Why & How Day Wrote It

One afternoon in 1949 Dorothy Day took the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island. When she was in her twenties, she had owned a beach cottage on the island, and the ferry ride, as much as the cottage itself, had become a retreat. In the coming years it would become one again. "It is a fine sight to see the skyscrapers of Manhattan slip away astern; with them fade the cares and clangor of the city," she wrote some years later. "The salt spray is fresh; the ships we pass speak to us of far places." This day, however, she was making a more complex retreat, a pilgrimage to her past.

She was fifty-two years old and had led the Catholic Worker movement for sixteen years. Her step had slowed, her appearance altered. "The figure is deplorable-farinaceous food does spread one out so-but her head and shoulders are magnificent," a friend of her youth observed. "And the clothes she gets out of the ’clothes room’ look wonderful on her. It is particularly interesting to us to observe her because we remember so well what she looked like in the old days: the same features but transformed because they have been put to such a different use."

The friend was Caroline Gordon, the novelist and critic. In the 1920s, Gordon had lived across the street from Day in Greenwich Village and had visited her at the beach cottage, and she had sought to renew their acquaintance after becoming a Catholic in 1947 and came to Saint Joseph’s House, on Mott Street, where she was astonished to find signed first editions of books kept on open shelves where just anybody could take them. She made a retreat at Maryfarm, in upstate New York, and concluded that the place, at once rural and Catholic, would be a good place to retire to, like a lay contemplative (Day was "fixing up cells in the barn," she told a friend, "any one of which would suit me to a T"). She invited Day to spend a weekend in Princeton, where she and her husband, Allen Tate, were teaching, and Day accepted the invitation.

One of Gordon’s Princeton colleagues was Malcolm Cowley, who had known Day in Greenwich Village and on Staten Island, where his wife had been one of Day’s best friends. In 1949 he had just signed a contract for a revised edition of Exile’s Return, his memoir of the period, and that weekend, seeing Day for the first time in years, he summoned her recollections.

Now, on the ferry, Day was returning to the scene of their early adventures: the dinners, the parties, the romances, the long walks on the beach. She had a present purpose as well.

No matter what Caroline Gordon thought of Maryfarm, Day was disenchanted with the place. The community there had devolved into drunkenness and scholastic squabbling. The farm had fallen into decay. Aircraft roared overhead, shattering the silence. Upon learning of a farm for sale on Staten Island, near the beach, she had decided to investigate.

She later described the farm as "not impressive in appearance: a brown-shingled farmhouse, sagging somewhat and falling apart at the seams; a barn with the cross on the side that is now our little chapel; a row of little rooms made from a carriage shed; carpenter shops; a chicken coop; and, at the foot of the hill, a duck pond which is claimed right now by a flock of geese." But she was drawn to it immediately. A farm in the city, near the sea, was her idea of paradise. The price was $16,000. A thousand-dollar down payment would hold the place.

There is no telling what governed her thoughts, but the circumstances were propitious. Twenty-five years earlier she had bought the beach cottage, and her life had changed. There, she had become a Catholic. There, she had taught herself to write. There, she had learned of her own need to get away on retreat-her intermittent yearning for solitude-and had satisfied it.

This farm offered her a similar opportunity. Without it, she had no real getaway. With it, she, and the rest of the Catholic Workers would have a place of retreat a ferry ride from Mott Street.

In 1949, her memoir, From Union Square to Rome, was out of print. Hastily written and incomplete, it stood in need of drastic revision. It concluded with her conversion, saying nothing of the Catholic Worker’s cofounder, Peter Maurin, the creation of the movement, the practice of hospitality, round-table discussions, communal farms, pacifism, world war, or the atomic bomb-saying nothing of the state of the world or of her life since she became a Catholic.

Although she had written four books and several hundred articles and was the editor of her own newspaper, she was known as an organizer rather than a writer. Evelyn Waugh, writing an article about American Catholicism for Life, had taken her to lunch in Little Italy; but although he had written a check for dorothy day’s soup kitchen, he had left her out of the article, declaring that Catholic writers in America were "not very much in evidence at the moment." At Saint Joseph’s House, Thomas Merton was the writer the other workers most admired: several of them could cite chapter and verse from The Seven Storey Mountain, and one, Jack English, had been inspired to leave the House of Hospitality and become a Trappist.

