U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Great Books Sensibility, Part 3b: Dorothy Day

Long-LonelinessThe first entry in this series dealt with definitions, terms, and theory. The second explored the case of Mary Lou Wolff. The third involved Dorothy Day, providing background on her place as a thinker, career as a journalist, time as a labor activist, conversion to Catholicism, and roles in the creation of the Catholic Worker movement. This post explains her great books sensibility in relation to all of those topics.


In my last installment I argued that Dorothy Day, per her 1952 book, The Long Loneliness, both thought and operated with a great books sensibility.[1] I added, furthermore, that the origins, development, and eventual steady-state of Day’s great books sensibility are more consistent 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. Day’s intellectualism—i.e. her capacity as an embedded intellectual or labor-inflected thinker—was tied up with a number of great books, all prominently mentioned and copiously referred to in The Long Loneliness.

Although I believe this argument is strong, some caveats are in order. This post is based on only one of her works. The Long Loneliness happens to be a comprehensive autobiography, covering her life up through the early 1950s, but Day wrote other book-length non-fiction and fiction, as well as numerous articles. Some of these would need to be explored to confirm and fill out my argument. A semi-autobiographical novel, The Eleventh Virgin (1924), addresses her early life as a labor radical. Others that might change the tenor of my argument include From Union Square to Rome (1938), focuses on her conversion to Catholicism. Her On Pilgrimage (1948), covers the objectives of, and objections to, The Catholic Worker Movement. Finally, there are four collections of her short works, all published since 2002, that would surely shed some more light on Day’s great books sensibility. Even with these scholarly cautions, the evidence in The Long Loneliness is, as you shall see, fairly convincing.

Day’s great books sensibility is her own in the sense that it was not impressed upon her, so far as I can tell, from any known “great books intellectual.” I would need to read her entire corpus to be sure, but The Long Loneliness contains no reference to an intellectual that specifically advocated for the use of the great books idea in the public sphere. That means she didn’t obtain her sensibility from Charles Sprague Smith, John Erksine, Everett Dean Martin, Mortimer J. Adler, Robert Hutchins, Scott Buchanan, Stringfellow Barr, Jacques Barzun, Clifton Fadiman, Charles Gayley, or any other known great books advocate. Day did not attend Columbia University, Stanford University, or the University of Chicago. Nor was she involved in the doings of either the People’s Institute or the Great Books Foundation. She does not acknowledge ownership of either The Harvard Classics or Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World. Finally, there is not even a mention of Matthew Arnold in The Long Loneliness. This litany of absence perhaps borders on tediousness, but it is important because The Long Loneliness is littered with in-text book and author references.


Ideas and sensibilities rarely appear ex novo. Indeed, the phrase ex nihilo nihil fit—nothing comes from nothing—applies. Day’s father, who was a journalist and aspiring novelist, apparently had an Arnoldian, or at least American Victorian, sense of discrimination. Here’s how Day described her early home life:

There was no blaring radio, bringing in news every hour on the hour so that you heard about the latest murder, train wreck, plane disaster and political coup twelve times a day. There were no picture books, detective stories or what father termed “trash” around the house. We had [Sir Walter] Scott, [Victor] Hugo, [Charles] Dickens, [Robert Louis] Stevenson, [James Fenimore] Cooper and [Edgar Allan] Poe. I can remember sneaking romances into the house, lent me by friends at school, but I saw to it that they did not reach my father’s eyes. My brothers brought in “dime novels,” of which they were also very careful (pp. 25-26).

Father Day was clearly a fan of the “Eminent Victorians,” and sought to inculcate that literary sensibility in his children. He also loved to quote the Bible and Shakespeare in his news pieces (p. 26). While the passive best-of-the-best-style middlebrow “Arnoldianism” is clear, it’s also clear that this was an active, if policing style, effort on his part.[2] He wanted a middle-class life for this family, and great books were part of his outlook. Day inherited and absorbed her father’s lessons about avoiding “trash” in literature, but she also selected her own greats and learned new lessons from those works.

