‘Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty’ Memoir Rejects Hagiography

In Kate Hennessy, a cautious voice emerges over the pious chatter about her famous grandmother, activist Dorothy Day.

Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty
Kate Hennessy
Nov 2017

What happens when you write a biography of your grandmother, who’s now considered for the initial stages of canonization? A single mother, a Greenwich Village bohemian, a fiery leader of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day led a long life between 1897 and 1980. She exemplifies a radical leap of faith, for this convert commits herself to the ultimate Gospel aims of eliminating wants, reducing needs, rejecting authority, and loving the poor. The youngest of her nine grandchildren, Kate Hennessy orients her take on her family as a correction to academic or airy studies of Day. “An examination of her life isn’t an intellectual, academic, or religious exercise. For me, it is nothing less than a quest to find out who I am through her and through Tamar.” For Hennessy’s mother Tamar has her own tale to tell, and it’s as conflicted as Dorothy’s.

Titled after a favorite quote of Dorothy’s from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Hennessy wants to alter the received wisdom about her ancestor. She fears that her grandmother “seems in danger of being lost to the world—a woman of great joy and passion, humor, and love of beauty. Tamar grieved the loss of this vibrant woman to the annals of hagiography and the desire to see her as a saint, and at times to Dorothy’s own nature, especially during her ‘severe and pious’ stage, as Tamar called it.” Tamar emerges as a figure no less formidable than Dorothy; that is no small feat. Hennessy sustains their steeliness and fortitude. This narrative charts their various rises and falls.

Yet, early on, we see a softer view of her, before she entered the Church, even if even then she slipped into city churches for a moment or two. The heyday of anarchism and free love reigned, just before the First World War. Hennessy stages this affectionate vignette. “Dorothy would sing to Gene ‘Frankie and Johnny’ in a way few would forget, this self-possessed girl of twenty, cool-mannered, tweed-wearing, drinking rye whiskey straight with no discernible effect and smoking like a chimney at a time when women weren’t allowed to smoke in public. And who brought into the Hell Hole rough-looking men she had encountered at the steps of St. Joseph’s Church in need of a warm room and a stiff drink.” Gene is Eugene O’Neill, her pal on many a nighttime long walk stumbling through New York City, trying not to freeze, if not all that sober as they chatted.

Her lover cannot commit to a lifelong promise, but this Forster Batterham combines the patrician bearing of his name with the restless countercultural drift of his partner.

Love, motherhood, religion—how many of us on finding ourselves embraced by any one of these would have stopped, rested, and remained? But this is the mystery of those forces that led her to go one step further, and another step, and another. And in one of the most grace-filled moments of a life full of grace, Dorothy finds herself praying to the Blessed Mother. Here I am—what would you have me do? Isn’t this that in-between time, that liminal space cherished by the Irish, that mysterious time of waiting and wandering? Isn’t it about hearing the call?

So Hennessy confronts her grandparents, and she strives in this account to do justice to both of them, famous or obscure.

Meeting the eccentric ascetic itinerant Peter Maurin, who enters this saga vividly, Dorothy joined him to form the Catholic Worker, an alternative to the bible-thumping missions for the down and out. Instead of preaching, Maurin and Day left it up to their charges to accept or ignore the gospel. This approach rankled many who felt the undeserving poor were getting coddled, and who resented the subversive stance taken by the Movement against the status quo. Those convinced picketed, protested, and promoted in their one-cent newspaper a radical riposte to capitalist cant and communist claptrap. In “the Worker you didn’t merely write about the news; you took part in it.” This underground press preceded its Sixties peers by more than a generation.

But like later communes after hippie fantasies faded, so too in the Depression: Maurin insisted on a self-sufficient system of truck farming and raw simplicity for the Movement and those it took in. Pennsylvania proved as inhospitable in winter for Gotham’s folk uprooted as the Movement’s center back on Mott Street in Manhattan. Hennessy sums up loss and gain. “‘That whole foolish trip,’ Tamar called it. ‘Back to the land while living in chicken coops and tar-paper shacks.’ But then she added, ‘I was happy at Easton.’ It was her dream too and would always be.”

The constant demands of those wanting a handout without doing their share wore the Workers down. Whether colleagues or charges, they lacked guts. “‘All looking,’ Dorothy wrote in her diary, ‘for organization instead of self-organization, all of them weary of the idea of freedom and personal responsibility—I feel bitterly oppressed, yet confirmed in my conviction that we have to emphasize personal responsibility at all costs. It is most certainly at the price of bitter suffering for myself. For I am just in the position of a dictator trying to legislate himself out of existence. … Freedom—how men hate it and chafe under it; how unhappy they are with it.”‘

Her stubborn refusal to give up her principles marginalized the Movement. “Dorothy found herself relegated to the fringes of the Catholic Church, much like a poor and batty aunt who can’t be gotten rid of and is embarrassing in what she could come out with at indelicate moments.”

Her daughter, Tamar, suffered from being left to fend for herself and her siblings, in decidedly destitute conditions for much of her unsettled childhood. She never had a choice to commit, and her own mother’s embrace of austerity and ambition was not that of Tamar or her many children. “One of my greatest accomplishments is that none of my children is a practicing Catholic.”

Tamar reasons to Kate: “she accepted the authority of the Church, but she didn’t feel it in her bones like I did. That’s the difference between the indoctrination of a child and the conversion of an adult.” The appeal of Hennessy’s double-focus on two generations of a supposedly sainted family emerges in the complexity it uncovers within a dynamic that may defy any psychologist’s pat schema. “I have come to believe Dorothy needed to join the Church for the same reason Tamar needed to leave it: in an effort to find out who they each were meant to be.” The conflict between keeping the self in check in the service of others and the chaos caused by the raising of children within an ethos that lacked structure, safety, or stability sharpens this story’s impact.

