Catholic activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980) is best known for founding, with Peter Maurin, the Catholic Worker Movement. The Movement began in the early 1930s, growing out of Day’s long interest in labor and the laboring classes.
While the Catholic Worker Movement is less well-known today than it was at midcentury, it and Day’s name retained significance for Catholics well into the 1980s. I know of no pointed study of her impact or popularity, among Catholics and otherwise. But my sense is that her work and name became less important, or was transformed into something less jarring, as the “new orthodoxy” arose with conservative Catholics in the 1990s. That is not to say that First Things-style Catholics neglected or ignored her; her name has appeared in almost 70 FT pieces since 2000. Still, it is fairly intuitive that Day’s long and deep interest in labor would resonate more positively in an age when that topic was more central—when labor unionization was more prominent and labor was thought of as an important class of American society.
Day’s long connection with labor and her interest in class differences drew me to her writings. I was surprised, however, to also find in her works an interest in great books. Indeed, after having given myself a long exposure to her thinking, especially through her 1952 book, The Long Loneliness, I will argue that Day both thought and operated with a great books sensibility. In my view, the origins, development, and eventual steady-state of Day’s great books sensibility are more consistent, furthermore, with a bottom-up than top-down approach to the great books idea. Her sensibility was rooted in family tradition, journalism, and an intense practicality that correlated with her Catholic activism.
An exploration of great books sensibilities that purports to emphasize bottom-up versus top-down thinking, as this study does, must deal with the question of Dorothy Day’s place in the realm of thinkers and the history of thought. Whether one views that realm as a continuum or hierarchy matters less than understanding, in this case, the origins of Day’s sensibility. We can elide questions of her precise bodily and intellectual place, in her times, by exploring the place and development of her sensibility in history of thought. That said, I can accept both affirmative and negative arguments about Day as an ‘intellectual’. I find moments of complexity and systematic thinking in her writing that approach what many categorize as intellectual or philosophical. However, I also see something less complex and systematic, more along the lines of reflective and thoughtful. Those with rigorous definitions of what it means to an intellectual will probably find Day’s work unsatisfactory.
Day’s interest in labor arose from her work as a journalist. For many years in the 1910s and 1920s she reported on labor, socialism, and communism. That was her first job after dropping out of college at the University of Illinois, where she had studied literature and written for the town paper. Her work as a reporter came in New York City, where she had followed her family after their move from Chicago in 1916. Her father was also a journalist. While in New York, Day wrote for the Call, Mother Earth The Masses, and the Liberator, but also freelanced. For a short time during World War I she gave up journalism to work in a hospital. But after the war and for much of the 1920s, Day traveled and changed residences for several years. Before returning to New York City in 1932 she had spent time in Europe, Mexico, Los Angeles, and Chicago (again—she had lived there as an adolescent and teenager). After returning to New York it became her home for most of the rest of her life.
Raised nominally a Protestant, Day became a Catholic in 1927. This is significant because her previous time spent as a journalist coincided with a Bohemian lifestyle. That period included at least four serious love affairs, one marriage (and divorce), an abortion, and the birth of a child out-of-wedlock (with her daughter Tamar). Day became associated (and in some cases friends) with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Kenneth Burke, Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Malcolm Cowley, and others. Day also participated in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Day’s attitudes, experiences, and associates reveal her as either socialist or anarchist, but definitely as a leftist and something of a radical. I argue this despite her personal feeling that she “was not a good radical.” In relation to her conversion, she saw her moral trajectory as perhaps “the Baudelairian idea of ‘choosing the downward path that leads to salvation'” (p. 59). Despite those misgivings, she never disowned the politics or social justice of her pre-conversion work on, and for, labor.Dorothy Day met Peter Maurin in 1932, and they created the Catholic Worker Movement (CWM) a year later. Here’s how Catholic Workers describe their founding and movement to others (in 120 words, author and date of publication unknown):
The Catholic Worker Movement began simply enough on May 1, 1933, when a journalist named Dorothy Day and a philosopher named Peter Maurin teamed up to publish and distribute a newspaper called “The Catholic Worker.” This radical paper promoted the biblical promise of justice and mercy. Grounded in a firm belief in the God-given dignity of every human person, their movement was committed to nonviolence, voluntary poverty, and the Works of Mercy as a way of life. It wasn’t long before Dorothy and Peter were putting their beliefs into action, opening a “house of hospitality” where the homeless, the hungry, and the forsaken would always be welcome. Over many decades the movement has protested injustice, war, and violence of all forms. Today there are some 223 Catholic Worker communities in the United States and in counties around the world.
When I noted above that Day and CWM were a midcentury phenomenon, the proof of that assertion is, to some extent, in the numbers. After creating the Catholic Worker newspaper, by the end of 1933 circulation hit 100,000. By 1936 it was 150,000 (p. 182). Circulation today is about 30,000 (per a December 2013 “Statement of Ownership). Members of the Movement also created hospitality houses. The first was created in New York City in 1933. Per CWM’s website, “today over 130 Catholic Worker communities exist in thirty-two states and eight foreign countries.”
Day’s background in labor and social justice, and the size of the movement she created, is precisely what makes her great books sensibility fascinating. The lack of philosophical treatises and theoretical work, as well as her “narrow” interests (i.e. poverty, peace, labor, social justice), push Day out of the category of philosopher. She most certainly resides, however, in the broad category of intellectual because of her literary output and status as a “connector figure” or facilitator. This intellectualism—i.e Day’s capacity as an embedded intellectual or labor-inflected thinker (I won’t say Gramscian organic intellectual)—is tied up with a number of great books, all prominently mentioned and copiously referred to in The Long Loneliness.
In my next post I explore the contours of her labor-oriented thinking as it was braided with, and influenced by, her great books sensibility. – TL
 Every fact about Day referenced in this piece (that is not otherwise sourced) derives from Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness (New York: Harper & Row, 1952; repr. with introduction by Robert Coles, New York; HarperCollins, 1997). Page references are to the 1997 edition. I refer to pages only for numbers and direct quotes.
 The timeline for Day’s conversion is confused in The Long Loneliness. To clear up my sense of chronology I consulted both CWM biographical timeline on The Catholic Worker website and her Wikipedia page.