The Forgotten Radical Peter Maurin: Easy Essays from the Catholic Worker
By Peter Maurin, edited by Lincoln Rice / Fordham University Press, 2020
Review by Jim Forest
In bringing out the complete writings of Peter Maurin, editor Lincoln Rice has put Peter Maurin back on the map of people who deserve widespread attention. The timing of the book’s publication is providential. As was the case when the first issue of The Catholic Worker was published, once again we are facing a great depression. It’s a time to rethink the problem of our ultra-urbanized culture in which environment and peace are less important than consumer spending and a militarized economy — a way of life that is in fact a way of death.
While the bulk of Maurin’s “Easy Essays” have been published from time to time in the past, not all of them have previously seen the light of day, nor were his writings annotated. The reader was often left in the dark about obscure names mentioned, books cited, and events referred to. Lincoln Rice has not only provided us with a definitive edition but includes several revealing interviews with Maurin. Rice also provides a compact biography of Maurin and lists the many books he referred to in his writings. Any reader who wants to know more about Maurin has the ideal resource.
Dorothy Day was the driving force in bringing the Catholic Worker movement into being and shaping it, yet there would have been no Catholic Worker had it not been for Peter Maurin. Dorothy Day always regarded him as the Catholic Worker’s co-founder.
The two met in December 1932 after Dorothy Day’s return from reporting on a “hunger march” in Washington, DC. “I am Peter Maurin,” the stranger said in a thick French accent. “George Schuster, editor of Commonweal, told me to look you up.”
“Peter talked as if he were taking up a conversation where it had been left off,” Dorothy recalled in Loaves and Fishes, her history of the Catholic Worker’s first three decades. “There was a gray look about him. He had gray hair, cut short and scrubby, gray eyes, strong features, a pleasant mouth, and short-fingered, broad hands, evidently used to hard work…. He wore the kind of old clothes that have so lost their shape and finish that it’s impossible to tell if they are clean or not.”
Peter chose the occasion to recite one of his “Easy Essays,” as Dorothy’s brother John christened them — a kind of rhythmic, blank-verse poem using repeated words and phrases arranged in short lines. Aware that Dorothy had just returned from Washington, his text was a challenge to her and to all those who believe that it is the task of government to solve our problems. It began:
People go to Washington
asking the government
to solve their economic problems,
while the Federal government
was never intended
to solve men’s economic problems.
Thomas Jefferson says,
“The less government there is,
the better it is.”
If the less government there is,
the better it is,
the best kind of government
Arguing for less government rather than more was an idea completely out of fashion with most of the radicals Dorothy Day knew and whose journals she had often written for and helped edit.
Their first meeting was relatively brief — Dorothy was tired and her daughter Tamar had the measles — but Peter was back the next day, eager to tell her about the three-point program he hoped she would embrace: founding a newspaper “for the clarification of thought,” promoting houses of hospitality for those in need of food and shelter, and organizing farming communities so that both workers and scholars could return to the land. “I did not think,” Dorothy recalled later in life, “that the second two had anything to do with me, but I did know about newspapers.”
While Peter was tireless in expounding his vision and philosophy, he was hesitant to talk about himself. It took years for Dorothy to gather together the main facts of his life. The eldest of twenty-two children, Peter had been born in 1877 into a family of peasant farmers in the French region of Languedoc, not far from Spain. He took pride in having a grandfather who lived to be ninety-four and who had still been working in the fields when he was eighty-five, after which he stayed home making baskets and praying the rosary. At sixteen, Peter entered a Catholic teaching order, the Christian Brothers, with whom he remained for nine years. In 1902, he left the order and became active in Le Sillon (The Furrow), a movement which advocated Christian democracy and which supported cooperatives and unions. But in 1908, with Le Sillon shifting from its early religious focus toward politics, Peter withdrew and soon after joined the stream of emigrants who were leaving France for Canada, where there was no military conscription and land was cheap. For two years, he homesteaded in Saskatchewan, then took whatever work he could find, first in Canada and then in the United States. By the time he met Dorothy, he had dug irrigation ditches, quarried stone, harvested wheat, cut lumber, laid railway tracks, labored in brickyards, steel mills and coal mines. He had been jailed for vagrancy and for “riding the rails.” He had never married. In Chicago, he had supported himself by teaching French and making a good living doing so. It must have been at the end of his Chicago days that he experienced a religious awakening that reoriented his life. In the five-year period leading up to his encounter with Dorothy Day, he had been the handyman at a Catholic boys’ camp, Mount Tremper, in upstate New York in exchange for meals, use of the chaplain’s library, living space in the barn (shared with a horse), and pocket money when needed.
He once confided to Dorothy that, in the rootless decade that preceded his job at the boys’ camp, he had become estranged from the Catholic Church. “Why?” she asked. “Because I was not living as a Catholic should,” Peter replied. “There was a finality about his answer,” Dorothy commented in retelling the story in 1952, “that kept me from questioning further. I understood that his difficulties had not been intellectual but moral…. I could only suppose that he had been living as most men do in their youth, following their own desires.”
