The timing for An Eye for Others: Dorothy Day, Journalist 1916-1917 couldn’t be better.
On April 19, 2016, the Archdiocese of New York announced a canonical inquiry into Dorothy Day’s life. Currently a Servant of God, she is on the next step in the formal process of Sainthood. There are many ordinary people whose names we will never know who lived as saints, but Saint with a capital “S” would lift Dorothy to the role of an acknowledged example of how to live as a disciple of Christ. This inquiry will include a theological examination of her writings with an eye for doctrine and morals, and An Eye for Others is a good place for the curious layperson to start.
The book, written by Tom McDonough, covers Dorothy’s articles for The New York Call and The Masses from 1916-1917. McDonough puts the articles in context by reporting on what Dorothy and New York were going through during the year leading up to World War I, sometimes in Dorothy’s own words from her later writings. This gives the reader a unique and personal perspective of an important moment in history.
A dedicated advocate of the poor, Dorothy lived a bohemian life with a string of lovers, an attempted suicide, and an abortion before she converted to Catholicism. Through her writings, the reader can understand the basis for her attraction to Socialism and similar ideologies as well as the disillusionment that caused her to later abandon them.
For one who is unfamiliar with her writings (and too familiar with the vitriolic rantings of many activists today) one of the most surprising characteristics found in her “voice” is the humor and wit with which she attacks her subject, often through a “Silly me, I should have known better” viewpoint that borders on comedy. One such example arises out of her time spent on the The Call’s Diet Squad, when she tried to live on $5 per week (about $100 in current money) in sympathy with the poor. She despairs of having spent $2.40 on weekly groceries — $0.58 more than the amount recommended by the Organized Charities:
“You are too extravagant,” said the Organized Charities…”You should not eat so much fruit, you should not eat so many potatoes, and you should eat butterine instead of butter…you have been gormandizing as much as four rolls at a time.”…
I left the office chastened. Yes, such reckless extravagance must cease.
(from “Call’s Diet Squad is Accused of Gluttony by Experts” by Dorothy Day, Friday, December 16, 1915)
The articles also bring to light some shocking reflections of the time, such as the amount of money the wealthy Astor family spent on their baby, while children all around New York were starving: $75 per day for baby Astor (almost $1,800 by today’s standards) as compared to $0.33 per day for the poor.
The poor were struggling to find work and to eat, while controlling corporations focused on price-gouging for profits, especially as the U.S. geared up for war. Dorothy passionately called out the hypocrisy embedded in the responses of politicians and the wealthy.
It was disheartening to find that some things never change. Workers were being left without jobs, having been replaced by machines. Today, those jobs go to computers or overseas. The left was committed to abortion as a solution to the poor, as if eradicating them would make their lives better. Mainstream media channels weren’t trusted, though, ironically, it was the left that feared they were controlled by the right. The media’s agenda for the most part has flipped from right to left these days, but the root fear that corporations controlled the message remains the same.
In the end, Dorothy realized that the various ideologies that first attracted her were in love with their way of thinking – without any real love for the person.
“I either want to retire from the world and study for the sake of acquiring wisdom or else I want to do something simple and useful.”
(from The Eleventh Virgin by Dorothy Day)
Fortunately for us, she chose the latter and went on to join forces with Peter Maurin to establish the Catholic Worker Movement, a charity dedicated to the Works of Mercy and the God-given dignity of every human person.
Reading An Eye for Others won’t give you a full picture of Dorothy Day’s life, but it’s a great start to understanding the woman Pope Francis recently praised as an example of “a great American.” By the end of the Church’s investigation, I think we’ll find she was much more than that.
Jackie began her writing career in Illinois at a single-digit age when her favorite dog died in an accident. Though her focus is mystery novels, she also writes children’s books, short stories, the occasional non-fiction piece, and screenplays. She’s even turned a short story into a play, “Streetcar Named Death”, which she secretly hopes to see produced by community theaters around the world. She blogs at jacquelinevick.com.