Day’s own great books sensibility developed in her adolescent years and while at the University of Illinois. As an adolescent she reported a general love of books—one that caused her “restlessness.” She particularly enjoyed Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Day reported an affinity for languages and even some of the classics as a teenager (history, however, was “dull to me”). In high school she was impressed by a classics teacher at Chicago’s Waller High School (now known as Lincoln Park High School), under whom she learned to translate Latin through the study of Virgil, Xenophon, and others (pp. 32, 34)

When Day studied at the University of Illinois, for about two years around 1914-16, her affinity for great books extended to labor radical classics. Although she studied Latin and English coursework, she read Jack London and Upton Sinclair. Day boarded with the family of a professor of romance languages, “Fitzgerald” (John Driscoll Fitz-Gerald, II?). She said she “used to talk about books with the professor and faith with the old lady” (p. 41). Here’s an extended passage on her new reading, attractions to new authors, and some issues raised:

The romanticism and hardness of Jack London in his stories of the road appealed to me more at that time than the idealism of Upton Sinclair, though I still considered, and do to this day, that The Jungle was a great novel. But his romantic, realistic novel, The Mystery of Love, repelled me so that I discounted his other books. He had not yet written his other great labor novels. (Sinclair had been called the Dickens of the American scene, and he has always been more of a storyteller than a philosopher.)

The Russian writers appealed to me too, and I read everything of Dostoevski, as well as the stories of Gorki and Tolstoi. Both Dostoevski and Tolstoi made me cling to a faith in God, and yet I could not endure feeling an alien in it. I felt that my faith had nothing in common with that of Christians around me (pp. 42-43).

All of her new reading, however, didn’t mean she was dutifully following the curriculum or the suggestions of her professors. She was not following a university-prescribed program to intellectualism. To wit:

I was greedy for books and spent all my spare hours working to earn money to buy them. …I don’t recall putting in much time studying, but what I studied was not related to life as I saw it. Even history did not teach me to study past events in relation to present ones so that I could think in terms of shaping the present to mold the future. I was not interested in biology. I had loved the hours spent in reading Vergil in high school, but I lost interest in Latin in college. The only thing I was really interested in was reading the books I selected for myself, and, of course, in writing. …Really I led a very shiftless life, doing for the first time exactly what I wanted to do, attending only those classes I wished to attend, coming and going at whatever hour of the night I pleased. My freedom intoxicated me (p. 43).

Day was following an autodidact’s liberal arts program in the context of her university study. Her program involved great books, but from a list of her own choosing and according to her own deeper currents. Of course this kind of self-learning can’t coexist within prescribed university curricula. She no doubt found it easy to leave the University of Illinois when she followed her family (i.e. her father’s new employment) to New York City in the summer of 1916 (p. 50).

But by that time, however, her time at the university had set her great books sensibility. She had formulated a big question and answered it through her reading in great books. She wrote:

There was a great question in my mind. Why was so much done remedying social evils instead of avoiding them in the first place? There were day nurseries for children…but why didn’t fathers get enough money to take care of their families so that mothers would not have to go out to work? There were hospitals for the sick and infirm…but what of occupational diseases, and the diseases which came from not enough food for the mother and children? What of the disabled workers who received no compensation but only charity fro the remainder of their lives? …

All this long procession of desperate people called to me. Where were the saints to try and change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?

Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek,” but I could not be meek at the thought of injustice. I wanted a Lord who would scourge the money-changers out of the temple, and I wanted to help all those who raised their hand against oppression. …I was in love now with the masses (pp. 45-56).

This love for the poor and disadvantaged—meaning an fascinating total identification with a class of people outside her upbringing—dominated her continued selections and rereading in great books for the rest of her life. She lost herself in that cause, but nevertheless gained, indirectly, the American dream of individual notoriety through the creation of the Catholic Worker Movement.


The Long Loneliness provides evidence that a number of authors dominated Day’s great books sensibility. The following thinkers existed in something like concentric circles around her mind. Some from the inmost circle have already been mentioned: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Dickens. She identified with these authors completely, rereading their works many times over. References to “Dostoevski” occur nine times in the text (including the introduction with Robert Coles but excluding the index), with thirteen for “Tolstoi” and eight for Dickens. It should be noted that some great books advocates include the Bible in their assessments. If we do, Day cited it seventeen times.

Day repeated inserted Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and sometimes Crime and Punishment in her autobiography. With Tolstoy it was, of course, War and Peace, but also Anna Karenina and several of his short fiction pieces (e.g. “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” etc.). On Dickens, she cited David Copperfield. At one point, during the mid-1920s, Day reported reading Dickens “every evening” (p. 133, though she was unspecific about the particular text).

