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.)