Book Review: “Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty”
In “Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty,” Kate Hennessy paints an intimate portrait of her famous grandmother in the context of her family.
Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty
An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother
By Kate Hennessy
Publisher: Scribner (November 7, 2017)
Length: 400 pages
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.”
Dorothy Day concluded her autobiography, The Long Loneliness, with this paean to love in community, words that remain a touchstone to all who attempt to live in the ethos of the Catholic Worker movement, as does the Open Door Community.
Now Dorothy’s youngest granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, has written her own book about Dorothy Day and love. In Dorothy Day: The World Will be Saved by Beauty, Kate writes about the love Dorothy had for her only child, Tamar, for Tamar’s father, Forster Batterham, and for Tamar’s children, of which Kate is the youngest. It’s a book that will resonate with readers of Hospitality, especially those who were lucky to experience the love which flowed from the Open Door on Ponce de Leon.
Dorothy Day (1897-1980) changed America by giving us a new way to serve the poor as Christians, a personalist way that listens to people’s stories of oppression and also works to change the conditions that caused their hardship. Dorothy was a writer, a social activist, and a war resister, steeped in American socialism when she was a young writer, living the gay life in Greenwich Village in the Twenties. She was also a lover, a lover of life and a lover of a particular man, Forster Batterham, with whom she lived for several years. Pained by an earlier abortion, Dorothy was overjoyed when she found she and Forster were to have a child. When that child, Tamar Teresa, was born, Dorothy had her baptized, and in 1927 she herself became a Catholic, eventually joining with Peter Maurin to begin the Catholic Worker movement, which now comprises more than 240 communities. The Open Door proudly lists itself in the Catholic Worker directory at catholicworker.org.
Several books about Dorothy and the Catholic Worker have been written, including my oral biography, Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her. Kate’s book, an “intimate memoir,” tells of a Dorothy few knew outside of her family. It gives us a woman whose laughter and love of life gladdened all who were with her, even though she sometimes battled depression. It gives us a woman who loved Forster until the day she died, even though she was celibate after beginning the Catholic Worker. It gives us a mother who loved her daughter passionately, but sometimes criticized her in ways that hurt. It gives us a grandmother who was pulled in different directions by love, but who helped to raise her nine grandchildren whenever she could find time away from the demanding life of the Catholic Worker. It also gives us some of Kate, who inherited both her grandmother’s talent and love of writing.
I couldn’t put the book down. First I read it for “the facts, “and both those new to Dorothy’s life and those familiar with its outlines will find much here that’s not in other books, including details about her pre-conversion life and answers to questions about Tamar’s relationship with her mother.
Then I read it again for the beauty of its prose. Kate has spent many years in Ireland and is living there now, on its wild Western edge. At the risk of romanticizing a style that needs no gloss, I hear Kate’s looping cadences reflecting both the sea she sees and the complex loves of which she writes. The tender words of description, especially of the people and places important to her, delighted my second reading when I noticed even more memorable details.
Kate shows how her famous grandmother’s love of her family both complicated and complemented the devotion to the Catholic Worker she founded in 1933 when her daughter was seven. I learned some surprising things about Dorothy’s early life and loves in Part One, “The Mystery of Grace. ” For instance, she learned from her friend Eugene O’Neill to take people and their stories seriously. Thus, even as a young writer, she showed love in action by giving deserved dignity to the people she wrote about. She brought this dignity to the Catholic Worker and its work of hospitality to those on the margins.
Dorothy’s decision to become a Roman Catholic severed her relationship with Tamar’s father, although Kate shows that the break was not complete, and gives a thoughtful picture of the ties between the three of them through the years of Dorothy’s life. Some of those years were hard for all, especially Tamar’s teen years when Dorothy’s Catholicism was colored by a religiosity not suitable to a young girl.
Tamar married David Hennessy when she was only eighteen and the marriage was not a happy one. But Dorothy so thoroughly believed Dostoevsky’s line that “the world will be saved by beauty” that sometimes her words colored the physical and psychological deprivation of her daughter’s life in ways Tamar could not understand. These and other frictions are explored with loving care by Kate in Part Two, “The Mystery of Love.”
In Part Three, “The Mystery of Freedom,” we learn how Tamar and her children and Dorothy as she aged were able to grow into the freedom to be the people God meant them to be. For Dorothy, that meant accepting that her daughter and most of the children would not be Catholic; for Tamar it meant accepting her mother’s Catholicism. For Kate, it meant living for a time at the Worker in New York but realizing that life wasn’t for her.
Part Four, “The Art of Human Contact,” is shorter and chronicles Dorothy’s quiet final days at Maryhouse Catholic Worker in New York, with Tamar at her side as she died. The book ends with Kate again visiting her grandmother’s room, still grieving but united with her through the years of conversations with Tamar. In the final page, Kate joins the women at the Worker for lunch, thus ending her story with the human contact Dorothy so relished on her long journey to God. Truly, the only solution is love and love comes in community.
The World Will be Saved by Beauty is published by Scribner, an imprint of Simon and Shuster, and is available in both hardcover and ebook. It’s sure to take a starring role as people continue their fascination with an American radical now being considered for official canonization by the Roman Catholic church because it gives a compelling portrait of a Dorothy Day who saw the necessity of God’s mysterious grace, love, and freedom in all human lives.