Sunday, May 8, 2016

“Dorothy Day's writings stir deep optimism 100 years later"

“Dorothy Day's writings stir deep optimism 100 years later"

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, NCR, May. 5, 2016 

   Dorothy Day's books are hot items these days. Ever since Pope Francis 
identified her as one of four great Americans, up there with Abraham 
Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Thomas Merton, popular interest 
in her life and writings has burgeoned. New books on Day or the 
Catholic Worker, the lay movement she and French itinerant Peter 
Maurin founded, abound. 

Thomas McDonough gives us one more with An Eye for Others, a slim, 
invigorating work featuring articles young Day wrote for the Socialist 
daily, The New York Call, between the autumn of 1916 and early 1917. 

The New York Call's "girl reporter" was almost 19 when she arrived in 
New York City, having left the University of Illinois after two years 
of study, determined to work for social change through journalism. 
Eager for employment, she convinced the editor of the struggling, 
leftist newspaper to hire her as a one-woman "diet squad" reporting on 
how one could live off of five dollars a week. 

Day quickly proved her talent as a writer, garnering 36 bylines during 
her six months with The New York Call. She covered labor strikes, 
penned compelling profiles of starving tenement dwellers, reported on 
the New York food riots of 1917, interviewed Leon Trotsky, followed 
the fate of the country's first female hunger striker imprisoned for 
advocating birth control, and wrote of opposition to the United 
States' impending involvement in World War I. 

McDonough provides historical context to this collection. Included 
here are fascinating details about the radicals and bohemians 
mentioned in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, and the anti-war 
activism that preceded U.S. entry into World War I. 

New York's Lower East Side in the early 20th century is a place of 
crushing poverty, protest, and energetic literary creativity. Young 
Day absorbed it all, reporting what she saw with intelligence, 
sardonic humor, and a perspective that inspires faith in our ability 
to work for a society where, as she would later often write, "it is 
easier for people to be good." 

The social issues Dorothy covered 100 years ago are astonishingly 
relevant for us today. Income inequality, the scandalous lack of a 
living wage, the prioritizing of national security interests (i.e. 
war-making) over human need are all there, perhaps in more acute form. 
According to McDonough, the cost of food for the average American 
family increased 74 percent between 1914-1916, while union wages rose 
only 9 percent. 

Even at 19, Dorothy could articulate a fierce dissent from the 
cruelties of the status quo without lapsing into despair or cynicism. 
Describing the ravages of poverty unsparingly, she still noticed 
beauty and human tenderness in the most desperate corners of human 

Her lively dispatches for The New York Call reflect the exuberances of 
the times. "Sumthin' and "gee" pepper her prose, but there is nothing 
superficial about the curiosity of this young woman who, by her own 
account, had a habit of stopping to look at people to "wonder and 
wonder about their lives," how they "got through every day." 

"The Short and Simple Annals of the Poor are Slow Starvation," reads 
the headline of an article written in November 1916. Another begins: 

Walk up five flights of stairs of the dirtiest and the oldest house on 
2d street, past the dirty barber shop on the ground floor, where the 
two barbers play, for lack of something better to do, on the mandolin 
and banjo; past the first floor, where a prolific woman with no figure 
sits surrounded by her brood all day and finishes pants; past the room 
on the third floor where another woman sits and sews and never looks 
up, because there is nothing to look at; past the room on the fourth 
floor, where the little Italian woman bursts into song now and then, 
forgetting herself and her sorrows when she looks at that clouds that 
are tinted like the breast of a dove; and then up to the top floor, 
where the rooms are cheaper. 

The New York Call reporter walked up many a stinking, tenement 
stairwell to listen and write as mothers described their tedious 
struggle to stave off their children's hunger. Many of her accounts 
read like a documentary film, the camera catching the expression of 
the toddler "gone batty" from malnutrition and how the "little girl of 
twelve" scrubbed the kitchen clean except for the patch beneath the 
cot where her ailing father lay, so as not to disturb him. 

Faith is implicit in Day's articles even though they were written 
prior to her conversion to Catholicism. They bring to mind Vincent Van 
Gogh's charcoal sketches of the miners of Belgium's Borinage region. 
In their thoughtful rendering of the lives of the hidden and 
oppressed, writer and artist remind us, "Here, too, is an image of 
God." The perspective of pre-Catholic Day inclined toward Christ 
Incarnate, especially as he is revealed in the poor. 

"We do not love concepts or ideas; we love people," Pope Francis told 
a gathering of leaders of popular movements in July 2015. Young Day 
seemed to know this implicitly and avoided flattening reality to fit 
an ideological lens. Numerically speaking, a person can live off $5 a 
week, she concluded at the end of her "diet squad" experiment, but 
life would be a "dull misery" of skimping along. To the 60,000 working 
girls of New York City, whose "cheerless" existence she too 
experienced, she advised squandering $1 of one's weekly wage for a 
down payment on a phonograph, then savoring the company the music 

It has been too long since I read Day's writings. They invariably stir 
a deep optimism within me, a peculiar reaction given her focus on 
life's harsh realities. Yet after reading her, I always feel working 
for a just order is not only life's best option, but could be a 
profoundly joyous venture. I felt similarly reading An Eye for Others, 
a wonderful antidote to that culture of indifference we are 
well-advised to avoid. 

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, a freelance writer, lives and works at the Sts. Francis and Therese Catholic Worker of Worcester, Mass. 

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-323-1607; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to

"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs

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