What to Read to Know Dorothy Day Better

COMMENTARY: From Day’s autobiography, ‘The Long Loneliness,’ to her letters, this list ‘is a beginning for all of us’

Dorothy Day speaks about the Catholic Worker Movement in 1952 to Father Michael Lensing of Subiaco Abbey.
Dorothy Day speaks about the Catholic Worker Movement in 1952 to Father Michael Lensing of Subiaco Abbey. (photo: Public domain)

A friend, slightly exasperated with the socialists in a political discussion, asked what she could read to understand Dorothy Day. She would have been equally frustrated talking about politics with libertarians, I think. She was looking for something distinctively Catholic, and sensed that Day would provide it.

At a Mass for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception last December, the Archdiocese of New York sent to Rome the documents for Day’s cause for canonization, assembled by the Dorothy Day Guild. In his homily, Cardinal Timothy Dolan called her “one of the real radiant stars in the pantheon of what we call American sanctity.” He spoke at length of the concern she felt for “neighbors who are struggling, who are hurting, who are oppressed, who are poor, who are victimized, who are marginalized.” 

When my friend asked what to read, I said the best way to understand her is to read her, especially the more personal writings. A good bit of writing on Day offers the writer’s own preferred version of Day. She’s someone people of all sorts want to claim as one of their own, and understandably. Read the other sources when you’ve read enough to have a good sense of what she said, and would say.


To Start Reading Dorothy Day

I asked some friends for their suggestions. Everyone suggested her autobiography The Long Loneliness. It’s a classic of spiritual autobiography and a teaching book as well, because she explains why she did what she did and what she thought about it. 

It offers a lot of striking and moving passages. Just one example: “We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.”

Theologian Larry Chapp, who runs the Catholic Worker farm in central Pennsylvania and writes the excellent Gaudium et Spes 22 website, tells people to begin with The Long Loneliness. But before moving on to other of her books, he says, read books about her and her movement, which are “indispensable to get the full sense of her importance.” He recommends two to start: Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement: Centenary Essays and Mark and Louise Zwick’s The Catholic Worker Movement: Intellectual and Spiritual Origins

Either of those would be enough to get one going. From there I think you will do best reading a lot of Day’s own writing. But after that, you can find a lot of good books about her. One I particularly like is the Catholic psychiatrist Robert Coles’ Dorothy Day: A Radical Devotion. Among the newer biographies are John Loughery and Blythe Randolph’s Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century, Terence C. Wright’s Dorothy Day: An Introduction to Her Life and Thought, and her granddaughter Kate Hennessy’s Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty. The second would probably be the best one for most Register readers to start with.


Read Her Mentor

Also read her mentor Peter Maurin, the man who helped her settle on her calling and follow it — it wasn’t easy — over decades. He wrote a set of short verse called “Easy Essays,” which appeared in the Catholic Worker, the newspaper he and Day founded. Here’s a short introduction, with a few examples. Like this: “There is no better way to be / than to be / what we want the other fellow to be.”

You can find many of the easy essays online. All of them can be found in The Forgotten Radical Peter Maurin, a very helpful book which includes several interviews and his reading recommendations. It also includes an extensive biographical glossary, which helps make sense of the “Easy Essays,” as he talks about many people no one talks about anymore.


To Read Further

After reading The Long Loneliness and one of the books Larry mentions, start with the more personal writings. Day had the fierce clarity and simplicity of the saints, whether or not she is in fact one herself. The best way for most people to understand her thinking is to get to know her and then read her as if you were listening to a highly intelligent, fiercely independent, not entirely tactful but courageous friend.

She had very clear political ideas, but she rarely argued them in the usual way. She lived them out and reflected on the living out of them. On most matters, she began with Jesus’ and the Church’s instructions and didn’t argue things in a more theoretical way, the way a theologian would. She tried to see how those instructions could be lived, with a literal and sacrificial obedience that’s rare. 

I would start with her diaries — collected as The Duty of Delight — especially those from the last 40 years of her life. Her diaries mostly discuss living the kind of Christian life she’d chosen, with politics only one part of that. They give the greatest revelation of who she was, as well as a great amount of insight and wisdom into living the Christian life. On Pilgrimage, adapted from the diary she kept in 1948, gives a much shorter and more refined example. It’s available online.

You might also read her collected letters, published as All the Way to Heaven, especially if you like reading letters. They’re necessarily less self-disclosing than her diaries, but say much more about the way she thought and the way she engaged the world. 

In telling the history of the Catholic Worker movement in Loaves and Fishes, first published in 1963, Day reveals a lot about herself in the way she talks about others. It’s less personal than the letters and the diaries, but still offers insight into her character and personality.


Then the Politics

Partly because Day was so uniquely herself, with her life and politics so integrated, no one has yet published a purely political selection of her writings on the subject that interested my exasperated friend. But here are a few sources to get as much as you can between covers. 

The collection By Little and By Little offers examples of the whole range of subjects Day wrote about and features one long section dedicated to “Politics and Principles.” It’s the one-stop-shopping introduction. It’s almost 400 pages, which may be more than you want. 

The Anabaptist (but generously ecumenical) publisher Plough produced a very good short book, The Reckless Way of Love: Notes on Following Jesus. The short selections come from all the books mentioned here and from others. 

Day wrote a Catholic Worker column almost every month from the ’30s into the ’80s. The whole collection can be found online, divided by decade published. They start with one titled “To Our Readers” in May 1933. This page includes articles she wrote for America and other publications.

Most of her Catholic Worker “On Pilgrimage” columns from the ’60s are collected in On Pilgrimage: The Sixties. The editor, Robert Ellsberg, abridged them, taking out her descriptions of her travels and of life in the Catholic Worker movement. The ’60s being the ’60s, this book gives much insight into her political and cultural views.


What Dorothy Day Read

At the end of his book, Robert Coles asked Dorothy Day what he could read to know her better and understand what she believed. 

“I would suggest that you read the books I have loved and kept reading over and over,” she said. “Dostoievski’s Crime and Punishment and his Brothers Karamazov and his Possessed, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and War and Peace and Resurrection and his stories, and Dickens (David Copperfield and Little Dorrit) and Bernanos, his Diary of a Country Priest, and Graham Greene and Mauriac and Silone — how I treasure Bread and Wine and go back to it at times. Well, that is a beginning for all of us!”


David Mills has written similar guides to reading G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis.

Dorothy Day is pictured in 1916.

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Students are back in school or soon will be. And parents of public school students are, in some places, on high alert to safeguard their children from politicized agendas — especially in regards to gender identity in their school curriculum. Senior editor Joan Desmond has been following the latest developments in parental rights in California and across the country and she joins today. But first, we turn to news from the Vatican. Roman holiday — the traditional August escape from hot and humid Rome — is over and Pope Francis has picked up a busy schedule with a four-day trip to Mongolia, continued preparations for the synod, the signaling of support for the cause of Dorothy Day and confirmation that a sequel to Laudato Si is in the works.

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