The next sets of concentric circles include a number of authors who have written on the poor, the masses, and labor radicalism generally. Day does not always cite specific works for each, but it is clear in her autobiography that she’s read them closely. Prince Peter Kropotkin and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin are cited eight times each, though her enthusiasm for both seems to have faded by the time of her great books-laced interview with Robert Coles and his students in the mid-1970s.[3] Other relevant “greats” cited a noteworthy number of times including the following authors and books: St. Augustine of Hippo (6), Jack London (5), Pierre Joseph Proudhon (5), Karl Marx (5), The Imitation of Christ (4), Mahatma Gandhi (4), G.K. Chesterton (3), Upton Sinclair (3), James Joyce (3), Honoré de Balzac (3), Hilaire Belloc (2), Blaise Pascal (2), Anton Chekhov (2), William James (2, particularly his Varieties of Religious Experience), Victor Hugo (2), Michael Bakunin (1), Joseph Conrad (1), George Orwell (1), and St. Thomas Aquinas (1).

So much for the bare quantitative aspects of these authors and books.

On the qualitative side, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Dickens, and perhaps even Kropotkin, were like secular saints to Day. They were exemplars. She wanted “to live by them” more than analyze them. In Robert Coles 1997 introduction to The Long Loneliness, he spoke of “the moral seriousness that informed her reading” and the “moral vision…of some of [her] favorite writers” (p. 4). And in a passage that goes to the heart of her autobiography, she added:

This would have been a far lonelier life for me, if I hadn’t ‘met’ Mr. Dickens and Mr. Tolstoi, and some others [authors]… I have had David Copperfield as a companion—over half a century of going back to certain chapters, passages; and the same with the books of Dostoevski and Tolstoi, and certain Chekhov stories. …I tried to take those artists and novelists to hear, and live up to their wisdom… (pp. 4-5)

It should be noted that Day, along with Peter Maurin, passed along a great books sensibility to the Catholic Worker Movement. Catholic Worker houses often contained reading and study groups (p. 220). Maurin, a bibliophile who Day cites as a profound influence on her thinking, apparently pushed his “list of essential books” onto new members of the movement (p. 201). One Catholic Worker enthusiast, Ammon Hennacy, who was also a Christian (but non-Catholic) socialist, came by his politics by reading Tolstoy, Gandhi, and the Bible. The Sermon on the Mount passages were particularly inspiring to him (p. 265). The great books idea permeated the Catholic Worker Movement.


Early in The Long Loneliness, Day approvingly cites G.K. Chesterton on tradition. She uses him in the context of remembering and valuing family stories. But the quote she provides could just as easily apply to her thinking about great books. Here’s the passage from Chesterton:

Tradition is democracy extended through time. Tradition means giving the vote to that most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. Tradition is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who are walking about (p. 17).

If we apply Chesterton’s line of thinking to Day’s efforts to empathize with the working classes, the poor, and the masses generally, one can see in her project an effort to democratize culture. Her great books sensibility constituted a kind of great books socialism. Day’s cultural politics were also friendly to anarchism, though still infused with Christianity. Her great books sensibility, however, predated her conversion, which makes it, in theory, not unfriendly to a secular worldview.


[1] 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.

[2] I put “Arnoldianism” in quotes because, as I’ve argued many times here at the blog and in other venues, there is abundant evidence that Arnold’s cultural project encompassed more than “the best” in terms of reading and citizenship. While he advocated for contact with the “best that has been thought and said,” he also pushed for deep reading and critical thinking generally. It wasn’t the case for Arnold that reading outside the “greats” was a complete waste of time or the promotion of anarchy.

[3] Two notes: (a) I’ve limited my citation counting to authors and books where it seemed reasonably clear that Day had read something of their books or important works. (b) These numbers cannot be obtained through the book’s insanely inadequate index. Googlebooks and Amazon (via the latter’s Look Inside function) are also worthless. Googlebooks only previews Coles’ introduction. I obtained these numbers through searches at HarperCollins website, which is the only place to offer a full search of the book (though page previews are limited). The realization of Googlebooks’ limitation was particularly disappointing.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim, I really enjoyed this post.

