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Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty

August 3, 2017

Subtitled An Intimate Portrait Of My Grandmother, Kate Hennessy’s biography of Dorothy Day is exactly that: a lovely painting of her famous grandmother’s life from the perspective of Dorothy’s youngest grandchild.

It’s an unusual perspective. Events in Dorothy’s public life (to name one example among many, her relationship with and active support for César Chávez and the United Farmworkers in the 1960s) recede into the background and her private life (her many trips to Vermont, both to escape the chaos of The Catholic Worker and to support Tamar, her only daughter, struggling to raise her nine children with (and without) an alcoholic husband. It’s almost like seeing the negative of a photograph—the dark corners are brightly illuminated while the well-lit centerpieces fade into dimness.

Dorothy’s complicated, lifelong relationship with Tamar’s father, Forster Batterham, is part of Hennessy’s story—as is Batterham’s separate from Day’s in the decades after they split up. All three women—Dorothy, Tamar and Kate—suffered from overwhelming depression at times in their lives; and all three lived heroic and flawed lives of faithfulness to the people they loved and the ideals they committed themselves to.

“Those were hard years for us all beginning that January 1979 with the death of Becky’s son Justin, and then seven months later on a hot August night when Nicky burned down the house on Cady Hill Road, followed by Stanley’s death in November, Granny’s death a year later, and Forster’s in 1984. Then we lost Susie and Nicky…. Both were not yet forty and parents of young children. Alcoholism, mental illness, old age, disease, and accidents—all part of the human condition.” (p. 330)

One gets the sense that it was only after Tamar’s own death in 2008 that Hennessy could begin to write this prose portrait of her grandmother, because only then were the pieces in place.

Another revelation of Dorothy Day is what an absolute wild woman Dorothy was in early adulthood. She didn’t have romances; she had wild, passionate, tumultuous love affairs that mirrored the zeal with which she would throw herself into new causes. She was a suffragist, a socialist, an anarchist, a syndicalist, a bohemian, a novelist, a journalist and a screenwriter—all before she was 30. Even after she “settled down”—becoming a mother, a Catholic, and finding/founding her life’s work in the Catholic Worker—Dorothy continued to be a woman of fierce determination and conviction…even when those convictions clashed with each other. It is this Dorothy that Hennessy knew and, in her own quiet, straightforward and lyrical way, insists we remember.

“Dorothy is in danger of being lost in all her wild and varied ways, her complexities, her contradictions and this sense of power that defies description. The Look, as Tamar described it, with those beautiful and devastating eyes, darting and intense. Her voice, the one she has left for us, is beautiful, simple, and evocative, but then sometimes there is the lecturing, the defensiveness, and the piety. Often it feels as if she tried hard to efface herself. This was partly for good reasons—she was fierce dictatorial, controlling, judgmental, and often angry, and she knew it. It took the Catholic Worker, her own creation, to teach her her lessons.” (p. 343)

Hennessy ends Dorothy Day much as Dorothy ended her own memoir, The Long Loneliness, by giving the last word to love.

“It has been said that three things kept Dorothy going—prayer, the sacraments (in particular, the Eucharist), and the works of mercy. Why isn’t the word love mentioned here? We con’t talk much about how she loved, including Lionel and then Forster, her daughter, and on and on, this ever-widening circle of family sheltered under her cloak of love. 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. Maybe it was the outcome of having had so many demands on her, spiritually, physically, and emotionally, but I can’t see her having it any other way. The miracle was how long she was able to live with it, the love that kept her alive.

Christ understands us when we fail, she said, and God understands us when we try to love.” (p. 344)

If so, then God—however understood—understands every word of Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty, a book written out of love and about love, most especially the love of mothers and daughters, saving the world by the beauty wrought by their hands and hearts.

 

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From → Books, Religion

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