Dorothy Day is an interesting historical figure, the woman that founded The Catholic Worker, which was initially a combined newspaper, homeless shelter, and soup kitchen. I once subscribed to The Catholic Worker, and since it cost one penny per issue, you couldn’t beat the price. I saw this biography available and snapped it up from Net Galley; thanks go to them and Scribner, who provided me with a DRC in exchange for an honest review. This title was published in late January and is now available for purchase.
I always had a difficult time getting a handle on what The Catholic Worker stood for. The name suggests radicalism, and indeed, Day was red-baited during the McCarthy era. Day was a Catholic convert and a strong believer in sharing everything that she had with those that had nothing. She worked tirelessly and selflessly, and despite often living an impoverished existence somehow made it into her eighties before she died, an iconic crusader who became prominent when almost no women did so independently—though she was no feminist, and believed that wives should submit to husbands. Since her demise, speculation has arisen as to whether she might be canonized.
What was that huge crash? Was it a marble statue being knocked the hell off its pedestal? Hennessy takes on the life and deeds of her famous grandmother with both frankness and affection. In the end, I came away liking Day a good deal less than I had when I knew little about her. Her tireless effort on behalf of the poor included anything and everything her very young daughter had in this world, and at one point she remarked that she felt unable to ask others to embrace a life of poverty if her child wasn’t also a part of that. It was a different time, one with no Children’s Protective Service to come swooping down and note that the child was sleeping in an unheated building in the midst of frigid winter; that there was no running water, since the building was a squat; that the only food that day was a single bowl of thin soup and perhaps a little hard bread donated from the day-old stores of local bakeries; that even small, personal treasures and clothing given the child by other relatives and friends would either be stolen by homeless denizens or even given away by her mother, a woman with the maternal instincts of an alley cat. Day did a lot of good for a lot of people, and no one can say she did it for her own material well being, but she more or less ruined her daughter’s life, and even when grown, Tamar’s painful social anxiety and panic attacks derailed her efforts to build a normal life for herself.
Nevertheless, the immense contribution that Day made at a time when the only homeless shelters were ones with a lot of rules and sometimes religious requirements cannot be overlooked. She is said to have had a commanding presence, endless energy (and the mood swings that accompany such energy in some people), and a mesmerizing speaking voice. Day’s physician also treated the great Cesar Chavez, and reflected that their personalities were a lot alike.
I confess I was frustrated in reading this memoir, because I really just wanted the ideas behind the Catholic Worker laid out for me along with the organizational structure. Was the whole thing just whatever Day said it was at the moment, or was there democratic decision making? I never really found out, although I gained a sense that the chaotic events shown in the memoir reflected an unarticulated organizational chaos as well. This is a thing that sometimes happens with religious organizations; the material underpinnings are tossed up in the air for supernatural intervention, and the next thing they know, there’s an ugly letter from the IRS.
Only about half of this memoir was actually about Day; my sense was that the author did a lot of genealogical research and then decided to publish the result. The first twenty percent of the book is not only about Day’s various romantic entanglements; a significant portion of the text is mini-biographies of those men, and frankly, I wasn’t interested in them. I wanted to know about Day. Later I would be frustrated when long passages would be devoted to other relatives and their lives. Inclusion of daughter Tamar was essential, because Dorothy and Tamar were very close all their lives and shared a lot, and so in some ways to write about one was to tell about the other. But I didn’t need to know about Day’s in-laws, her many and several grandchildren, and so on. I just wanted to cut to the chase, but given the nature of the topic, also didn’t want to read Day’s own writing, which has a religious bias that doesn’t interest me.
Those with a keen interest in Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker may want to read this, because not many books are available that discuss her life and work. On the other hand, I don’t advise paying full cover price. Get it free or at a deep discount, unless you are possessed of insatiable curiosity and deep pockets.
Dear Seattle Mama, I appreciate your review of Kate Henness’s book. I do reviews myself and realize one must make choices about what one includes. One could speak, as you do, about the poor food Tamar and others ate at the Catholic Worker table and of Tamar losing her belongings to carelessness or theft. Or one could speak, as I have in several reviews of this book and in my oral biography of Dorothy, Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her (Orbis Books, 2003) of the love and attention the young people who came to the Worker showered on little Tamar. It’s a matter of intent and choice.
You say little has been written on Dorothy Day. Please do a simple Google search. There’s so much, both in print, on-line, and in new and older books, that one can’t keep up. Let me know what [used] books you want and I’ll make sure you get some of them as I sense you really would like to know more about Dorothy Day.
Kate Hennessy’s book solves some mysteries long pondered by those of us who study this woman who may be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church I’m glad you reviewed it and hope it spurs you to learn more about her. As Walt Chura, one of those I interviewed, said, “Thank God she was human!” Knowing about Dorothy’s life and the thousands of people whose lives have been changed by her life and her words, I see that she is truly a saint for our time
Thanks for your comments, Rosalie. Perhaps I should have said that I haven’t seen anything published about Day during the time I’ve been blogging, which is since 2014. Almost everything I read is a digital review copy, obtained by my request from the publisher and Net Galley or some other source in exchange for an honest review. There are a small number of people I’ll go out of my way to read about again and again; Lincoln is one, along with feminist luminaries, Generals Grant and Sherman, and that anti-hero of them all, Richard Nixon. But as to Lamar, unless her daughter has painted a completely incorrect picture of her personality, it’s fair to say that she was traumatized by her childhood, and in ways that are documented, so my review of this particular book stands as written. Thanks for stopping by.