(Book Review) Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century

dorothy dayDorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century by John Loughery and Blythe Randolph 

Servant of God Dorothy Day is a difficult figure to pin down, both in Catholic culture and in American history more generally. Raised a-religious in a working-class family, as a young woman, she ran with a hard-partying group of writers and had both an abortion and a daughter “out of wedlock.” Then, she converted to Catholicism, a decision that was mystifying to her family, friends, and her daughter’s father. Day became a prominent voice speaking out for the rights of workers and for the poor, and founded the Catholic Worker. Arrested for protesting with suffragists outside the White House, Day never voted. She was a tough critic of the government, consumerism, the Vietnam War, and also of the Church and its establishment.

Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily. -Dorothy Day

Dorothy Day was long considered a longshot for colonization, but in 2000, she was named a “Servant of God” and an inquiry into her sainthood was opened by the Archdiocese of New York. (Crux: If canonized, Dorothy Day would be a saint for a ‘polarized’ world).  She has also been name-checked by Pope Francis alongside Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King, Jr. as an example of American morality. I think she’s an incredibly interesting figure for our moment in the church and in American public life. Dorothy Day had a devoted interest in many of the issues that we find ourselves dealing—or failing to deal—with this year, including poverty, segregation, and homelessness.

Loughery and Randolph’s biography starts with Day’s final arrest while protesting with Cesar Chavez, then goes back to the beginning of her life, following her turbulent story through its many turns, drawing on Day’s own writing as a source of both information and analysis.

Like Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, I found this biography incredibly dense and difficult to get through. If you are interested in Day’s life and her message, however, I do not think that you can find a better source than this book. The authors do an excellent job of getting into the details of Day’s life that are often hard to find in her own writing. They use her writing, however, to provide insight into how Day reflected on her life and the issues that mattered to her. What I like best about this biography is that the authors frame it with the paradox that Day’s life can present. Bishop Barron often talks about the both/and of Catholicism and I think this biography explores how Day could seem contradictory, but usually, that tension stemmed from her seeking for God and how better to serve him and other people. The portrait of her commitment to justice and the Gospels is as beautiful as it is difficult.

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