A Perspective from a Respectful Distance

Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph (2020)

Reviewed by Brian Terrell

Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph, is billed as “the first full-length biography of its subject in forty years.” It is also significant as the first such work by authors who are not a part of the Catholic Worker “family”, but who are principally biographers of a wide range of subjects. While their work is not totally objective and it reflects admiration for Dorothy, the movement that she and Peter Maurin founded and the characters it has attracted through its history, the authors offer a perspective from a respectful distance that makes it a welcome contribution to the bibliography.

The first “full-length biography of its subject” forty years ago was William Miller’s Dorothy Day: A Biography published in 1982, perhaps all too soon after Dorothy’s death two years before. Dr. Miller, as we called him, was an academic, but not one “on the hunt for a fresh subject,” Loughery and Randolph attest. “He was a friend of the family,” and by the time he broached the subject of writing her biography, “he had taken in one of her grandchildren in time of need and had been helpful to Tamar (Dorothy’s daughter) in various ways.” In my wandering youth, Dr. Miller and his family had taken me in as well, and I share the authors’ conclusion that “he was a gracious man.”

Dorothy was not altogether happy with A Harsh and Dreadful Love, Dr. Miller’s history of the Catholic Worker and was uncomfortable with her friend’s ambition of being her biographer. She did, however, have the rare confidence in him to give him a copy of The Eleventh Virgin, her one published novel that she wrote before she became a Catholic and a book that she later thought would best be forgotten. “Yes, it was all true, it was the story of her early life,” she told Dr. Miller, who, the authors say, “naturally but erroneously took the novel as a roman á clef in every respect.” In fact, in the pages of Dorothy Day: A Biography, Dr. Miller recounts the adventures of the fictional protagonist, “June,” identifying them directly with Dorothy’s real life ones, as if The Eleventh Virgin were not a novel at all but a true story in every detail with only the names changed to protect the guilty along with the innocent. This misunderstanding continues to be a source of confusion to this day, I think.

Thankfully, the authors of this new biography untangle the real events of Dorothy’s young adulthood with the ones attributed by her to June. Especially in regards to the details around Dorothy’s experience with abortion, I hope that Loughery’s and Randolph’s recounting will one day supplant Dr. Miller’s.

I do not share the belief of the authors, though, that when Dorothy gave her novel to Dr. Miller she did it “knowing full well that she was to some extent misleading him.” Had Dr. Miller been a professor of literature, instead of a professor of history, he might have understood that Dorothy could have also sworn to the truth of Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov, with a full understanding that the character Father Zosima, a very real influence in her life, never existed in time and place. As Dorothy said, The Eleventh Virgin is all true, the story of her early life, but it is equally true that not everything that happened in it happened in real life, to the same people or in identical sequence and location. It is likely that Dorothy would have been shocked, had she known Dr. Miller was going to take her literally. She did not mislead Dr. Miller, they simply had very different points of reference.

Loughery’s and Randolph’s outsiders’ perspective on Dorothy and of the Catholic Worker also contributes positively to a conversation going on within the movement regarding its founders and their response to racism. “The Catholic Worker Movement, widely known for its critique of violence and capitalism in American culture, has largely neglected racism,” claims Lincoln Rice, a Catholic Worker of the post-Dorothy generation with a PhD in moral theology, in a paper published by the College Theology Society in the journal Horizons last year. “The failure of its founders (Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin) to prioritize racial justice has impeded its ability to adequately confront racism.”

To prove his thesis, Rice contends that “If one opens Mel Piehl’s 1982 history of the Catholic Worker, Breaking Bread, and scours the index for the words race, African American, or black, one will not find anything. The same thing occurs if one opens Nancy Roberts’ Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker (1984), Rosalie Reigle’s Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her (2003), and Dan McKanan’s The Catholic Worker after Dorothy (2008). The problem is not with these books, which are definitive sources for the history of the Catholic Worker— the problem is the Catholic Worker Movement.” “There are minor exceptions to this phenomenon,” Rice admits and he cites one: “William Miller’s index for A Harsh and Dreadful Love (1973) lists two instances under the index heading ‘racial injustice.’ Despite these minor exceptions, one can attempt this experiment with any number of books on the Catholic Worker and find little or no reference to African Americans or racism.”

No scouring necessary, Rice’s thesis is challenged when his experiment is applied to Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century (2020) which lists 23 items under the index heading “African Americans and racism.” This is one less item than can be found under the index heading “Dorothy Day, religious faith of” and just a few less than under the heading “Pacifism.” Applying Rice’s standard to the index of “the first full-length biography of its subject in forty years,” racial justice was clearly a priority for Dorothy Day and the movement she and Peter Maurin founded. Applying his standard, “Anarchism” is not a heading and does not merit a single item, but one would be mistaken, as Rice is with his scouring of the indices of the “definitive sources of the history of the Catholic Worker,” if one concludes that this absence indicates that anarchism was not a priority for Dorothy.