The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist (HarperOne, 2009), Dorothy’s autobiography, never told all. But its titular phrase captures her condition. The daily demands of the Worker wore her out, but she could not give up a good fight. “‘The world will be saved by beauty,’ said Prince Myshkin. But we do not want the world saved.” So she ruefully mused, as she moved about to civil rights sit-downs and anti-war rallies. The reforms in the Catholic Church were often ones she championed, but still, the loss of the culture, which had attracted her along with many pre-Vatican II converts, discouraged her. She kept resisting the war machine, but the Movement’s efforts seemed futile, when its pacifism was met with scorn. Tamar’s oldest son was drafted and served a tour of duty in Vietnam. His predicament is told in not always the clearest fashion by his sister, but the choice he had to make stands for the conflicted mindset of many in this decade, similar to those who had opposed WWI.

Coercion was never part of the beatitudes, Hennessy recalls, and the Movement never forced anyone to act against their conscience. But facing rudeness and anger from some of those who lined up for soup, and the refusal of some they ministered to in overcoming their addictions discouraged her and many of her co-workers. Living voluntarily in poverty, wearing hand-me-downs, and never being able to escape city noise and constant grime took its toll on Hennessy.

So, she confesses, “after years of circling around like a half-wild dog attracted by human activity but also frightened by it, I left. I turned away from the Worker, and I turned away from the Church, for without the Catholic Worker, the Catholic Church made no sense to me.” For a family slated for fervent piety, their grandmother’s hopes faded. Tamar and Kate shared Dorothy’s defiant will and her dead-set drive to resist the norm, but for the next two generations, they moved away from the committed center entered by Dorothy, and like so many from the postwar years through the times of tumult ever since, the two daughters and their own families stepped away from the comforting circle the Catholic Worker had tried, erratically, to complete.

Hennessy speaks for many raised in a faith who when alone, apart from the assurances of the day and the communal support of believers, quail at the existentialist void. “Even as a child of six, I often awakened in the dark and felt the blackness and terror of nonbeing … a terror of silence and loneliness and a sense of Presence, awful and mysterious.” She explains her own disillusion, and neither she nor her headstrong mother can bow to a patriarchal and hidebound institution. The magnetic force that drew misfits to Dorothy eventually repelled the two younger women. They understood the attraction of the Church, but they shrank from clerical surveillance.

The granddaughter articulates her unease. “Like Tamar, I felt I couldn’t pray. I swerved away from the act no matter how strong the urge, for I believed my prayers were bound to be clumsy, prayers of a stumbling faith, prayers of confusion. And any prayer that accidentally welled up seemed small and self-centered compared to the prayers of my granny. That is the danger of holiness on your own doorstep, in your own family. Either you cannot see it for the view is too close, or if you do, you feel you haven’t a chance of being the person she was. You feel it is a sad mistake that you are related.” This review quotes liberally from the narrative. Given the facts of Dorothy Day’s career have been scrutinized by scholars and writers well before the appearance of this fresh set of insights, Hennessy’s perspective elucidates the inner tensions felt by those overshadowed within the aura emanating around Dorothy. Those who inherit the burden of their forebears gain scant attention in biographies and academic investigations of their better-known predecessors. Letting Tamar and Kate both speak for themselves, value results.

At the end of Dorothy’s life, Hennessy conveys the wonder of Dorothy’s presence. “Always, always, Dorothy spoke and wrote of love. As she said, there is no end to the folly of love, and there is nothing else to write about. In the end, her enlarged heart gave out from the strain.”

The ambitious structure and scope of this account may discourage those expecting a neatly framed inspirational saga of a social justice pioneer. But the fallout from Dorothy’s impact must be measured. Damage done must be shown. “There is no way I could have written a book about my grandmother without including my mother. Not only are they inextricably linked in my mind, but I feel it would have been a personal betrayal of my mother to have written her out of the story. Also, this is one aspect of Dorothy’s life that I am able to provide that other biographers cannot—a portrait of her as a mother, which, after all, was the initial catalyst that put her on the path of conversion.” For only those who’ve inherited Dorothy’s intimate contributions to the world, tangible rather than spiritual, physical instead of moral, can contemplate her truest self.

What satisfies the restless reader, perhaps a seeker or skeptic in an era less enamored of piety than that of the traditional Catholic ethos which has diminished over the past half-century, is that in Hennessy a cautious voice emerges over the pious chatter. The costs of being saintly are borne by those who find themselves responsible for the debt. “If we are looking to feel comfortable, there is nothing about Dorothy and her story that is of any consolation, regardless of our gender.” Her quest appears quixotic. So might that of the Christ she worshipped, but whether this admission proves to be consolation or corrective to the iconic depiction of a proud woman who refused to back down is left to Hennessy and her audience to contemplate.

Dorothy Day’s moral appeal transcends denominational definition for admirers. “She would be a saint for our time, a laywoman, a mother, a grandmother in whom many, Catholic or not, could find paradoxically both comfort and provocation for change.” In a suspicious era when clergy and institutions have fallen from grace and faltered as public guides, outliers such as Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Dorothy Day endure as a few Catholics trusted with popular acclaim, perhaps outside the Church even more than from within.

Her granddaughter edges back from tidy conclusions after scrutiny has been paid to her mother and her grandmother, and their ornery personalities. “I prefer not to lead readers to any particular lesson, but certainly the book is about all the lessons I have had to learn about love, loss, forgiveness, and redemption. If there are any of these that readers also resonate with, then all for the good. In any case, it’s a cracking good tale.” In this innovative fusion of a dual biography with a personal testimony, Hennessy pays tribute to the two women who gave her a life.