Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, has been called the most significant, interesting, and influential person in the history of American Catholicism. Now the publication of her letters, previously sealed for 25 years after her death and meticulously selected by Robert Ellsberg, reveals an extraordinary look at her daily struggles, her hopes, and her unwavering faith.
This volume, which extends from the early 1920s until the time of her death in 1980, offers a fascinating chronicle of her response to the vast changes in America, the Church, and the wider world. Set against the backdrop of the Depression, World War II, the Cold War, Vatican II, Vietnam, and the protests of the 1960s and ’70s, she corresponded with a wide range of friends, colleagues, family members, and well-known figures such as Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, César Chávez, Allen Ginsberg, Katherine Anne Porter, and Francis Cardinal Spellman, shedding light on the deepest yearnings of her heart. At the same time, the first publication of her early love letters to Forster Batterham highlight her humanity and poignantly dramatize the sacrifices that underlay her vocation.
Dorothy Day (1897–1980) was an American journalist, social activist, and devout Catholic convert. In 1933, with Peter Maurin, she established the Catholic Worker, creating a community dedicated to direct aid for the poor and homeless, solidarity with the dispossessed, and social change. Day participated in the labor struggles of the 1930s, the Civil Rights movement, and nonviolent, pacifist opposition to WWII, Cold War militarism, and the Vietnam War, and her cause for canonization is open in the Catholic Church.
The publication of the letters of Dorothy Day is a significant event in the history of Christian spirituality.
- Jim Martin, SJ, author of My Life with the Saints
These letters are life-, work-, and faith-affirming.
- National Catholic Reporter
This volume and its companion, The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day, complete the publication of Dorothy Day’s personal papers, part of the Dorothy Day–Catholic Worker Collection housed at Marquette University’s Raynor Memorial Libraries in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. According to her wishes, these materials were sealed for twenty-five years after her death in 1980.
After receiving an invitation from the University in 2005 to edit these writings, I chose to begin first with the diaries. That project was a greater editorial challenge, both in terms of the sheer quantity of material to be transcribed, and the difficulty of deciphering Day’s handwriting. In contrast, it was a positive relief to turn to the letters. As these were intended to be read, at least by their recipients, they were mercifully legible—many of them typed. The relatively limited number of letters, however, was a disappointment.
While she spent little time each day writing in her diary—sometimes only a few minutes—Day evidently spent many hours writing letters. Many of these were short notes, postcards, polite acknowledgments, and the like. But in many other letters she poured out her thoughts and feelings in a personal way, quite different from her public writings. With the exception of letters of an official character, she did not keep carbons or drafts. Thus, the extent of the letters available for this collection reflects the choice of her correspondents to preserve them and their willingness, or that of their heirs, to make them available. I have no illusions that these letters represent any more than a small fraction of the many thousands of letters she wrote in her lifetime. Many letters to close friends, colleagues, and even family members were lost or discarded. Fortunately, a wealth of material remained, including her precious early letters to Forster Battherham, to her daughter Tamar, to Ammon Hennacy, Thomas Merton, Catherine de Hueck Doherty, and many other lifelong friends and fellow travelers. In making the selection for this book, I included only those that seemed to hold particular interest. All were edited to omit repetition and inconsequential detail.
Many people helped with this project. I am particularly grateful to those who stepped forward, in response to my appeals, to share their letters from Dorothy Day. These include the Woodcrest Bruderhof, Sidney Callahan, Jeff Dietrich and Catherine Morris, Jim Douglass, Francisco Fernandez, Eric Gauchat (the son of Bill and Dorothy Gauchat), Judith Gregory, Father Paul Lachance, Karl Meyer, and the family of Karl Stern. I am immensely grateful to Kate and Martha Hennessy for their consistent encouragement of this project and for sharing Dorothy’s many cards and letters to her grandchildren. Johannah Turner, who grew up in the Catholic Worker, was exceptionally generous with her talents as a proofreader. Other careful readers were Tom Cornell and Jim Forest, whose long personal memories of the Catholic Worker story and many of its fabulous characters were an invaluable resource. Rachelle Linner and Julie Pycior helped track down sources. Pat Jordan and Frank Donovan offered critical assistance on numerous points. Thanks also to Rosalie Riegle, Claudia Larson, Jim Martin, Jim Allaire, George Horton, Michael Harank, and Gabrielle Earnshaw.
This project would not have been possible without the expert assistance of Phil Runkel, the dedicated archivist of the Dorothy Day–Catholic Worker Collection at Marquette University’s Raynor Memorial Libraries. It was he who obtained and catalogued the majority of the letters selected here. For this work, as well as his tireless willingness to pursue all leads, no matter how unlikely, and for his patient attention to any and all questions, he has been a true partner in this project. I am grateful to Matt Blessing, Head of Special Collections and Archives at Marquette, for initially entrusting this project to me and for his many years of support. It has been an honor to work again with Andrew Tallon, director of Marquette University Press, who, together with Maureen Kondrick, oversaw every aspect of this publication. In addition, once again I wish to thank the Archdiocese of New York and Marquette University’s Edward Simmons Religious Commitment Fund for their generous financial support.
I am glad for an opportunity to thank Dorothy’s daughter, Tamar Hennessy, who preserved so many of these letters, and who was generous, in the final months of her life, in sharing memories of her parents. Readers ofThe Duty of Delight as well as this book will appreciate that some of these memories were not particularly happy. Tamar deeply loved her mother and treasured her association with the Catholic Worker. But she was initially apprehensive about publishing private materials that stirred up complicated emotions. In the end, I am glad that she made her peace with the past and with this project, and I am grateful for the trust she placed in me.
Finally, it is only right to acknowledge my debt to Dorothy Day, whom I met in 1975 when I was nineteen and who asked me, just a few months later, to take on the job of editing The Catholic Worker. I could not know at that time just how significant this assignment would be, nor how much her example and her spirit would dominate the rest of my life. I possess only one letter from Dorothy, a picture postcard—like countless others she wrote, too insignificant to include in this collection. I received it while fasting in a jail cell in Colorado where I was confined as a result of an anti-nuclear protest. It was an aerial picture of Cape Cod. On the reverse she had written:
Dear Bob—Hope this card refreshes you and does not tantalize you. We all love
you and hold you in our prayers. Dan Mauk will feature you on the first page in
CW. Love in Christ, Dorothy
I knew that Dorothy’s bedroom wall was covered with postcards like this: pictures of mountains, deserts, tropical birds, and polar bears. … I hung her card on the wall of my cell and I have remembered it many times since. It has never ceased to refresh me.