Chapter 1. “A Starting Point”

“A nation can be considered great when it … strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy…

“A nation can be considered great when it … strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work.”[1] That work began in the autumn of 1916 when she began her career in journalism at The New York Call.

Dorothy Day is identified with the radical embrace of Christ’s message. Her zeal and action for truth, justice and peace sets an example for us, and her affirmation of the dignity of every person, even the most downtrodden, puts us to shame. This book highlights a young Dorothy Day’s compassion for the working poor and her lifelong dissent against the disordered industrial development in which she grew up and which is still with us.

Unlike most portraits of her, here we have an 18 year-old Dorothy Day, arriving in New York having completed two years at the University of Illinois. Finding that a university education has nothing to offer her, she has determined to change the world and work for social justice through a career in journalism. At the outset of her career, we encounter a writer who is sarcastic, humorous, energetic, and sardonic, with a taste for the playful and imaginative manipulation of words.

There are 36 articles with Dorothy’s byline between November 11, 1916 and April 19, 1917.[2] We see her close up: visiting poor families, protesting war and interviewing people who would set the trajectory of the Twentieth Century.

We become acquainted with a spirited but ordinary young woman chewing gum, warming her nose in her muff, and eating oysters. Joshed and jeered by crowds. Teasing friends and being teased. Munching a snack and sucking a lollypop. Talking about movie stars, enjoying a violin concerto and singing popular songs. We meet an extraordinarily committed young woman picketing at strikes, plastering peace signs on pillars of the establishment, clubbed by a policeman, abandoned by comrades. We gain insights into her thinking, her opinions, her view of the world; thoughts and views remarkably familiar to those who knew her fifty years later.

The seven or eight months she spent at The New York Call were critical ones in the life and history of the United States. The Industrial Revolution had caused deep disruptions in society that had already engendered a lively discussion in Europe for over half a century but had only recently reached the consciousness of Americans. For the first time in history, the majority of U. S. workers were earning a wage rather than working for themselves. Farms, small businesses and stores had been replaced by large industrial companies as the principal sources of livelihood. The society had just begun to wrestle with the value and dignity of the human person, disintegration of the family and the brotherhood of man as well as unemployment, a just wage and government’s role in mediating between employers and employees.

The war in Europe is two years old. Armies are bogged down from Switzerland to the English Channel. There have been 20 million casualties and unprecedented devastation. In the U.S., war has been a growth industry. Factories are being transformed into munitions plants at an alarming rate. Wages have risen throughout the country as the war aids almost every corner of the economy and Americans are enjoying a new prosperity. Farmers, textile manufacturers, railroads, ocean shippers and, particularly, munitions makers are making enormous profits getting goods to Great Britain and France. The moral dilemma of economic prosperity brought about by such devastation was deeply troubling to Dorothy and her friends, and left a lasting mark on her conscience; and it was her conscience, that dim voice of God, that drove her life and kept her searching for truth, justice and the right order of things despite the hardships this entailed.

Although at this point in her life Dorothy did not consider herself a Christian, she was deeply influenced by the spirit of the Gospel, though she looked in vain for exemplars of gospel values. “People were generally indifferent to religion. They were neither hot nor cold. They were the tepid, the materialistic, who hoped that by Sunday churchgoing they would be taking care of the afterlife, if there were an afterlife. Meanwhile they would get everything they could in this” (LL, 63).

During her two years at the University of Illinois Dorothy had grounded herself in radical thought and literature. Now, in New York, her personal allegiance had yet to settle on one or another of the warring radical interpretations of the social problem and the solution to it. Although there were Marxists around, the vast number of radical Americans fell into three categories: Socialists, Anarchists and The Industrial Workers of the World (IWWs or Wobblies). The Socialists (and the American Federation of Labor) wanted to improve the lot of the workers by working within the political system and legislating reforms. The Anarchists and IWWs both distrusted an allegiance between the workers and the government. In the popular mind, “anarchist” had become associated with violence but, in fact, the majority of Anarchists merely wanted to live their lives in mutual cooperation with other Anarchists and without government interference. The IWWs regarded Socialism as an offshoot of capitalism with the state in place of the industrialist, transferring property rights from factory owners to bureaucrats but not the workers. They had as little confidence in the moral integrity of government employees as of tycoons. They had a sense that something much more fundamental, much more radical, was awry and only bold and deep changes, revolution by the working class, would fix the problem.

“I was only eighteen, so I wavered between my allegiance to Socialism, Syndicalism (the IWWs), and Anarchism. When I read Tolstoi I was an Anarchist. My allegiance to The Call kept me a Socialist, although a left-wing one, and my Americanism inclined me to the IWW movement” (USq, 7). The constant bickering and maneuvering for influence of these groups on the left did not make her allegiance any easier.

Many years later, after much pain and anguish, Dorothy and Peter Maurin, the French peasant she considered her mentor, began the Catholic Worker Movement whose fundamental values included:

  • Pacifism and nonviolence, voluntary poverty, and the practice of the works of mercy.
  • A decentralized society that would re-shape government, industry, education, health care, and agriculture to a human scale and
  • The freedom and dignity of each person; an attitude pointing to a radically new society where people could rely on the fruits of their own toil and labor and the worker would not be defrauded of the work of his hands

These were all issues with which she was confronted in an inchoate form in her months with The Call. As she explained to Robert Coles late in her life:

They were happy and lively times… We read the papers carefully, and we were alert…to what was happening to people, to poor people, all over the world. It is patting ourselves on the back for me to say so, but I think we really did try to understand how the different economic systems work, and the politics of our nation, and we wanted to see America change, really change, and we were going to do something about it.[3]

What to do about it was, in some way or another, to revolt against the system. Dorothy and her friends saw every element of society complicit in maintaining this system: consciences indifferent to human suffering, businesses intent on depriving workers of the wealth created by their labor, Christian pastors espousing middle-class, rather than Gospel, values, government more concerned with itself than the common good; all legitimized by makers of public opinion who defined good and evil, patriots and traitors, heroes and scoundrels.

Dorothy Day spent the next decade wrestling with these issues. Her entire life speaks volumes to the hopes and anxieties of Americans today. Here is one of those volumes, a thin but revealing one.

[1] Pope Francis, Address to Congress, September 24, 2015.

[2] This book provides intensely edited versions of these articles. All articles with Dorothy Day’s byline can be accessed at where the is also a bibliography of books by and about Dorothy Day.

[3] Coles, Robert, A Radical Devotion, Reading, MA, Addison-Wesley, 1987, 26.

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