple living, but now she was beginning to explore its spiritual benefits. Batterham never was persuaded to marry, but Day eventually created another kind of family by inviting others to form a community around the shared values of service and voluntary poverty. Like any real family, the Catholic Worker community had its share of trials and feuds, but it somehow survived them all, thanks in part to Day’s own resourcefulness, which the “True Story” columns keenly convey. In retrospect, it’s easy to see how these columns anticipated the Catholic Worker. The core values of the movement are all there: radical hospitality, simplicity, solidarity. A year and a half after the last of the “True Story” columns appeared, Day was introduced to Peter Maurin, a man a lot like Lefty, if Lefty were a Catholic intellectual. Together, the two would translate the values that animate “True Story” from the pages of the Staten Island Advance to the streets of Manhattan.

Published in the June 14, 2019 issue: 

Anne Klejment is professor emerita of history at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. She has written widely on the history of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement.

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