Dorothy Day “did not author many articles on the topic” of racism, says Rice, a contention that seems to be disproved by the many examples he offers in his own Horizons article. His explanation of her “failure” is that when Dorothy “did write on racism, her writing betrayed the notion that racism was only one among many social justices.” For Rice, “it is not enough if racism is only mentioned along with a list of other evils,” and to write about racism in the context of other issues is to neglect racism altogether. In academia, racism can be examined in the abstract, but this was a luxury that Dorothy, in the real world where she lived, could not afford. Long before the word “intersectionality” was coined and before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. rocked the civil rights movement by relegating racism to a list of evils and naming “the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism,” Dorothy Day recognized that racism manifests itself on the street precisely “along with a list of other evils.” In speaking out, in writing and in action for workers in fields and factories, for the homeless and mentally ill, agitating against the war in Vietnam and before that, the rise of fascism in Europe, exposing the injustice of prisons and condemning the destruction of Hiroshima, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers were confronting racism.

The apparent dissonance between the indices of sources that go back ten to fifty years and the index in the back of Loughery’s and Randolph’s new book reflects a welcome progress in the understanding of the pervasiveness of racism. If one were to expand Rice’s experiment, one would find in the books Rice mentions index headings that an editor today might consolidate under one heading, “African Americans and racism.” The index of Mel Piehl’s Breaking Bread, for example, lists “Arthur Falls,” the African American physician who founded the Catholic Worker in Chicago as a discrete heading. The “problem” is not with these books or their authors and not with the Catholic Worker Movement. Nor is the problem with Dorothy Day or Peter Maurin, who were way ahead of their time in their understanding, in their words and actions. Lincoln Rice’s fine contributions to scholarship on racial justice, particularly in the Catholic Church, and his work at the Catholic Worker house in Milwaukee are only possible due to the courage and insight of Peter and Dorothy and others who came before. Peter and Dorothy and Arthur Falls did not have Rice’s advantage of having such exemplary antecedents, and the problem may actually be in judging by contemporary standards those from the past who carried us to where we are today.

On this subject, Loughery and Randolph write of Paul Hanley Furfey, a priest and longtime ally of Dorothy’s in the struggle for racial justice. They note that late in his life, Father Furfey sometimes “verged in his letters on a direct criticism of The Catholic Worker for not having raised the subject of racial injustice often enough in its pages, a criticism that, given the overall record, is entirely unfair.” Loughery and Randolph are able to make such an observation which, when it comes from within the movement, is judged as reflexive defensiveness and dismissed as an expression of white fragility.

The authors’ respectful distance from their subject brings clarity to another controversy in the movement, that is the response of Dorothy and the Catholic Worker to the destruction of draft records in raids of Selective Service offices that began in the Vietnam War and the position of the Catholic Worker today toward the Plowshares movement, the disarming or destruction of nuclear weapons and their paraphernalia. Both movements were informed by the leadership of Philip and Daniel Berrigan, among others, including many who identify with the Catholic Worker.

Early draft board raids in Baltimore and Catonsville, Maryland, with their destruction of “property” and risk of substantial prison sentences for participants raised many questions and shocked Dorothy and other pacifists. Strong responses were to be anticipated and perhaps even intended by those who took such actions. Some friends in and out of the movement, though, take Dorothy’s initial reactions (“These acts are not ours,” Tom Cornell quotes her as saying) as a definitive repudiation of such tactics.

Despite Dorothy’s reticence over their tactics, Loughery and Randolph report that “her letters to the Berrigan brothers were scrupulously loving and supportive” and that she commended their actions as “a kind of prayer.” The authors recount an event in support of the Catonsville defendants on trial in Baltimore, where “Dorothy spoke of the Berrigans’ gesture of ‘peaceful sabotage’ as a needed revolutionary act against the state but also an act ‘against the alliance of Church and state, an alliance that has gone on much too long. Only actions such as these,’ she proclaimed, ‘will force the Church to speak out when the state has become a murderer.’”

For all that can be said in praise of Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, it contains a few unfortunate lapses of scholarship, some that might have been corrected by more careful proofreading. Most are inconsequential and trifling, but even these might undermine one’s confidence in the whole project and a few might be a cause for serious misunderstanding.

One of the trifles is: “The launch date and location” of the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper, “strategically chosen: May 1, Union Square.” We are told that on that day and place, “the square was packed with Communists, socialists, and curious onlookers for the annual celebration of the Russian Revolution.” An editor with a knowledge of labor history would know that the celebration of May 1 as International Workers’ Day predates the revolution in Russia by three decades and it commemorates a general strike for the eight-hour workday in 1886. The roots of the celebration are not in Moscow’s Red Square, but in Chicago’s Haymarket Square. Along with Communists, socialists and the curious, New York’s Union Square on May 1, 1933, would have been packed with anarchists and trade unionists, many of whom would not have considered the Russian Revolution an event to celebrate.

