Skip to main content

The Power of Books: The Case of Dorothy Day

For centuries literature had a major impact on the lives of some people. One example is Dorothy Day (1897-1980), whom President Obama has referred to as one of the five “great reformers in American history” and who is presently being considered for sainthood by the Catholic Church. She began reading at age four, and she later recalled, “All of us were constant readers in our home, and I, myself, liked those books best which were written in the first person, like David Copperfield, and the reader was closely identified with the joys and sufferings of hero and heroine.” (For sources of quotes from and about Day, see here and here.) Besides Dickens’ David Copperfield, she also read his Bleak House and Little Dorritt, as well as works by Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, James Fenimore Cooper, and Edgar Allan Poe, and she was moved by Jean Valjean’s heroic fight against injustice in Hugo's Les Miserables. Other major writers that she read while in high school included Dostoevsky.

dorothy day

Looking back on her childhood, she later wrote that she was grateful that there were as of yet so few distractions from reading—like radios that would blare “the news of the world . . . into the home a dozen times a day.” How different it is growing up today! How many more “distractions” exist. Reading has to compete not only with radio, but TV, computers, video games, smartphones, and much more; and much of it, unlike the simple books of old, is accompanied by advertising.

But the point of this essay is not to express some Luddite rant against modern media technology, which offers much that is positive. It is merely to indicate how reading helped shape Day (and others in the past) in a way that is much less likely to occur in the twenty-first century.

About her high school years, she wrote, “I read everything of Jack London's and Upton Sinclair's, and they had much influence on my way of thinking.” Among London’s works that especially influenced her were his essays on class conflict and his novels, especially Martin Eden, which depicted its hero’s struggle to escape poverty, educate himself, and find meaning, love, and beauty. Like London and Sinclair (author of The Jungle), she wanted to write books that would convince people of the injustices that existed and contribute toward creating a more just order. She also read some religious works like the New Testament and The Imitation of Christ and about Russian revolutionaries like Peter Kropotkin, who opposed tsarist rule. Writers inspired her, as she said Carl Sandburg, the “poet of the people,” inspired her brother Donald, “to look on the people as he did, with love and hope of great accomplishment.”

During the years (1914-1916) she spent at University of Illinois, she was especially fond of Russian writers. She read all of Dostoevsky’s writings she could find, as well as works of Tolstoy, Turgenev, Chekhov, Gorky, and others.

In the years which followed as she worked at various jobs, wrote a novel, became a single mother, converted to Catholicism, and then settled down to decades of directing the Catholic Worker movement and its monthly paper, she continued her avid reading. Biographer psychiatrist Robert Coles, who met Day in 1952 as a medical student, wrote that “she was an almost feverish reader.” In 1972, in her mid-seventies, she wrote in her diary: “No matter how old I get . . . no matter how feeble, short of breath, incapable of walking more than a few blocks, what with heart murmurs, heart failures, emphysema perhaps, arthritis in feet and knees, with all the symptoms of age and decrepitude, my heart can still leap for joy as I read and suddenly assent to some great truth enunciated by some great mind and heart.”

Besides the Russians, she read hundreds and hundreds of other books. To name just a small sample, there were Americans as diverse as Hawthorne, Sinclair Lewis, Faulkner, J. D. Salinger, and the Jewish rabbi Chaim Potok; French novelists such as Bernanos, Mauriac, and Camus (she had great respect for this atheist author of The Plague); in addition to Dickens, English writers like Orwell, Graham Greene, Chesterton, and Belloc; the Italian novelist Ignazio Silone; and the Catholic Norwegian Nobel-Prize winning novelist Sigrid Undset. During her years of religious searching and after her conversion to Catholicism in 1927, she read much religious literature including saints’ lives. But with her broad ecumenical taste, she also received inspiration from reading works like Louis Fischer’s biography of Gandhi, a man she greatly admired. For relaxation, she loved reading mystery stories by writers such as Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. She also read or saw many dramas, with Chekhov and Eugene O’Neill being among her favorite dramatists—as a young woman she was a friend of O’Neill’s.

