An Introduction to The Eleventh Virgin: An Autobiographical “Novel”
An Introduction to The Eleventh Virgin by Paul Bowers. Paul Bowers lives with his wife and daughter on a ten-acre farm in Ringwood, Oklahoma. He earned a B.A. from The University of Tulsa, M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Oklahoma State University. He currently teaches writing and literature at Northern Oklahoma College in Enid, and serves as the Coordinator for Academic Service Learning.
On February 7, 2000, Cardinal John O’Connor submitted a letter to the Holy See, asking permission to open the Cause for the Beatification and Canonization of Dorothy Day. On March 16, 2000, Cardinal O’Connor announced the Vatican’s approval. If Dorothy Day’s cause for sainthood proves successful, she will become only the third native-born American to be beatified by the Catholic Church, joining St. Elizabeth Seton and St. Katharine Drexel.
She would also be the first American novelist to be declared a saint.
That Dorothy Day published a novel, The Eleventh Virgin, is well known among scholars and her admirers, even though the book has been out of print since its original publication in 1924. William Miller draws extensively on the work in his 1982 biography of Day (Note 1) , and Robert Coles, in his introduction to The Long Loneliness, Dorothy’s autobiography, describes her as “a woman who had been, in her twenties, a well-known journalist and essayist, a novelist, a close friend of writers such as Eugene O’Neill, Mike Gold, John Dos Passos, and Malcolm Cowley.”(Note 2) But to list “novelist” as one of Dorothy Day’s many achievements brings with it a vague sense that one is somehow stretching the truth. Despite the hundreds of articles she published in The Catholic Worker and elsewhere, and two autobiographies (From Union Square to Rome and The Long Loneliness), Dorothy rarely makes reference to The Eleventh Virgin, and she never does so by its title. It is always just a “book,” or “novel,” and in From Union Square to Rome, Dorothy simply refers to it as a “very bad book.” (Note 3)
William Miller, in the “Preface” to his biography, captures Dorothy’s ambiguous feelings about The Eleventh Virgin when he describes his visit to her Staten Island cottage in May 1975.
We moved in to the living room. I sat down but Dorothy continued to stand. Walking over to the table, she picked up several books and turned to me. She held out one book and asked, “What should I do about this?” I knew the book. It was The Eleventh Virgin, her autobiographical novel. “It’s all true,” she said. It was a book I knew that she hated and would have rejoiced if every copy could have been consumed in flames and then be forever put out of her mind. But now she stood there, holding out to me one of the few copies left. I said nothing. Dorothy was controlled, but I could tell by the pale, taut look in her face that the business of turning all of this material over to me was a moment of great stress and pain for her. She was, in a way, confronting history. (xiii)
Apparently, Day did try to consign The Eleventh Virgin to flames, gathering up every copy she could find. Whether the pyre was literal or figurative, the goal was the same—to remove the book, and all it contained, from public view.
The novel is, without a doubt, autobiographical, and perhaps painfully so for its author. June Henreddy’s family is Dorothy Day’s family, her love affair Dorothy’s love affair, her abortion, Dorothy’s abortion. William Miller, despite some delineation of Dorothy and her fictional self early on in his biography, often drops any pretense of differentiating author and character so that June’s words become Dorothy’s words. In The Long Loneliness, her “real” autobiography, many of the passages repeat, often verbatim, passages from her “fictional” autobiography, The Eleventh Virgin. But her autobiographical novel, composed nearly a decade prior to her conversion to Catholicism, reveals the details of what Day would later call her “disorderly life,” details that, writing thirty years later, she would just as soon forget.
Not only is The Eleventh Virgin an intimate portrait of a young Dorothy Day, it also offers a revealing portrait of her circle of friends and acquaintances, which may have caused her as much, if not more discomfort, in later years. In The Long Loneliness the period in which Dorothy was writing The Eleventh Virgin (ca.1920-21) is acknowledged in cursory, almost dismissive fashion, as if she feels obligated to the autobiographical form to at least mention, if only disparagingly, that she had ever devoted herself to writing the novel.
