To their credit, John Loughery and Blythe Randolph appreciate the quite complicated, seemingly conflicted life of Dorothy Day. At the outset, they state that compared to other women of the Left who have been the subject of recent biographies—Jane Addams, Margaret Sanger, Rosa Parks, Rachel Carson, and Jane Jacobs, among others—Day is “a more difficult figure to encompass.” For almost fifty years, she was “a great anomaly in American life: an orthodox Catholic and a political radical.” Her sharp criticisms of capitalism, U.S. foreign policy, the arms race, and war after war, combined with a deep skepticism toward modern liberalism, “put her profoundly at odds with much of both secular and religious thought in the United States.” It is difficult, they acknowledge, “to sort out the paradoxes of a woman as many-sided as Dorothy Day.”
Loughery and Randolph address Day’s “paradoxes” and “many sides” through what has become a familiar story. What is striking is how they place her life in fuller context, filling in some gaps in that story and adding many vivid details.
In the early chapters, they provide background on the Call, the socialist daily paper that gave Dorothy her first job, and the Masses, where, working with Leftist luminaries Floyd Dell and Max Eastman, “she was happily in the eye of the storm” before the feds shut it down in August 1917. Here we learn that her comrade Mike Gold’s name was actually a pseudonym he adopted in the 1920s to replace the original (Romanian) Itzok or Irwin Granich, that he and Dorothy shared political and literary interests, and that perhaps they were lovers, although this is not certain. We do know that Mike Gold’s mother did not approve of the relationship. After hosting Dorothy for a tense family dinner, she smashed the plates used by their Gentile guest.
We also learn about Lionel Moise, the hard-boiled newspaper man who awed a “cub reporter” at the Kansas City Star by the name of Ernest Hemingway, and who was an unapologetic womanizer. Dorothy fell for him, hard. Their tortuous relationship is presented in disconcerting detail: Dorothy’s self-subordination to him, her following him to Chicago, her pregnancy and abortion, her suicide attempt(s) back in New York, and her marriage on the rebound to Berkeley Tobey which took her to London, Paris, Rome, Capri, then back to Manhattan where “the Tobeys” lived in the New Yorker Hotel. Dorothy walked out on him shortly thereafter and headed back to Chicago—back, she hoped, to Lionel, but to no avail. After almost two years there, plus five months in New Orleans, she returned to Manhattan just as her novel, The Eleventh Virgin, was published. Loughery and Randolph describe the reviews as “soul flattening.” Nevertheless, the book was purchased for movie rights, allowing Dorothy to buy a bungalow on Staten Island.
Readers of Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, might expect a dramatic shift in the plotline at this point, but Loughery and Randolph accentuate the continuity between Day’s life with Forster Batterham, the birth of her daughter Tamar, and her conversion, with her earlier period of “searching” (Part One of The Long Loneliness). They offer an informative background on the Batterham family of Asheville, North Carolina, and explain how Forster’s sister, Lily, whom Dorothy had befriended years before, introduced the two. As part of the Greenwich Village crowd, Forster acted in a Eugene O’Neill play at the Provincetown Playhouse. Dorothy loved his easygoing manner, his freedom from material attachments, his “unbribed soul,” as William James puts it in Varieties of Religious Experience, which Dorothy was reading at the time. The two were companionable, at ease with each other. For Dorothy, the relationship was a source of healing. It was strained by money trouble: Dorothy was a spender, Forster was exceedingly frugal. But it was the pregnancy that caused the breakup. Kids were not what Forster had bargained for. He did not even go to the hospital after Tamar’s birth. Dorothy’s decision the next year to have Tamar baptized made things worse. Her growing religiosity deepened the rift. After “a final, fierce argument” at Christmas 1927, Dorothy herself got baptized. But it was not a final parting, strictly speaking. Letters that were published in 2010 indicate that the relationship continued on and off for another five years—another period of searching, one could say, as Day tried to win Forster back. The authors depict these years too in rich detail: Day’s time in Culver City editing for a film studio, in Mexico City as a freelance writer, in Florida visiting her mother, all with Tamar in tow. Then she went back to New York where, for almost two years, she continued writing, now for Catholic publications, including Commonweal and America. They both assigned her to cover the National Hunger March in Washington D.C. in December 1932.
“Purpose” is the title of the chapter about Day’s prayer at the National Shrine for a way to serve the poor as a Catholic and her encounter soon thereafter with Peter Maurin. From here on out, the storyline follows standard accounts of Day and the Catholic Worker. Loughery and Randolph write as outsiders to the movement. (This became clear to me when I noticed Rosalie Riegle’s name in the acknowledgments, preceded by the words “the late.” I emailed Rosalie to ask if she had died and she quickly emailed back assuring me that she is still very much alive. This mistake has been corrected in online and future print editions.) They cover the Catholic Worker movement from its first site at Charles Street to Day’s final community setting on First and Third Streets. They work into the narrative a nearly full cast of Catholic Worker characters: Ade Bethune, Stanley Vishnewski, John Cort, Arthur Sheehan, Robert Ludlow, Ammon Hennacy, Mary Lathrop, Michael Harrington, Tom Cornell, Jim Forest, Frank Donovan, Jeannette Noel, Jeff Gneuhs, Robert Ellsberg, and Brian Terrel. They include a host of notable friends and fellow travelers: A. J. Muste, Eileen Egan, Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, and Cesar Chavez, to name a few. They touch on a wide range of intellectual sources for the Catholic Worker: Karl Adam’s ecclesiology, Emmanuel Mounier’s personalism, G. K. Chesterton’s distributist economics, Virgil Michel’s liturgical theology, Paul Hanly Furfey’s “supernatural sociology,” and John Hugo’s “Ignatian radicalism” (as Ben Peters calls it).
Loughery and Randolph do justice to both small but significant episodes and more momentous events: starting the newspaper, the houses of hospitality, and the farms; the crisis caused by the Catholic Worker’s pacifism during World War II; the face-off with Cardinal Spellman over the gravediggers’ strike in 1949; the string of protests against the Civil Defense drills between 1955 and 1960; getting shot at while visiting the integrated Koinonia Farm in Georgia; the “Big Stomp,” when everyone involved with publishing a gag journal with the F-word in the title was expelled from the house; Day’s trip to Rome during Vatican II to pray for a stronger witness to peace, and her visit to Marx’s grave in England on the way back; the first public protest against the Vietnam War; the tragic suicide of Roger LaPorte in 1965 (a “victim soul,” Dorothy called him); Day’s speech to the World Congress on the Lay Apostolate in Rome; her receiving communion from Paul VI, and visiting Ignazio Silone; her arrest at the U.F.W. strike in California in 1973; her regular visits all these years with her daughter Tamar and her grandchildren; and, finally, her death and funeral, including the story of how some Catholic Worker folks went out drinking after the wake and, when no one was hung over the next day, someone declared, “It’s the first miracle!”