Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved By Beauty- Kate Hennessy
The life and work of Dorothy Day—the iconic, celebrated, and controversial Catholic whom Pope Francis called a “great American”—told with illuminating detail by her granddaughter.
Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a prominent Catholic, writer, social activist, and co-founder of a movement dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor. Her life has been revealed through her own writings as well as the work of historians, theologians, and academics. What has been missing until now is a more personal account from the point of view of someone who knew her well. Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty is a frank and reflective, heartfelt and humorous portrayal as written by her granddaughter, Kate Hennessy.
Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty challenges ideas of plaster saints and of saintly women. Day is an unusual candidate for sainthood. Before her conversion, she lived what she called a “disorderly life,” during which she had an abortion and then gave birth to a child out of wedlock. After her conversion, she was both an obedient servant and a rigorous challenger of the Church. She was a prolific writer whose books are still in print and widely read. While tenderly rendered, this account will show her as driven to do good but dogmatic, loving but judgmental, in particular with regards to her only daughter, Tamar. She was also full of humor and laughter, and could light up any room she entered.
An undisputed radical heroine, called “a saint for the occupy era” by The New Yorker, Day’s story unfolds against a backdrop of New York City from the 1910s to the 1980s and world events spanning from World War I to Vietnam. This thoroughly researched and intimate biography provides a valuable and nuanced portrait of an undersung and provocative American woman.
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My Review - 3 Stars
I'm not sure the first time I heard about Dorothy Day but I'd guess it was in one of my college sociology classes. Her work with the poor was unprecedented when it first began and the Catholic Worker continues to impact us today.
However, I was hazy on the particular details of Day's work and life. When I saw her granddaughter had written this biography, I was curious about what I'd find. This is about Dorothy, yes, but it is also a portrait of her daughter Tamar's life, as well as Kate. I'm still not sure what to make of all I encountered.
Although her granddaughter writes this account, it is a fairly unflinching one. Kate does not shy away from depicting Dorothy's lesser qualities and mistakes. Nor does she shy away from showing the ways Dorothy's parenting choices negatively impacted Tamar and thus Tamar's children. In fact, there were more than a few points where I felt great relief to not be related to Dorothy Day.
“Dorothy wanted to throw herself into the fray. She believed that not only could she change the world but it was her obligation to do so.” p. 53
To be clear, Dorothy Day did a great deal of good. She advocated for civil rights decades before many other white people did. She interacted with and related to the poor in a way few others did. I can understand why those who benefitted from the Catholic Worker's efforts would want her declared a saint. She was tireless in her advocacy and her Catholic faith informed it all. But this highlights the discrepancy between her professional and personal worlds, a discrepancy those who are children of many pastors, leaders, and public servants will unfortunately relate to. This is one of the most interesting aspects of this book.
The book was slow-going at times but it came alive for me in Chapter 16 when Kate takes a more active role in the narrative in her teenage years. She is also more active in the Catholic Worker, as well as trying to get her mother to become more forthcoming about the painful periods in her past.
“Perhaps the difference between Dorothy and Tamar over the question of faith was that for Tamar life was truer without the Church, while for Dorothy life was truer with it.” p. 244
I was also fascinated by the ways Dorothy's Catholic conversion did not translate to the rest of her family. Tamar eventually left the Catholic church and very few of Dorothy's grandchildren are involved. What meant so much to her did not have the same effect on others, although this could be due to her stridency in the matter.
Day's legacy is still strong some 35+ years later. There are still plenty of Catholic Worker homes in the US and around the world. I may have conflicted feelings about the woman herself but I'm glad to know more about her work and family.
Disclosure: I was provided an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Affiliate links contained in this post.