Dorothy Day is alleged to have said: “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” A new biography of her by her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy, Dorothy Day: The World will be saved by Beauty – an Intimate Portrait of my Grandmother, will, I believe, go a long way in preventing anyone from turning Dorothy Day, soon to be officially canonised by the Church, into what she feared, a plaster saint who can be piously doted-upon and then not taken seriously.
We’re all, I’m sure, familiar with who Dorothy Day was and what her life’s work was about. Indeed, Pope Francis, in addressing the US Congress, singled out four Americans who connected spirituality to a life of service in an extraordinary way: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. This new biography gives us an honest picture of who this remarkable woman actually was.
This book is extraordinary for a number of reasons: Kate Hennessy is a very good writer, the book is the product of years of research, she’s Dorothy’s granddaughter and had a very close and special relationship with her, and she manages in telling Dorothy’s story to keep both a healthy critical and aesthetic distance.
Her insight is both privileged and rare. Privileged because of her intimate relationship with Dorothy, and rare because most authors who are that intimately tied to their subject cannot maintain a balanced critical distance. Hennessy admits that doing this was no easy task: “That is the danger of holiness on your own doorstep, in your own family. Either you cannot see it for the view is too close, or if you do, you feel you haven’t a chance of being the person she was. You feel it is a sad mistake that you are related.”
And that combination makes for an extraordinary book that lets us see a side of Dorothy Day we would never see otherwise. Beyond this being a close-up of Dorothy Day, Hennessy shares stories about some of the most significant people surrounding Dorothy: her relationship to the man who fathered her child, Forster Batterham, with whom she maintained a life-long friendship. Hennessy’s biography shatters the myth that upon her conversion Dorothy coldly and forever turned her back on this man. Not true. They remained close their whole lives and Foster remained an intimate companion and a faithful supporter of her until her death.
Central too to this biography is the story of Dorothy’s daughter, Tamar, who, while vitally important in Dorothy’s life, is unfairly absent in virtually everything that’s known about Dorothy in the popular mind. Tamar’s story, which holds its own richness and is not incidental to the history of the Catholic Worker Movement, is critical to understanding Dorothy Day. There’s no understanding of Dorothy without understanding her daughter’s story and that of her grandchildren. To understand Dorothy Day, you also have to see her as a mother and grandmother.
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