Authors: Dorothy Day

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American journalist and reformer

Identity: Catholic

Author Works

Nonfiction:

From Union Square to Rome, 1938 (autobiography)

House of Hospitality, 1939 (religion)

On Pilgrimage, 1948 (religion)

The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day, 1952

Therese, 1960 (religion)

Loaves and Fishes, 1963 (religion)

Meditations, 1970 (religion)

On Pilgrimage: The Sixties, 1972 (religion)

By Little and By Little: The Selected Writings of Dorothy Day, 1983 (Robert Ellsberg, editor)

Long Fiction:

The Eleventh Virgin, 1924

Biography

The social activist Dorothy Day has been called the most important lay person in the history of American Catholicism. She was born the third of five children to John Day and the former Grace Satterlee. Her father, an agnostic newspaperman, was a reserved Republican who provided little warmth for his children. Her mother, an occasional Episcopalian, similarly offered little affection, though Day’s home life seems to have been reasonably happy. The family moved from Brooklyn to Berkeley, California, in 1903, then to Chicago following the 1906 earthquake. Day grew up in Chicago, and in 1914 she entered the University of Illinois on a Hearst scholarship of three hundred dollars. She had acquired political opinions by that time, many of them derived from Peter Kropotkin’s Memoirs of a Revolutionist (1899) and Jack London’s books. Probably the greatest influence on her was The Jungle (1906), Upton Sinclair’s novel of the meat-packing industry in Chicago, for she was able to observe firsthand many of the conditions he described.{$I[AN]9810001243}{$I[A]Day, Dorothy}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Day, Dorothy}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Day, Dorothy}{$I[geo]CATHOLIC;Day, Dorothy}{$I[tim]1897;Day, Dorothy}

In 1916, she and her family moved to New York, where she pursued a journalistic career with various left-wing magazines, beginning with the socialist Call. She moved on to Masses, a communist journal run by Max Eastman, which was shut down after the United States entered World War I in April, 1917. By that time, Day had been arrested (the first of a dozen times) for picketing the White House with other suffragists; she spent a scarring month in prison. During most of the war, she worked as a nurse. For one year, during a brief marriage, she lived in Europe. There, she wrote the novel The Eleventh Virgin, which was later sold to Hollywood and enabled her to purchase a cottage on Staten Island. She entered a common-law marriage with Forster Batterham in 1924 and spent four happy years with him; they had a daughter, Tamar Teresa, in 1927.

The birth of her daughter caused a spiritual crisis for Day. She herself had been baptized and confirmed in the Episcopal Church, but her associates were political radicals of little religious faith. After Day had Tamar baptized as a Roman Catholic, tension mounted between Day and Batterham, who was an atheist. At this time, Day began to read Saint Augustine’s Confessions (c. 400), Fyodor Dostoevski’s writings, and William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), which led her to join the Catholic Church in December, 1927. The next few years were deeply lonely ones; her relationhip with Batterham collapsed, and she wandered from job to job, making no Catholic friends.

In 1933, she met Peter Maurin, a French laborer and philosopher. The vision he had developed for a communal Catholicism captivated her. Day regarded Maurin as a saint and her mentor. They began to operate houses of hospitality patterned on medieval religious hospices that provided food and shelter for those in need. At the same time, she began publishing The Catholic Worker, a monthly penny tabloid that promoted direct action for social justice, personal responsibility as an alternative to the state, and voluntary poverty. Day practiced what the Bible preached: “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor.” The movement was staunchly pacifist, a stand that cost it support during World War II.

Day’s books were an extension of her life. In From Union Square to Rome, she sought to explain her conversion to her brother and other friends. The Long Loneliness, which is far better written, is a reproach to Christians whose commitment to living out their faith is flawed. House of Hospitality is a powerful account of the first six years of the Catholic Worker movement and bleakly evocative in its stark portrait of life on the underside of the Depression. Loaves and Fishes is a later rendering of the movement’s history that, as with all Day’s writing, forces readers to reexamine their beliefs and the implications of them. On Pilgrimage and On Pilgrimage: The Sixties collected her columns published under that title in The Catholic Worker.

Day’s influence was enormous. Though she regarded herself as a journalist, her living example was what made her journalism effective. Through The Catholic Worker her philosophy reached a whole generation of young Catholics, including many who wrote for the paper at one time or another, such as Colman McCarthy, Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan, Jacques Maritain, Eugene McCarthy, and David Dellinger. Perhaps her greatest political impact came through Michael Harrington, who helped edit the paper in the early 1960’s. His experiences with the Catholic Worker movement shaped his book The Other America: Poverty in the United States (1962), which in turn captured the attention of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson and led to the War on Poverty. That such a massive federal intervention in the economy should emerge from Day’s Catholic Worker movement is ironic, since she believed that commitment should be personal.

BibliographyColes, Robert. Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1987. An accessible introduction to Day’s life and work that draws on the author’s long friendship with Day and includes many excerpts from letters and conversations.Merriman, Brigid O’Shea. Searching for Christ: The Spirituality of Dorothy Day. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame, 1994. From the series Notre Dame Studies in American Catholicism. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Miller, William D. Dorothy Day: A Biography. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1982. A detailed biography that supplements his 1973 book (below).Miller, William D. A Harsh and Dreadful Love: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement. New York: Liveright, 1973. Treats Day’s life in the context of the Catholic Worker movement.Nies, Judith. Nine Women: Portraits from the American Radical Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Places Day in the context of American radicalism along with Sarah Grimké, Mother Jones, and others; it includes an extensive bibliography following the chapter on Day.O’Connor, June. The Moral Vision of Dorothy Day: A Feminist Perspective. New York: Crossroad, 1991. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Roberts, Nancy. “Building a New Earth: Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker.” The Christian Century 97 (1980). A philosophical look at Day’s life and work, written only days before her death.Thorn, William J., Phillip M. Runkel, and Susan Mountin, eds. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement: Centenary Essays. Milwaukee, Wis.: Marquette University Press, 2001. From the series Marquette Studies in Theology. Includes bibliographical references and an index.
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