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...

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About the Author

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.