But for the Russian writers, she always had a special affection. She observed that reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in college made her “cling to a faith in God.” And in 1971, she added “From my high school years, I have been fascinated by Russia,” and it was the works of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Chekhov “which did much to bring about my conversion.”

The writings of Tolstoy, as well as Peter Kropotkin (author of Memoirs of a Revolutionist), influenced the non-violent anarchism she adopted. She referred to them as “the modern proponents of anarchism,” as “sincere and peaceful men.” She thought of Kropotkin as “a saint in his way,” and later added, “Our anarchism stems from Kropotkin.” She read and reread Tolstoy’s two masterpieces, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, but she also read some of his fiction written after his middle-aged spiritual crisis, which turned him into a major moralist for the last three decades of his life. Among these readings were stories (like The Death of Ivan Ilych and “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”) and the novel Resurrection. She also read some of his non-fiction works (like What Then Must We Do?) that spelled out his thinking on such topics as pacifism, non-violent anarchism, the treatment of criminals, and poverty. Perhaps most importantly, she tried to reconcile her life with her religious beliefs, as Tolstoy struggled to do during his final decades.

dorothy day

About Chekhov she became more interested as she got older. In 1961, she wrote that the question he poses is:

“What is to be done?” What is life for? Chekhov's conclusion is that we are here to work, to serve our brother, and he was a doctor and wrote on the side in order to support himself through medical school and to support also his father, mother and brothers. He said toward the close of his life that much had been done for the sick but nothing for the prisoner so he set out to visit the far off prison island of Sakhalin, travelling by carriage over flooded country side, and finally spending three months with the convicts, in the convict colony north of Vladivostok, a visit which resulted in many reforms.

Not to be a parasite, not to live off of others, to earn our own living by a life of service, this answered the question for him. And we have too that sureness of an answer—We must try to make that kind of a society in which it is easier for man to be good.

Recommended for You

In the 1970s she read or reread much more of Chekhov, including not only his stories and plays, but his letters. She mentioned having read Chekhov’s story about mental patients, “Ward No. 6,” and compared some of her Catholic Worker hospitality houses (which housed and fed poor people) to this fictional ward. She also read his “Peasants” and “again was shamed by the contrast between their lot and our own.” His “House with the Mansard,” made her think how important it was for people to “have time to think of their souls, of God, and to develop their spiritual facilities.” She recalled one of the things Chekhov wrote in a letter after visiting the prison camp in Sakhalin Island. ‘God’s world is good. It is only we who are bad. . . One must work, and to hell with everything else. The important thing is that we must be just and all the rest will come as matter of course.’” She also read The Island, Chekhov’s long account of his trip to the Sakhalin penal colony. She clearly admired not only his writings but his work as a doctor, for example during a cholera epidemic in 1891-92. In the early 1970s, she stated that “Dostoevsky influenced my youth and gave me the insights for today (such work as ours). But Chekhov's stories and letters are a never-failing inspiration now.”

In 1949, before she came to a greater appreciation of Chekhov, Day listed the poet, philosopher, and religious thinker Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900), along with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, as being one of “the three great Russians.” She added that “these three men wrote of the struggle of man towards God and to all of them the golden key which opened the doors of prisons and led out of darkness was the key of love.” She was especially enthusiastic about Soloviev’s The Meaning of Love, which celebrated and connected various types of love, including the sexual, romantic, and brotherly varieties.

In the later decades of her life, she praised two twentieth-century Russian novelists whose works were full of spiritual beauty, Boris Pasternak (author of Doctor Zhivago) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

But of all the Russian writers, she most consistently appreciated Dostoevsky. She read all his great novels—Crime and Punishment (C&P), The Idiot, The Possessed, and The Brothers Karamazov (BK)as well as some of his other works likeThe Insulted and the Injured and Raw Youth, the story “An Honest Thief,” the House of the Dead (based on his own prison experiences) and his journalistic articles in his Diary of a Writer.” In addition she read accounts about him like those of Nicholas Berdyaev and Konstantin Mochulsky, and heard lectures about him (and Tolstoy and Soloviev) from her good friend the Russian émigré Helene Iswolsky.