Day prayed over the matter of the Staten Island farm, then acted quickly. Back in Manhattan, she met with an editor from Harper and Brothers and signed a contract to write a new autobiography. The advance was a thousand dollars, which she promptly used to make a down payment on the new farm while she set about raising the rest.

The new farm would settle an old debt, reconcile her present and her past. She had bought the cottage on the beach with film-rights money from a novel she had written-Hollywood’s reward for telling her story provocatively. Now she would buy a farm a short distance away with money she would make by telling her story in frankly religious terms-as a confession of her sins, an account of herself, and an explanation of the faith that was in her.

The Long Loneliness was published in January 1952. It got "good reviews. Newsweek, NY Times, and Herald Tribune," Day reported in her diary. In the Catholic Worker, Michael Harrington, a volunteer at Saint Joseph’s House, wrote a "valentine" of a review. Although Day herself said nothing about the book in her columns, and twice canceled a speaking tour after her daughter and grandchildren caught pneumonia, nearly ten thousand copies were sold-four times as many as were sold of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, published the same year. And that summer, doubtless prompted by the book, Dwight Macdonald came to Saint Joseph’s House to profile Day for the New Yorker.

The profile was published in two parts in October. Macdonald began emphatically: "Many people think that Dorothy Day is a saint and that she will someday be canonized."

Like Day, Macdonald was a Greenwich Village radical, but he said little about her politics. The war resister and jail veteran is nowhere to be found in the profile. Neither is the imitator of Christ or the lifelong journalist. Day is likened instead to "an elderly schoolteacher or librarian" and a "fond and watchful mother." The Catholic Worker emerges as a charming aggregation only tenuously connected to the stereotypical church of Irish cops and washerwomen. Although she is "Scotch-Irish," Macdonald reports, she looks Slavic. Her religious faith is something she stumbled into and "felt obliged" to accept. Her encounter with the "hobo apostle" Peter Maurin is "a case of ideological love at first sight." Their movement is "a leaven on the American Catholic community," and their sacrament is hot coffee, which "serves the same function among the Workers that a dry Martini does in many other circles."

Tom Sullivan at Saint Joseph’s House had warned Day that the magazine would distort her ideas; and Macdonald, in a sense, made her into a curiosity, like Joe Gould, the layabout-and sometime guest at Maryfarm-whom a New Yorker profile had made notorious. And yet beneath the affected urbanity of the piece, the exaggerated local color, is an insight Peter Maurin would have appreciated: that the Catholic Worker, for all its principles, its aims and purposes, its complex relation to Catholic doctrine, is a movement with the character of its foundress, "in whom lightheartedness and spiritual fervor are strangely and effectively intermingled."

In the New Yorker’s pages, dotted with advertisements for cashmere coats and handmade shoes, Day’s ideas were not distorted so much as seen from a fresh perspective-admiringly, benignly, and from afar. As it happened, a fresh perspective was precisely what she had sought with her autobiography. She wrote the book for the general reader, not just the Catholic reader, and everything about it suggests her desire to reach beyond the small circle of her admirers. Its title comes from the memoirs of an Elizabethan nun. Its opening pages are set in a church, during confession, but the church is evoked sensually, not historically or doctrinally-"a warm, dimly lit vastness, with the smell of wax and incense in the air"-and the confessional rite is described as to an outsider. "Going to confession is hard-hard when you have sins to confess, hard when you haven’t," Day explains-and as much as this opening is meant to set the book in the tradition of spiritual autobiography that begins with Augustine, it is meant to make her readers, whatever their backgrounds, identify with her in the adventures to follow.

Together, the New Yorker article and the book set going a new stage of Day’s pilgrimage. In becoming a Catholic, she had joined the Catholic masses; ever since, she had always made her appeal to other Catholics first of all. Now, with Peter Maurin dead, with Catholics leaving the cities for the suburbs, with Caroline Gordon stylizing her story for a "Catholic novel," Day turned her energy toward the secular masses, in whom, more than ever, the Catholic masses were intermingled.

Published in the 2002-05-03 issue: 

Paul Elie, an editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own (FSG), is writing a book about the music of Bach in the age of recordings.

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