A slightly more egregious error is the statement that Helen Iswolsky, the daughter of a Czarist diplomat, a convert to Catholicism who worked to heal the division between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches, “occasionally took Dorothy to the Byzantine Liturgy at St Michael’s, a Russian Orthodox church on Mulberry Street.” While Dorothy was known to worship in Russian Orthodox churches, it matters that St Michael’s is not one of these, but is Russian Catholic. Recently evicted from their chapel on Mulberry Street and relocated to a Roman Catholic church uptown, St Michael’s continues as “the home of the Community of the Holy Archangel Michael in the tradition of the Russian Catholic Church of the Byzantine Rite.”

Another churchly confusion: “Peter… was sent away to school to study with the Christian Brothers. Devout in the faith, he entered a novitiate at sixteen to study for the priesthood.” The congregation whose novitiate Peter entered, the Christian Brothers of De La Salle, or the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, is a community of teaching brothers, none of whom are ordained to the priesthood. This matters: a young man aspiring to be a teaching brother and one studying for the priesthood might be two very different people. There is no indication that Peter was ever interested in the priesthood and if he was, entering the novitiate of the Christian Brothers would have been an inauspicious start.

If these examples seem nitpicking, another bit of confusion over Peter Maurin’s life in this book, this one concerning the circumstances of his death, seriously obscures the historical record, I fear. The authors make this unequivocal statement as if it were established fact, “Peter was suffering from syphilis. Untreated, or unsuccessfully treated, that illness would, sixteen years after his first meeting with Dorothy, contribute to his death.” While it is possible that Peter, who cryptically admitted that for years of his life he “did not always live as a Catholic should” did suffer from syphilis, the basis for the authors’ assurance that he did is dubious.

In a supporting note, Loughery and Randolph cite “Peter Maurin’s death certificate (no. 30376) issued by the New York State Department of Health and dated May 16, 1949, lists congestive heart failure as the immediate cause of death and names ‘antecedent cause, giving rise to the above cause’ as carditis (inflammation of the heart) and syphilis.” When someone apprised me of Peter’s death certificate some years ago I didn’t take it seriously and I am surprised that the authors should take it at face value now.

To say that the New York State Department of Health would have taken the death of a 72 year-old pauper casually might be an overstatement. The cause of Peter’s death would not have been a mystery worth pursuing. There was no autopsy, of course. It may be that the coroner bothered to talk to the responsible people at Maryfarm who reported Peter’s death and if so, he might have at least been told that Peter had suffered from dementia. If, as the authors state, “it is entirely possible that (Dorothy Day) never knew” that Peter had syphilis, it is even less likely that Mike Kovalak and the others who tended Peter’s passing could have provided that information. More likely, Peter’s postmortem was based on simple deduction: an old man dies in a refuge for the homeless, foreign born, citizenship status unknown, leaves no family and no property- let’s call it heart failure, throw in syphilis, sign the certificate, file it and forget it. Peter suffered the ignominy of the homeless in death as he did in life. Who in the New York State Department of Health on May 16, 1949, could have imagined that death certificate no. 30376 would be scrutinized or even be remembered the next day, much less be the study of scholars, seventy years later?

Peter is beyond judgement and beyond physical ailments. It does not matter for him now if he suffered from syphilis or not, but maybe it matters that some are quick to announce that he did. While mostly dealing with sensitive subjects honestly but respectfully, this is one of a few instances in the pages of Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century where the authors seem to revel in the salacious, where the line between historical analysis and gossip is blurred. Another of these is in the recounting of the time after Dorothy’s conversion and when her career as a Hollywood screenwriter tanked: “Dorothy decided not to return to New York, or just not yet. Manhattan was a setting that provided ‘occasion of sin,’ she later admitted, a remark that raises the possibility that she was not celibate…” While her remark does raise that possibility, Dorothy was also well aware of the many and varied occasions of sin in New York City beyond those against chastity. In avoiding New York, she may just as well have been resisting the occasions of pride, greed, envy, gluttony, wrath or sloth that abound there. There is no question that both of the Catholic Worker’s founders had a past, but this book is not enhanced by its authors’ unnecessary speculation on these points.

I am personally chagrined that Loughery and Randolph chose to include the story of an alleged binge at a bar by “some of the younger men” on the night of her wake before Dorothy’s funeral, partly because it is imputed to me (“They got drunk, hopelessly drunk- ‘really smashed, not just tipsy,’ Brian Terrell remembered, ‘but fraternity party drunk. Stomping on tables, that sort of thing.’”) but mostly because it did not happen as related. The story first came to my attention more than a decade after the event, told by someone who was not there and who was two or three times removed from it. It took another ten years before those words were put in my mouth by another writer. Since it had been previously published, the authors can’t really be blamed and I am grateful for John Loughery’s assurance that it will be excised from future editions.

There will be no “definitive” biography of Dorothy Day, no final history written of the Catholic Worker movement. The history of the Catholic Worker is still being made and even those of us still alive who knew Dorothy are still only coming to realize who she was all these years later. It is an ongoing discussion, one that includes those who are close to its heart and those who are not. One recent contribution, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother (2017) by her granddaughter Kate Hennessy and the latest, Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, with their vastly dissimilar perspectives, will both be essential voices in the conversation for year to come.

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