In trying to write about the next few years of my life I find that there is little to say. I have never intended to write an autobiography. I have always wanted instead to tell of things that brought me to God and that reminded me of God. I cannot write too intimately of the next few years, because I do not want to write about other people with whom I was intimately associated. I do not want to write in detail about a trip to Europe. In London I walked and took bus rides and explored and thought of De Quincey and Dickens. In Paris it was the same, but there Balzac and De Maupassant and Victor Hugo were my companions. Italy I loved; the six months I spent in Capri meant that forever after, the smell of Italian cooking, the sound of buzzing flies, the loud strong voices of my Italian neighbors, the taste of spaghetti and polenta and the sour red wine brought me back to the months I spent beside the Mediterranean, or wandering around the streets of Naples, or driving on sightseeing trips behind the shabby horses with their voluable drivers. . . .
I spent a year writing and I cared little about the political situation, though it was a time when fascism was rising in Italy. But I was living through a time of my own personal joy and heartbreak and what happened in the world had little effect on me. (95)
The passage is a crucial one for a number of reasons. It immediately follows Dorothy’s account of her time spent at King’s County Hospital, a position she resigned in order to devote herself to writing. It also follows the portion of The Long Loneliness that most closely copies, and often exactly, June’s experiences as a nurse-in-training as narrated in The Eleventh Virgin, essentially continuing the autobiographical narrative where her novel leaves off. In the “Monologue” that ends the novel, June has returned to her nursing position following her abortion and break up with Dick Wemys (the fictionalized version of Lionel Moise, with whom Dorothy lived and became pregnant by). Day, on the other hand, never returned to the hospital, but instead departed for Europe to write. That she introduces the account of her time spent traveling and writing The Eleventh Virgin with the disclaimer that she had “never intended to write an autobiography,” coupled with her unwillingness to write about the “people with whom [she] was intimately associated” suggests a keen awareness on Dorothy’s part of just where her autobiography proper and her autobiographical novel meet, where the present encounters the past, the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement meets the unconverted, aspiring novelist. The autobiography she never “intended to write” is not merely the one she is writing now, but also, if not more so, the autobiographical novel she wrote then.
Near the end of “A Time of Searching,” in The Long Loneliness, Dorothy says, “I had a book finished and accepted by a publisher and I was at loose ends, waiting to see what would happen to it, whether I would get enough to live on from it so as not to have to think of a job for a while. I wanted to go on writing” (108). By this time, she had returned to the United States and was living in New Orleans, writing what she terms “sensational articles” on the lives of taxi dancers for the New Orleans Item. In the concluding paragraphs of the chapter, she writes:
There were a few serious assignments that winter, one of which was to interview the outgoing governor of the state and the incoming governor. But the job in general was a stopgap. In the spring my book was published and I received news by long-distance telephone that the moving-picture rights in my novel had sold for $5,000. I was happy to go back to New York.
It was my friend Peggy who persuaded me then to buy a little house on the beach of Staten Island where I could settle down to study and “to write.” (109)
Dorothy’s share of the movie rights was $2500. The film was never produced, and the income was most likely the bulk of any monies she ever received for her novel. Perhaps more significantly, the value she places on The Eleventh Virgin is merely economic. There is no hint at literary achievement, no celebration of being a published novelist, the only satisfaction gained by the fact that she was able “to go back to New York.”