About Dostoevsky, she wrote, “he had a profound influence on my life, on my way of thinking”; “I was moved to the depths of my being by the reading of these books [C&P, The Idiot, BK] during my early twenties when I, too, was tasting the bitterness and the dregs of life and shuddered at its harshness and cruelty” (both quotes from 1938); and “I do not think I could have carried on with a loving heart all these years without Dostoyevsky's understanding of poverty, suffering and drunkenness” (1973). She also once told a Catholic Worker staff member that the “the only way he would ever understand the Catholic Worker was by reading Dostoevsky.”

BK was the novel she most often cited. For example: “The very struggle for non-violence, and growth in love of brother, love of enemy, which goes on within us all, the very struggle to put off the old man and put on the new, was made easier by those words of [the BK’s] Fr. Zossima which I have so often quoted, ‘Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.’” Like many readers of the great novel, she commented on Jesus’s conversation with the Grand Inquisitor and Ivan Karamazov’s “portrayal of ‘a God that permits’ the torture of children”; she admired Alyosha’s Christ-like behavior; and was inspired by his brother Dmitri’s conversion in prison.

She also was moved by the Christ-like actions of Prince Myshkin, or the the “idiot” as he is often called in the novel of that name. She believed, like Myshkin, “we must pray not to be afraid, to be fools for Christ”—a term that had special meaning in the Russian Orthodox tradition. She was also fond of quoting some variant of a line in The Idiot, “Beauty would save the world.” And when the Rosenberg’s were executed for espionage in 1953, she recalled how the prince “described in detail the misery of the man about to be executed.” In general, Myshkin’s emphasis on spiritual values versus the materialism and greed of many of the novel’s other main characters must have resonated deeply within her (see here for more on the novel).

In her comments on Russian writers she seldom mentions their flaws. Both Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn, for example, harbored anti-Western biases and were sometimes dogmatic and intolerant, even anti-Semitic in the case of Dostoevsky. Not even Myshkin’s claim that “Roman Catholicism is . . . worse than Atheism itself” seems to have upset her. In general, she stressed tolerance and dialoguing with others including Marxists and looked for the positive elements in what she heard or read.

Her early reading of writers like Dostoevsky, Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Dickens, Kropotkin, and Tolstoy presented to her an alternative view to that of the dominant American capitalist society and its values. As she got older, her reading was generally “creative reading,” as Emerson described it in “The American Scholar.”She read with a purpose. She recalled how in her pre-college days she had been moved by the lives of saints who cared for “the sick, the maimed, and the leper,” but asked “where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to the slaves but to do away with slavery?” Although she found inspiration by reading about saints like Francis of Assisi, she also thought that “we have seldom been given the saints as they really were, as they affected the lives of their times.”

For more realistic inspiration from those trying to “change the social order,” she read works like Fischer’s biography of Gandhi and most consistently the great Russian writers who stressed spiritual values over modern materialism. In 1976, as she was nearing her eightieth birthday, she wrote, “Detective stories relax and distract one's minds but I have [also] had some stimulating reading this month.” The reading she referred to was a book entitled Aspects of Religion in the Soviet Union 1917-1967, and she commented especially on one chapter, “Religious Themes in Soviet Literature.” “There are,” she wrote, “many quotations from Pasternak's poetry both in Russian and English and they are of incomparable beauty.”

In the last few years of her life, she reread Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and three of Dostoevsky’s four great novels, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Possessed. Like many of us today, she sometimes read for relaxation. But literature also meant much more to her. It remained throughout her long life a vital source of beauty and inspiration. One can only hope that future generations, like Dorothy Day, will continue to realize how vital a resource good books can be.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss

Thursday, 19 September 2013