    “The only thing I was really interested in was reading the books I selected for myself, and, of course, in writing…Really I led a very shiftless life, doing for the first time exactly what I wanted to do, attending only those classes I wished to attend, coming and going at whatever hour of the night I pleased. My freedom intoxicated me.” Preach it, sister!

    There’s something striking about Day’s persistence in seeking out her own path, or trying to, within/despite the institutional structures in which she found herself — the church, the university — and drawing strength to do so from the books she read and the moral vision she found there or fashioned from them. I guess I would call this a “protestant” sensibility in the broadest (most catholic?) sense of the word.

    And there is a strain of idealism here that’s more than — or at least other than — Arnoldian. It’s the idealism of wanting institutions to live up to their finest ideals. “Where were the saints to try and change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?….I wanted a Lord who would scourge the money-changers out of the temple…” The church (big C or little c) and the university (big U or little u) might revere or celebrate the saints of various stripes who tried to change the social order elsewhere and/or elsewhen, but they’re not quite so sanguine about someone trying to change things right here and right now.

    Traditionalism as a kind of democracy — that quote from Chesterton is fantastic — is the most charitable way to frame such institutional resistance. I don’t quite know how to frame the idealist’s resistance to letting go of idealism about the institutions that resist them. I don’t know if that’s hope or hegemony. Maybe both. Either way, it can be a very tough path.

    Speaking of institutional resistance…I would probably not characterize Stanford as a “Great Books” school at any time except the 1980s. I might write more about that on Saturday, but briefly…from 1935 to 1969, Stanford required all students to take a yearlong sequence in the “History of Western Civilization,” taught entirely by the history department. So the course was a garden variety first-year history survey — but in such a garden! — and not structured around a close reading of individual “great books.” More later…

    • Lora

      Thanks a million for the long, engaged comment. Let me address some of your points in reverse order:

      (a) I did not mean to characterize Stanford as a “great books school.” And truth be told, the University of Chicago never was either—not the way Adler and Hutchins imagined a great books school would be (e.g. St. John’s College, Annapolis, MD). Rather, I meant that one could possible learn great books at Stanford around 1890-1910. I was thinking of Charles Gayley’s famous great books course, which I imagined would’ve still been offered when Day was in college. So I apologize for the vagueness in the post above.

      (b) That quote from Chesterton comes from his book Orthodoxy. I used it in my very first essay on the great books, written back in 2000. But I hadn’t used it since, amazingly. It’s a famous passage among the Chesterton enthusiasts.

      (c) I’m 100 percent with you on Day’s desire for institutions, especially those she admired (including the Communist Party and socialists), to live up to their highest ideals. She was most definitely a Tolstoyian idealist.

      (d) On Day seeking her own path, I’m working on developing a feminist Catholic thesis of some kind—something unique for her. But I haven’t yet developed the vocabulary I want for her particular case/sensibility. – TL

  2. Tim: Sorry it took me a while to leave a comment. This is wonderful and I too have a great interest in Day and, more broadly, what you construe as a Catholic feminist thesis. So I would like to hear more about that. I am finding in the Franciscan periodicals that I have read a genuine difficulty of locating information about the women who wrote for these magazines. Part of the problem is that many of these groups did not keep great archives. But a different problem comes into play with the women, as they were often given what were considered “less” intellectual or theological or even spiritual matters to write about, including homemaking, cooking, etc. But many wrote about the trials of keeping a Catholic home or raising a Catholic family or dealing with a world that seemed at odds with what either priests were declaring at mass or exemplars of Catholic Action and folks such as Day were advancing. I am so interested in how Day related to her sisters in the Church and if she considered it her role to be a model for Catholic women in certain ways. I’m sure we will be speaking about this stuff back and forth for a while to come.

    • Thanks Ray. I need to think more about Day’s other writings to understand her particular Catholic feminism. But I think I see it there, even if it has (expected) strong essentialist components.

      My close reading of The Long Loneliness revealed a lot of discussion about men in the Catholic Worker Movement, but less about women. I feel sure that’s compensated in Day’s other writings, but I haven’t yet done that study. Before the movement, Day did mention a number of her female colleagues from her socialist period. Indeed, at one point she had one of those Carroll Smith-Rosenberg-style “female world of love and ritual” close friendships. – TL

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