Why should Dorothy Day, an ardent admirer of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Balzac and De Maupassant, Hugo, Dickens, and Sinclair—great novelists all—be so taciturn over her own novel? In The Long Loneliness, she tells her readers, “I am a journalist, not a biographer, not a book writer.” And yet later, describing the period of her life eight years after The Eleventh Virgin was published and just prior to her life-changing encounter with Peter Maurin, Dorothy recalls,
I was writing a novel. I have always been a journalist and a diarist pure and simple, but as long as I could remember, I dreamed in terms of novels. This one was to be about the depression, a social novel with the pursuit of a job as the motive and the social revolution as its crisis. There was to be the struggle between religion and otherworldliness, and communism and this-worldliness, replete with a heroine and scores of fascinating characters. I put my own struggle and dreams of love into the book and was very happy writing it. (160-61)
The year was 1932. Dorothy and her five-year old daughter, Tamar, had just returned from Mexico and were renting the first floor of a house on Fifteenth Street in New York City. The novel was most likely The Dispossessed, which remained incomplete. The extant manuscripts, however, indicate the Dorothy may have worked on it off and on until at least 1946.(Note 4) Clearly, Dorothy’s desire to be a novelist did not end after the publication of The Eleventh Virgin, and perhaps she still “dreamed in terms of novels” long after her conversion.
So what does Dorothy mean when she calls The Eleventh Virgin a “very bad book”? Certainly, it is too personal, too revealing, too “autobiographical” for her, and it is primarily as autobiography that most commentators understand Dorothy’s condemnation of it. But The Eleventh Virgin is a novel, and Day’s labeling it a “bad book” should perhaps be considered as her critical commentary on its literary worth and not simply as a rejection of its intimate biographical details. No matter how ambivalent toward her past she may have become in later years, the Dorothy Day of the late Teens and early Twenties was not the Dorothy Day of the mid-50s. Nor, I would argue, should The Eleventh Virgin be read exclusively as veiled autobiography. Such readings suggest that at the time she composed the work she was really writing an autobiography, not a novel.
A famous incident in Dorothy’s life, which she recalls in The Long Loneliness, will perhaps help us reconceptualize The Eleventh Virgin as a novel, and as very much a literary work of its time. Near the end of “A Time of Searching,” Dorothy writes,
A man with whom I had been deeply in love for several years was a lover of Pascal, so I became acquainted with his Pensees, which I did not understand but which stirred me. This same friend was a reader of Dostoevski, and, whereas I had read him as a matter of routine, because I loved the Russians, now I read him with an understanding of men and suffering. This same man hated James Joyce, the flavor of whose books fascinated me; once when we were riding on a North Avenue elevated, and I was speaking of Joyce to him, he wrested the book which happened to be Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man from my hands and threw it out the window of the train. (108)
When William Miller recounts this episode in his biography, it is primarily offered as one more example of the volatile relationship Dorothy had with Lionel Moise (the “man” Dorothy refers to). In 1920, Dorothy married Barkeley Tobey “on the rebound” and the pair set off together for Europe. When they returned to New York in the summer of 1921, the marriage ended and Dorothy went to Chicago to find Moise, where the incident on the North Avenue elevated occurred. What is easily overlooked here is the book that was “wrested” from Dorothy’s hand. Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, like The Eleventh Virgin, is an autobiographical novel.
Exactly how closely we are to identify Joyce with his protagonist Stephen Dedalus has long been a point of critical debate, but there is little doubt that the novel recounts with considerable accuracy the biographical details of Joyce’s childhood and adolescence, but to read Portrait as autobiography without equal consideration of the work as a novel would severely limit its literary intentions and impact. As Harry Levin points out, “Except for the thin incognito of its characters, the Portrait of the Artist is based on a literal transcript of the first twenty years of Joyce’s life. If anything, it is more candid than other autobiographies. It is distinguished from them by its emphasis on the emotional and intellectual adventures of its protagonists.”(Note 5) The same might be said of The Eleventh Virgin, which chronicles the first 20 years of Dorothy Day’s life. Indeed, its candidness and the thin incognito of its characters are precisely the elements Dorothy must have found particularly troublesome in her later years. But June Henreddy is a fictional protagonist in the same sense that Stephen Dedalus is the fictional protagonist of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, so that to fully conflate June with Dorothy or Stephen with James is to miss the fictional “adventure” of both novels.
