Dorothy Day: The Journalist Within

December 27, 2010

A reading selection from Nancy Roberts’ Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker that traces her career as journalist.

Dorothy Day was only twenty-two when she made a final commitment to journalism. She had been at it a long time. Before she was eleven, she and her siblings were typing out the little family newspaper. At seventeen at the University of Illinois she joined a campus writers’ club and wrote for the town newspaper. Before she was twenty she had overcome her father’s disapproval to become a reporter in New York, for the Socialist Call and later the Masses. Then her vigorous social conscience led her off in another direction for a while. She did enter nurse’s training. But her “longing to write” prevailed.” At the end of World War I she left nursing, firmly committed to effecting social change through her journalism.

Throughout the rest of her life, Day thought of herself primarily as a journalist, although she also enjoyed producing more lengthy work. In fact, she usually had a book in the back of her mind. When she was nearly eighty, she remarked, “I don’t remember the time when I was not writing a book.” But she was most devoted to journalism. Above all, she felt, writing was to report. Advocacy journalism suited her goals far better than the careful crafting of a few novels would have. At a penny a copy, Catholic Worker journalism could reach a large audience, especially the poor. And it could be written on the run, without stealing too many hours from Day’s other demanding activity, caring for the Catholic Worker family. So successful was her journalism, though, that it found its way into several book-length collections. It also created a readership for her several nonfiction books on her Catholic Worker life.

Day shared the genuine journalist’s urge to be read; she always wrote with an audience in mind. She was so committed to getting the Catholic Worker viewpoint in print that if the regular channels of publication were closed to her, she once remarked, she would not hesitate to mimeograph her articles and hand them out on street corners. “Writing was her craft,” observed Thomas Cornell, an editor of the Catholic Worker in the early Sixties, and she took it very seriously.

Father John J. Hugo, Day’s friend and confessor for the last forty years of her life, concurred: “She considered herself a writer; she always mentioned that. She considered writing not an avocation, but a vocation.” Day herself explained this in a letter she wrote to a benefactor in 1967. She had always viewed writing, she said, “as a way `to earning a living’ which each of us is bound to do as far as he is able before depending on others” (even though we may get “entirely too much credit for a work for which we have a vocation”). She added that she was now writing a pamphlet on the works of mercy to earn funds for the Catholic Worker movement

Similarly, she had contributed her free-lance writing income to help pay for the very first issue of the Catholic Worker. However, Day noted how shamefully “underpaid” writers were. She had earned more, she said, working her way through a year of college at “twenty cents an hour for housework, plus four hours work a day for room and board.” In a letter to her biographer, she commented: “My long experience with publishing houses showed me money is not to be made by writing. You just have to do it for the love of it.” For Day, the value of writing lay far beyond the income it could provide to aid the poor, or the creative gratifications it offered. Journalism, she believed, was the social activist’s prime tool. One could use it “to move the heart, stir the will to action; to arouse pity, compassion, to awaken the conscience.” Bemoaning the author’s continual low pay, she summarized the real rewards and true value of writing:

But oh, the joy of seeing one’s books (however unworthy of the honor of acceptance by the public) on newsstands, in chain drugstores, supermarkets, bus stations, even airports, handled by media who little know that many books of protest contain dynamite to blow our current unjust, war-ridden, profit-hungry civilization to smithereens.’

“I have no faith in our kind of books selling,” she wrote to William D. Miller in 1970. “If they get on library shelves and influence people — that is enough.”

For Dorothy Day, then, writing was a serious vocation, a most worthwhile and significant calling. Naturally shy, she never really enjoyed public speaking, although she made countless speeches on behalf of the Catholic Worker movement. Her talents and interests led her to communicate her ideas primarily through the medium of print journalism. Like many writers who came into their prime during the decade of the Depression, she wanted her work to be socially significant and to inspire social change.

