Stories of the Servant of God: A Review of Dorothy Day

July 2, 2020
Title: Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century
John Loughery & Blythe Randolph
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publishing Date: March 3, 2020
Pages: 448 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1982103491

Dorothy Day, by any measure, remains a perplexing figure, even forty years after her death when her first major biography has finally appeared. Like no other figure in recent church history—with the possible exception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer—Day is a kind of theological Rorschach test, due in no small part to the complexity of Day’s own life.

She was both a deeply committed and orthodox Catholic and a committed pacifist, in a day when that intersection was occupied by only a handful. She is a symbol of agrarian reform, while spending most of her life in the boroughs of New York City. She is named Servant of God, a candidate for canonized sainthood within the Catholic Church, while famously proclaiming “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be that easily dismissed.”

Having been at the intersection of so many important moments of 20th century theological and social history, Day’s legacy has been appropriated as a pacifist, as an eco-feminist, as a traditionalist Catholic, and as a family woman. Day has been the subject of any number of secondary memoirs, cataloguing people’s experiences with Day, most recently Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty by her granddaughter Kate Hennessy. But, until recently, there has been no substantial and accessible biography of this complicated historical figure.

Loughery and Randolph are, in some ways, odd choices to write this particular biography. Their pedigree as historians of seminal American figures such as Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and John Hughes (the 19th century Irish archbishop) disposes them to deal with the deep background of Day’s life and times. They expertly draw out the social context of Day’s early years in ways which have been largely untreated by earlier accounts, illuminating the harsh realities of early 20th century Greenwich Village and the complex overlapping relationships which Day frequently mentions but does not unpack. Earlier accounts, for example, have spent more time on her post-conversion life, but using Day’s forgotten quasi-autobiographical novel The Eleventh Virgin, Loughery and Randolph unpack a textured (and arguably speculative) account of the thick and complicated influences on the young Day. In their hands, her pre-conversion time with Marxist periodicals and the New York bohemian scene come alive.

Her love affairs, her abortion, her youthful connections—these are brought out are in more detail than some more hagiographic accounts. With any biography, what to include and how to include it is a matter of the center of gravity: what is it that makes the subject the subject? In earlier treatments (albeit theological but not strictly biographical) what stands out is the emphasis on the theological moves of Day’s life, and to be fair, this is also Day’s way of telling her story. Like Augustine, she is uninterested in providing a blow-by-blow account of the history of her life, except that it is interlaced with her own movement toward conversion. In her first two biographies—From Union Square to Rome and The Long Loneliness—Day’s recounting of her childhood and youth frequently recede from view, leaving it to biographers to piece together the social history behind her words.

I mention the contrast between Day’s own telling of her history and the one on display by Loughery and Randolph to illuminate what seems to be the center of the biography: Day as revolutionary American. In spending such detail on Day’s formative years prior to her conversion, the reader gains much understanding of the frequently obscured childhood and formative years, as Day herself was frequently uninterested in talking about her private life. But what, for Day, was the pivotal moment of her life—conversion to the Catholic Church—is for Loughery and Randolph an unresolved puzzle.

Day’s conversion is depicted as “committing one’s life, even irrationally, to something other than one’s ego, comfort, and ambition” (77), and seen by her friends, they argue, as “a pathology,” “distressing and disorienting.” But, given that no documentation is provided for these views of her friends and compatriots, one can only attribute these to the author’s own perplexity at this shift. For Day, looking retrospectively, she sees the faint echoes of love calling in fragmentary forms in all of her relationships and desires to aid the poor, desires and affections which finds its fullness in the Catholic Church. But, for her biographers, this shift from a life of reverie to one of piety is depicted as sudden and perplexing.

This perplexity is explainable, I think, by the framing of Day. Frequently in the book, Day, as indicated by the subtitle of the book, is depicted as a radical American; it is this characterization which helps to explain not only the ways in which expansive time is given to her place within American bohemian culture and less to how Day’s work interacted with ecclesiastical developments. For example, in discussing Day’s pacifism, in-depth and helpful context is given, placing Day’s stance vis-à-vis the work of her secular counterparts, anti-war movements, and the nuclear standoff in Cuba in 1963. But, little attention is given to the way in which Day’s witness altered the Catholic Church’s position on pacifism during the Second Vatican Council or, later, in the U.S. Catholic Bishops Statement on peace in 1983. When these events are treated primarily as social-historical, the theological meaning which Day found central here can only be treated as epiphenomenal to the event, “disorienting” as it were.

It is certainly right for a historian to contextualize their subject in their own age, and on this score, the biography succeeds. Loughery and Randolph’s work provides an excellent counterpoint to hagiographic accounts of Day which emphasize the relational, but depict her as a figure out of time. Day, a journalist attentive to the world around her, was anything but an ahistorical figure. But, the Americanist depiction of Day not only frequently runs against the grain of Day’s own self-understanding of her actions, but risks missing entirely the center of Day’s biography—her life of devotion. For Day, the point of her witness was decidedly not to be purely an activist, but to be a Christian. This is, for Day, the organizing center of her life and biography, allowing some things to be raised to the surface and others to sink into obscurity. For all of the rich details which Loughery and Randolph bring up, then, I have to humbly suggest that the definitive biography of Day, Servant of God, remains to be written.

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

There are currently no comments. Why don't you kick things off?