One may, of course, argue that The Eleventh Virgin is more autobiography than novel, and even more autobiographical than Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, but the degree to which autobiographical fiction is either autobiography or fiction is less important than the recognition that Dorothy Day was writing a coming of age novel around the same time she was reading one of the most important coming of age novels in modern literature.
I am not willing to argue that Dorothy Day wrote The Eleventh Virgin under the direct influence of Joyce’s Portrait, that June Henreddy is the female, New York version of Stephen Dedalus. Still, in 1920-21, only two of Joyce’s books were available: Dubliners, a book of short stories, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, both published in the United States in 1916.(Note 6 It is not out of the question that some “flavor” of Joyce’s Portrait may have found its way into The Eleventh Virgin, and one can at least safely argue that like A Portrait of the Artist,The Eleventh Virgin is a modern Bildungsroman, and therefore fits squarely within the literary milieu of the day as a novel. Again, as Levin notes at the beginning of his reading of Portrait, the “history of the realistic novel shows that fiction tends toward autobiography. The increasing demands for social and psychological detail that are made upon the novelist can only be satisfied out of his own experiences.” Given the literary and historical context, then, Dorothy’s prefatory comment that “It is all true” before handing William Miller a copy of The Eleventh Virgin does not erase that fact that what she gave him was a realistic novel, though one more intensely realistic than she might have wished in 1975.
To read The Eleventh Virgin, on the one hand, as a “realistic novel” that “tends toward autobiography” does not in any way diminish its importance as a source of biographical detail. Its greatest value is certainly the unique insight it offers into Dorothy Day’s early years, especially given her reticence about such details in her later life. On the other hand, to read The Eleventh Virgin merely as the first of three autobiographies is to replace the Dorothy Day of the 1920s, the Dorothy Day who was part of the Greenwich Village literary circle, the Dorothy Day who was a novelist, with the figure we know today—the American Mother Teresa, the potential saint. Its literary quality may have been best described by Dorothy herself: The Eleventh Virgin is, perhaps, a “very bad book” as far as modern literature goes, but this is an aesthetic judgment, not necessarily a moral one. It is only by virtue of Dorothy’s subsequent distancing herself from the novel, and our tendency to follow her lead, that has privileged the moral judgment over the aesthetic.
Fortunately, Dorothy’s harsh assessment of The Eleventh Virgin is unlikely to be shared by those who read the novel. Certainly, it is not a literary work that rises to the level of Joyce’s Portrait (and I suspect the comparison is one Dorothy herself must have made at some point), but she was a talented writer, capable of producing beautiful prose, sharp and convincing dialogue, and a certain, subtle irony aimed at her often naïve, fictional doppelganger, June Henreddy. Indeed, it is very easy to forget that she was only twenty-two and a first-time novelist.
Whether Dorothy Day ever becomes one of the Venerable in the official pantheon of the Roman Catholic Church has yet to be determined. (She once quipped to a reporter, who raised the notion of her possible sainthood, that she did not “want to be dismissed that easily”). But no matter what the outcome of the ongoing Cause for Beatification and Canonization, one thing is certain: during a portion of her life, before she turned her attention to feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and giving shelter to the homeless, Dorothy Day “dreamed in terms of novels.”
1. Dorothy Day: A Biography (Harper and Row, 1982).
2. The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).
3. From Union Square to Rome (The Preservation of Faith Press, 1938; reissued New York: Arno Press, 1978).
4. In a letter to Llewellyn Jones (September, 1924), Day says her novel entitled Joan Barleycorn was accepted by the Bell Syndicate, and would be “coming out as a serial.” As yet, no portion of the novel has been found, and it is doubtful it ever appeared in print.
5. From James Joyce, A Critical Introduction (New Directions, 1941; reprinted in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man: Text, Criticism, and Notes, ed. Chester G. Anderson, New York: Penguin, 1982): 399-415.
6. Joyce’s second novel, Ulysses, was published in 1922.