Beauty in Overlooked Places and Faces

The Catholic Worker (New York) / June-July 2011

All is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day
by Jim Forest
Orbis Books, 344 pages, 2011

review by Amanda Daloisio

Upon opening All is Grace, the new edition of the biography of Dorothy Day by Jim Forest, one is struck first by the sheer number of photographs. Dispersed throughout the book, often accompanied by quotes from Dorothy’s writing, they are a large part of what makes this book so engaging. The pictures are by turns striking, surprising, familiar and new. They span her entire life and introduce us to those Dorothy loved: from her sister Della to her daughter Tamar to her nine grandchildren. There are photos of people whose names are Catholic Worker legend: Ammon Hennessy, Stanley Vishnewski, and Ade Bethune, but also snapshots of the various houses and farms, of demonstrations and of life in the New York Catholic Worker.

From the first page you realize that Jim Forest is a skillful storyteller, brimming with enough detail to be gripping, lively enough never to drag. Alternating between the fascinating facts of Dorothy Day’s life, the world in which it enfolded and the arc of her inner life, we are treated to a story that is part history, part biography, and part philosophy. And this seems fitting for a woman who so desired to engage the world and all its suffering and beauty. Her focus was in equal measure about the life of the body as experienced in the suffering of the poor, the life of the spirit and one’s relationship to God. She felt called to do all this in a community fed on the conviction that to work for peace and serve the poor is, indeed, a “duty of delight”.

From a very young age, Dorothy Day nurtured the seeds that would later germinate and influence her conversion and religious yearnings as well as the creation of the Catholic Worker. Growing up in a nominally Episcopalian household, Dorothy remembered a neighbor in Chicago telling her the story of a saint as a young girl. “[I] almost burst with desire to take part in such high endeavor… I was filled with a natural striving, a thrilling recognition of the possibilities of spiritual adventure.” What came with that desire were experiments with piety, even convincing her younger sister Della to sleep on the hard floor as the saints did in their monastic cells.

Later, intoxicated by new found freedom at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she willingly sacrificed comfort and worked at manual labor jobs to spend what money she had on books, wanting her education to be about the labor movement, socialism and Fyodor Dostoevsky and her time to be spent writing. This seed of precarity would only grow as she moved to New York City at the age of eighteen. With newspapers such as The Masses and The Call, she continuously worked for little wages, if it meant writing meaningful articles. There was already a firm connection between what she wrote and how she lived. Her heroes were those of all stripes, from saints to socialists, who struggled toward a goal at great personal sacrifice.

One ever present and astonishing aspect of Dorothy Day’s personality was her ability to see and experience beauty. An avid reader from a young age, she found inspiration in the way books and music could transform the drabness of daily life into a meaningful pursuit. As Jim Forest describes it, “Dorothy loved words, rejoiced in the way they could be sewn together to change seasons, leap across time and space, or simply describe the ordinary things around her that she found most captivating.” Often this reading pushed her out the door and into the world. After reading Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Dorothy spent time walking through the slums of Chicago. In these poor neighborhoods, she found “the odor of geranium leaves, tomato plants, marigolds; the smell of lumber, of tar, of roasting coffee; the smell of good bread and rolls and coffee cake coming from the small German bakeries. Here was enough beauty to satisfy me.”(19) She was then just a teenager.

This ability would stay with her and provide solace in the midst of chaos for the rest of her life. At the age of eighty-one, she wrote as she looked out of her window at Maryhouse, “At exactly 8:05 AM, the morning sun gilds the upper floors of the building across the street, creeping from the gray one to the red brick one. A lovely sight…The sycamore tree stirs in the cold, east wind. The sky is a cloudless blue. And now one side of the tree, reaching the third floor of those tenements, is all gilded, as the sun spreads rapidly around…’My’ tree is now radiant with sun!” Manual labor, beauty, books, and personal sacrifice- these are some of the elements of Dorothy’s story that begin in her as a child. It is the crafting of All is Grace that allows us to follow these elements as they snake through her life, becoming themes and philosophies that Catholic Worker communities continue to struggle with and strive for.

It could be said that this gift, as well as her sensitivity to the plight of the poor, led Dorothy to be very present in the world. In short, she was a woman who paid attention to the bigger picture as well as the slightest detail, to the sinful effects of war on entire countries as well as the sorrows the “filthy, rotten system” had on the person who comes to the door. Combined with courage and a headstrong nature, she took what she saw and heard and turned it into concrete work. She met Peter Maurin, heard his endless teaching and knew it to be truth. There are stories to be told and ideas to be discussed, let us start a newspaper to do just that. People need to be fed and housed, let us make soup and rent cold-water flats. And so the Catholic Worker began.

Rightly so, around the history of 1933 when the first issue of The Catholic Worker newspaper is handed out in Union Square, All is Grace ceases to be a book just about Dorothy Day and widens to include the growing community, as well as Dorothy’s own growing family. She saw the Works of Mercy, the nonviolent resistance of war and the struggle for justice as work that could not be done alone.

The gift of this book is the use made of recently published collections edited by Robert Ellsberg, The Duty of Delight, Dorothy Day’s diaries, and All the Way to Heaven: The Selected Letters of Dorothy Day. Jim Forest so carefully weaves in these resources and the result is a life’s story told with much depth. We are privy not only to the stories of arrests and jail time, of meeting Peter Maurin and the beginnings of a newspaper, and then a movement, but we are blessed with her thoughts on these events, the doubts that plagued her as she raised Tamar, separated from Forster; as she wrestled with a growing movement and changing times. We might be amazed and inspired by what she accomplished, and rightly so. But we should be even more amazed and inspired to learn along the way that there was much sorrow, loneliness and second-guessing. All is Grace is, at times, heart wrenching in its honesty, due largely to the candor and diligence with which Dorothy recorded and reflected on her own life and Jim Forest’s use of these writings.

All is Grace is clearly written by a friend, colleague and admirer of Dorothy Day and includes his own personal reflections as well as memories told to him by many of those who knew her. This adds an element of intimacy to the writing that seems fitting for a woman who, by all accounts, would sit and talk, with an “ability to focus on the person she was talking to, not to see just a young face but your face, not discerning just a vague, general promise, but your particular gifts.” While often in the public eye, the spotlight was never where she felt most comfortable. Perhaps she might have felt the same about a scholarly textbook analyzing her life. But this warm, engaging account matches tone with content, and like Dorothy did for many a volunteer, “you [can glimpse] exciting possibilities in yourself that you hadn’t seen before.”

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