Like her friends Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Mary Heaton Vorse, she started out in Socialist journalism. But after her conversion to Catholicism, Dorothy Day sought to awaken people not only to the plight of the world, but also to their own spiritual condition. Hers became an advocacy journalism informed by a distinctive and profound religious faith. She came to this in part through such youthful experiences as a stint writing Hollywood scripts, which she found frustrating and meaningless; and through the process of writing her pre-conversion novel, The Eleventh Virgin, which sold to Hollywood.

Thereafter, Day disdained such comparatively mundane, superficial literary endeavors. Resist the temptation of writing trash just to make money, she advised aspiring writers. She sometimes lamented the sad career of a friend in the labor movement, who had gone to Hollywood and made a fortune while “prostituting his great talents as a writer.” Rather, Day admired writers such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who dealt with monumental themes of human life and spirituality, and Dickens, Sinclair, and London, who through their books made greater strides in social reform, she felt, than did many politicians and economists.

Yet at least another, personal reason spurred Day to write. She once explained privately that she wrote House of Hospitality, On Pilgrimage, The Long Loneliness, and Loaves and Fishes — journalistic accounts of the Catholic Worker movement and her life within it — “to ease an aching heart and a discouraged mind.” Such writing, she said, was “a most effective way of working things out for oneself as well as trying to make others understand.”‘ If her book-length collection of 1945 columns entitled On Pilgrimage was “preaching and didactic in parts,” she suggested at its end, “it is because I am preaching and teaching and encouraging myself on this narrow road we are treading.”

Deft characterization, bright description, and authentic-sounding dialogue enriched her muckraking series on dance halls, which she wrote for the New Orleans Item in 1924. Presented in the first person, the articles piled up details to reveal such sordidness as easy-flowing “whisky and dope smokes.” The series was given page-one prominence, and it led New Orleans organizations such as the Business and Professional Women’s Club and the Federation of Clubs to press successfully for some reforms. Day also wrote for the Item a series on women at the races and gaming tables, entitled The Thrills of 1924. She studded the articles with colorful personality sketches. Day was equally adept at interviewing boxers and capturing the excitement of a close match.

Later on, of course, a deep religious dimension would inform her writing. From her early, pre-conversion apprenticeship, Day brought to the Catholic Worker firsthand knowledge of the synergistic effect of literary technique on one’s message. She indicated her awareness of technique’s importance when she wrote in 1948: “An ordinary journalistic device is to paint a picture with contrasts. It is an emotional way of making a point.” How well this characterized much of her writing. Doubtless too, Day’s appreciation of style for its own sake also helped keep her ever conscious of its meshing with substance. And so she crafted columns and articles for the Catholic Worker that used a wide array of the fiction writer’s techniques, laced with her pungent comic irony.
Articles for the Catholic Worker, letter-answering, diary-keeping: Day considered all to be important aspects of a writing vocation and devoted herself to them. She constantly urged others to do likewise: “We all should (keep a diary),” Day exhorted, “no matter how brief and factual — and be careful, in letter and diary, not to err in charity and write things that may hurt others.” Joseph Zarrella, a Catholic Worker veteran, recalled how Day was “always after me to write for the paper.” Although he did not consider himself a journalist, he finally obliged with an article entitled “Joe Zarrella Writes.” Similarly, Stanley Vishnewski, a lifelong Catholic Worker, recalled Day’s continual encouragement of his writing attempts, as well as others.

In the Catholic Worker’s early years, Day contributed investigative, muckraking reports on such topics as tenant evictions, the seamen’s strikes of the Thirties, the 1936 Vermont marble workers’ strike, and the 1937 Republic Steel massacre. As a young radical reporter she had honed her descriptive skills, and they sparkled in her 1936 series of articles on Arkansas sharecroppers, which appeared both in the Catholic Worker and in America:

It was seventeen above zero when we started out this morning with a carload of flour, meal, lard, sugar, coffee, and soup…
It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that we reached the worst place of all, just outside Parkin, Arkansas. There drawn up along the road was a tent colony, which housed 108 people, four infants among them, and God knows how many children.
The little girls giggled and laughed with their arms around each other while we talked to this evicted crowd of sharecroppers. Only one of them had on a sweater, and the heels and toes of all of them were coming out of their shoes. Their giggles started them coughing and woke up one of the babies who cried fretfully, weakly….
The little tent where we stood on the frozen earth was filled with fourteen children and there were thirteen more in the camp. Here too were four infants, wrapped in scanty cotton blankets….
While surveys are being made and written the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union carries on.. . organizing the sharecroppers…. They have had a hard struggle in the past and the future looks dark. But combined with faith and charity they have hope, and the terror that walks by day and by night in Arkansas does not daunt them.

