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'Dorothy Day,' portrayed by her granddaughter, is a hero but not a saint

Day's youngest granddaughter Kate Hennessy calls her searching biography 'a quest to find out who I am through her.'

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Dorothy Day:
The World Will Be Saved by Beauty
By Kate Hennessy
Scribner
384 pp.

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Ever get badly beaten by prison goons while serving a few months at a notorious work farm – complete with bloodhounds and whipping posts – after being arrested and convicted while fighting for the cause of human dignity? Many have here in the United States, and one of them was Dorothy Day. But for those of you with even a glimmering of familiarity with Day that won’t come as much of a surprise.

Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty is a searching biography by her youngest granddaughter Kate Hennessy. “For me, it is nothing less than a quest to find out who I am through her and through Tamar [Hennessy’s mother].... We all need to live our lives as if we are Dorothy’s children and grandchildren, being comforted and discomforted by her as she invites us to be so much more than how we ordinarily see ourselves.”

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Day was a force, and great forces can both carry us along and leave measures of devastation in their wake. Day was no William Tecumseh Sherman; her works were works of mercy, if demanding. Call her a steady tempest, a dazzling energy that, between gusts, leaves you breathless. Family members often feel the sharpest edge of such personalities.

And though Hennessy will doggedly connect dots among her mother Tamar’s emotional life and behavior, Hennessy’s own, and Day’s sweeping command of the high ground, it simply can’t outdo Day’s incandescent presence. No excuses are ladled out in absolution; Hennessy speaks her mind: “What remained unresolved between Dorothy and Tamar was simply Tamar’s desire that her life and struggles be acknowledged,” or a memory from Hennessy, when “I’d walk down the street clinging to [Dorothy], and she would push me away. ‘You must be stronger,’ she’d say to me.” Like getting pounded to jelly in prison, there are traumas in many life experiences, but they leave their scars and they are to be recognized. Hennessy organically drops these instances into her panoptic, contemplative examination of Day’s life, but the meat of the matter is Day’s activities, their pressure and heft.

Scrutinizing Day’s life from any angle reveals both a serious piece of sociopolitical work and a profoundly human being. By the time Day reached New York City, radical foment was in the air. Day was no waif, if still a teenager, and she was ripe to absorb all the humming atmospheres around her. “Marx in the lecture halls. Atheism, anarchism, socialism, vegetarianism, women’s rights, free love, free speech, free thought.... In the Village, poetry, plays and art – the Lyrical Left, also some called it, flourished.” Day, a sprite, found work in leftist newssheets – the Call, the Masses, the Liberator – and never bowed to the “pressure to distort truth and make things look worse than they were in order to, as she saw it, promote socialism,” writes Hennessy. “Dorothy, though she saw the misery, also saw the dignity and courage of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.”

She also made friendships, a critical one being with playwright Eugene O’Neill. O’Neill took her to rough spots – “to Jimmy-the-Priest’s, a dangerous dive at the South Street Seaport, near the fish market, and a stranger told her, ‘You’re too young to be hanging around here.’” But they would also haunt the bohemian cafés, and spend late nights talking literature and politics.

They were not lovers; indeed, the dark and intense O’Neill recognized the religious impulse in Day. She was a “self-possessed girl of twenty, cool-mannered, tweed-wearing, drinking rye whiskey straight with no discernable effect and smoking like a chimney,” but Hennessy’s close reading of Day’s letters, diaries, essays, and columns allows her to find other streams of meaning at work. Day’s time with O’Neill was electric, yet she wrote “‘a succession of incidents and the tragic aspect of life in general began to overwhelm me.’” People said “Gene” had no interest in religion, Day writes. Not so. “He wasn’t interested in politics – he was interested in man’s relationship with God, and Gene’s relationship with his God was a war in itself.”

While journalist Day’s hand was on fire, she was a participant as well as an observer. She took part in protests; she got that pulping in a Virginia prison. She met men with all the spirit of the Wobblies, she fell in love, she got pregnant, she got an abortion. Day wrote about this life in her book "The Eleventh Virgin," and immediately regretted it. Young people would read it and take that “ ‘downward path to salvation.’” It was a fraught time for Day as well, a time of imminent conversion. Hennessy writes of it, as evidenced in the archives, with (and if the shoe fits, wear it) amazing grace: “I know that in the rawness of love gone awry ... God is to be found, so much more intimate and profound, loving and immense, than at many other wiser and more pious times.”

 With conversion came Day’s Catholic Worker, not just a newssheet, but an entire movement, and agency of good works, healing, soup kitchens, sanctuary, houses of hospitality for the downtrodden. She started a farm in upstate New York. As before, Day was utterly engagé. However, there were no government grants for this. Day would have to hit the lecture circuit, gather in fees. She would have to leave Tamar for extended times. In turn, Tamar had begun to mull “questions she would think about hard and long for years to come." “Why do you believe in Him?” Tamar asked her mother on a rare visit home. “Because the Church tells us to.”  Day could do better than that. She didn’t.

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Day also pursued with a vengeance “retreats,” with their “asceticism and detachment from worldly pleasures, and the need for penance.” Seven days of silence “to be alone with God, without argument and only to listen.”  Some on her community balked. Day was adamant. This from a one-time firm opponent to coercion, and believer “that the saints were joyful, and Saint Teresa of Avila led her nuns in dance.”  

Still, reflect on this: “I considered that I was putting some flesh on the dead bones of his” – her friend Aristide Pierre Maurin, a churchly proponent of education and a Green Revolution agrarian movement – “thinking. It is one thing to dream of Utopias, it is another thing to try to work them out.” Pow! She was a war resister, though “it was the brutality against the civil rights movement that frightened her most.” So, she took on those causes, too.

Hennessy’s biography unspools slowly, though not leisurely or even comfortably, as it is genuinely questing after personal and familial enlightenment, and tests of willpower, of facing the human weaknesses, blind errors, and hurtfulnesses of one you love, are the bitter of honesty. Her biography is also embracing – a cinematic documentary – so there is much to admire in this pilgrim’s progress.

Rumors of Day’s sainthood trouble Hennessy: “Dorothy is in danger of being lost in all her wild and varied ways, her complexities, her contradiction, and this sense of power that defies description.” " Dorothy Day" is not the measure of a human, it is her story, and Day’s story is epic.