Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Long Loneliness

The Long Loneliness
© 1952 Dorothy Day
288 pages (Harper Collins, 2009(



            Dorothy Day came of age amid the Great War, a child of struggling parents whose labors to make ends meet stayed with her even after they had achieved some success. Caught up by the social upheaval of the early 20th century, Dorothy moved among the ranks of Communists, anarchists, and draft-resisters. Her determination to fight for the poor changed directions after she joined the Roman Catholic Church, however, and in The Long Loneliness she recounts the efforts of her comrades, both radical and Catholic, as they worked to create a better world for the impoverished. Day’s autobiography is a beautifully written response to the early 20th century’s social turmoil, the story of a hell-raiser on the verge of sainthood. 

            Although overtly pious as a child, Day recounts here falling away from religion as she aged;  what did faith have to offer the poor, she thought, except meaningless promises of a happier afterlife?  Why should the impoverished and oppressed remain meek and serene when they could throw off their chains? Dismissing religion as the opiate of the people, Day recounts how she threw herself into the struggle for social justice. Her faith in inexorable progress was tested, however, during repeated periods of imprisonment, periods which she worsened by engaging in hunger strikes. In the despair of those hours she turned again to the God of her childhood, and when she was finally set free,  her Christian faith would be reborn and strengthened. Ultimately,  her yearning for comfort and  order led her to the Catholic church, and so strong was her desire for inner peace that she converted despite knowing it would mean leaving her common-law husband, who refused to submit to a church marriage. 

            The Long Loneliness is by no means a comprehensive biography; even if Day were blessed with total recall, constructing a narrative means leaving some facts behind to focus on others.  From this account she seems to have accepted the Church on its own terms, rather than being able to embrace it after learning about its social doctrine, which is by no means passive concerning poverty. I suspected the social doctrine might be the  draw for her, but she gives it scant mention and indeed passes over a discussion of Distributism. Instead, she mentions its similarity to the Southern Agrarians and similar movements as her own. The distributist ideal is hers, “a world where it is easy for people to be good”, where people are not destroyed by their work but ennobled by it. There is no escaping poverty in The Long Loneliness, either material or spiritual; it is to escape spiritual poverty that Day finds herself almost revering the material. She and her great ally, Peter Maurin, both emphasize voluntary simplicity as a means of not only focusing on what really matters, but in saving money to create self-reliance. “Self” is misleading, however:   The Long Loneliness is often a book about creating community.  Her rich collections of her neighbors, regardless of where she moved,  and the emphasis she and Maurin both place on experience life communally – through group discussions on philosophy, or establishing cooperatives and charity houses – demonstrate how  vital being with and working with others was to her life, to her worldview.  Day’s journey here ends on a farm, where she, Maurin, and other staffers of The Catholic Worker would be self-sustainable, she writes, if they did not give so much food away.  

            What a fascinating work this is, quoting from church fathers and personalities like Emma Goldman in the same breathe; what a life she lived,  as a journalist and nurse and agitator during a most interesting period of the 20th century, when workers were brawling in the streets with the forces of  establishment and winning victories even as they were imprisoned and beaten en masse. Many of the  laws they fought for, Day writes, are now on the books.  At the time of this writing she was no doubt by what had been achieved, not by her but by the people she served, the people who took the ideas of The Catholic Worker – pacifism and libertarianism among them --  and spread them across the world.  Hers is a dream still unrealized, but a life such as hers is a testament as to what is possible. 

Related:

  • A Life of Her Own, Emile Carles. Also the biography of a driven young woman whose response to seeing her village and its boys swallowed up by the national government during the Great War is to become increasingly sympathetic toward anarchism and the libertarian left. 
  • The Story of my Experiments with Truth, Mohandas Gandhi, which also ends in a newsletter staff being run from a communal farm. Pacifism and self-reliance are also common motifs, though Day is more sensual.
  • Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers, Shane Claiborne, whose 'new monasticism' brings Day to mind..
  • I’ll Take my Stand, various authors. She frequently mentions the southern agrarians who penned their defense of a culture rooted in the land.
  • Red Emma Speaks, Emma Goldman


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