In articles like this, the discerning reader could see she was as concerned with technique as with substance. This strategy only intensified the impact of her message, as Day surely knew. She had learned her lessons well at the Masses. And people in high places felt her impact. In the White House, Day’s reports came to the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, herself a socially concerned author of a nationally syndicated, daily newspaper column. The First Lady informed the Governor of Arkansas. (He made a personal investigation, but the report sent to the press concluded that nothing was amiss, that the unfortunate publicity was probably concocted by a “Catholic woman” who made “fat salaries off the misery of the people.”

Dorothy Day also wrote some outstanding pieces for the Catholic Worker on the labor movement of the Thirties. Pro-worker, the paper quickly developed inside sources for the coverage of unions, strikes, and other labor issues. Day herself knew many national labor figures, and interviewed union heads such as Philip Murray, John L. Lewis, John Brophy, Joseph Curran, and Harry Bridges In 1936 Day covered a speech by the Rev. Stephen Kazincy, the “labor priest,” in Braddock, Pennsylvania. She captured the essence of the event with evocative sensory details, and sparse but sonorous quotation. Her matter-of-fact, unsentimental tone underscored the gravity of the steel workers’ plight:

The steel workers’ spoke first and the sun broiled down and the men and their wives stood there motionless, grave, unsmiling, used to hardship, and thinking of the hardships to come if the steel roasters locked them out.
And then Father Kazincy was announced. He got up before the microphone, a broad, straight man of about sixty. His hair was snow white, his head held high … his words came abrupt, forceful, and unhesitating…
‘Remember that you have an immortal soul,’ he told them. ‘Remember your dignity as men.
`Do not let the Carnegie Steel Company crush you.'”‘

One of Dorothy Day’s most passionate pieces in the Thirties, which combined muckraking with advocacy, described the Republic Steel massacre. Usually the Catholic Worker aimed to “announce,” not to “denounce.” But when police opened fire on striking steel workers and their families at the gate of the Republic Steel Company in South Chicago on Memorial Day. May 30, 1937, Day could not be silent. She spoke out in hope that “the only way to stop such brutality is to arouse a storm of protest against it.” In concrete but unsensationalized detail, she gave her readers a vivid picture of the violence that took ten lives and injured more than a hundred others:

Have you ever heard a man scream as he was beaten over the head by two or three policemen with clubs and cudgels? Have you ever heard the sickening sound of blows and seen people with their arms upraised. trying to protect their faces, stumbling blindly to get away, falling and rising again to be beaten down? Did you ever see a man, shot in the back, being dragged to his feet by policemen who tried to force him to stand, while his poor body crumpled, paralyzed by a bullet in the spine’

Day went on to compare the Chicago violence to contemporary brutality in Italy, Russia, and Nazi Germany. Instead of piously assigning blame for the Republic Steel tragedy to the police, or to company personnel, she acknowledged a more universal guilt. “Have pity on us all, Our Lord of Gethsemane,” she wrote, ” — on Tom Girdler [of Republic Steel], those police, the souls of the strikers, as well as on all of us who have not worked enough for `a new heaven and a new earth wherein justice dwelleth.”

Once Day established the Catholic Worker’s tradition of muckraking she began to leave such writing more to others. But she kept the journalist’s sense for telling quote and graphic detail that she developed so early in her career. Throughout her life she retained her ability to write solid, informative, compelling muckraking and advocacy journalism, whether describing Cesar Chavez’s struggles in the California vineyards, her 1962 travels to Castro’s Cuba, or the problems of racial integration in the South. These skills also enriched the analytical background pieces which she occasionally wrote.

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