By the time Dorothy met him, Peter had not only returned to the Catholic faith but had acquired an ascetic attitude toward both property and money: he had nearly none of either and, like Saint Francis of Assisi, rejoiced in poverty as if it were his bride. His poverty was his freedom. His unencumbered, possession-free life provided him with ample time for study, prayer and meditation, out of which a vision had taken form of a social order “in which it would be easier for men to be good.” He sought a new weaving together of “cult, culture and cultivation,” a synthesis he saw as being “so old that it seems like new.” Cult referred to religion, the foundation of life. Culture arose from religion and meant each person being as an artist or craftsman in his or her field of endeavor. Cultivation meant a life rooted in the land.
As often as his work at the camp allowed, he made his way to New York City. A “flop house” hotel on the Bowery provided austere lodging for forty cents a night. His days were spent either at the New York Public Library or on the streets — often at Union Square — expounding his ideas to anyone who showed a flicker of interest. After all, he reasoned, the way to reach the man on the street is to go to the street. No doubt his accent and threadbare suit convinced many that there was no need to listen. But Peter was a born teacher, lively and good humored, and had little difficulty in finding willing listeners — not only the unemployed and radicals with time on their hands, but bankers and professors.
During the days of Tamar’s recovery and for weeks afterward, Peter was nearly a full-time visitor, offering Dorothy an intensive course on the Church’s role in the world. He was one of the rare Catholics who knew what recent popes had written on pressing social issues, and could even recite by heart significant passages from the encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno. He had studied so many authors that people who came to know Peter joked about him being a walking library.
Peter told Dorothy how saints, down through the centuries, had responded in radical ways to the social ills of their day. Emphasizing the “primacy of the spiritual,” Peter wanted Dorothy to acquire a view of life and history that centered on sanctity — to study the past with special attention to the lives of the saints and their impact on the world around them. “It’s better to know the lives of saints,” Peter insisted, “than the lives of kings and generals.” But studying history was also essential: “We must study history,” he said, “in order to find out why things are as they are. In the light of history, we should so work today that things will be different in the future.”
Peter had been praying for a collaborator and was certain Dorothy was the answer to his prayers. Her articles and what others had told him about her, as well as his own immediate impressions, convinced him that Dorothy had the potential of becoming a new Saint Catherine of Siena, the outspoken medieval reformer and peace negotiator who had counseled — and reprimanded — both popes and princes. What Saint Catherine had done in the fourteenth century, Peter believed Dorothy could do in the twentieth. She had the potential, he said, “to move mountains, and have influence on governments, temporal and spiritual.”
“There is no revolution without a theory of revolution,” Peter told Dorothy, quoting Lenin, but what is needed, he went on, is not a bloody “Red Revolution,” such as Lenin’s in Russia, built on mountains of casualties. Killing as a method of social reform only led to the cemetery. What was needed, Peter argued, was a bottom-up, peaceful, “Green Revolution.” For the theory of a Green Revolution to be made known and put into practice, a journal was needed, a radical Catholic paper that would publicize Catholic social teaching and promote the steps that could bring about the peaceful transformation of society. Dorothy, he said, should be the editor of such a publication.
It seemed to Dorothy that, if family roots, life experience and religious conviction had prepared her for anything, it was just such a task. It was obvious that the few Catholic publications willing to publish her writings had no revolutionary vision and no interest in reaching the down-and-out.
“But how are we to start it?” she asked. “I enunciate the principles,” Peter declared. “But where do we get the money?” “In the history of the saints,” Peter answered, “capital is raised by prayer. God sends you what you need when you need it. You will be able to pay the printer. Just read the lives of the saints.”
Dorothy had recently read Sorrow Built a Bridge, a biography of Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne’s daughter. At age forty, she had converted to Catholicism. Abandoning her social position, she rented a three-room tenement flat on the Lower East Side in New York and opened its door to penniless neighbors who were dying of cancer. From her hospitality to the terminally ill had sprung a religious order, the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. The story of what one woman in the same neighborhood had done only a few decades earlier gave Dorothy courage.
“Why not start a newspaper in the same way?” Dorothy asked herself. “I began to look on my kitchen as an editorial office, my brother as an assistant to write heads and to help with mechanical make-up. Tamar and I could go out to sell papers on the streets!” Editing a Catholic paper that promoted a new social order was a vision Dorothy could not walk away from. “It was impossible to be with a person like Peter without sharing his simple faith that the Lord would provide what was necessary to do His work,” Dorothy wrote in House of Hospitality.
The name Peter proposed for the paper was The Catholic Radical. Radical, he pointed out, came from the Latin word, radix, for root. The radical is someone who doesn’t settle for cosmetic solutions but goes to the root of personal and social problems. Dorothy felt that the name should refer to the class of its hoped-for readers rather than the attitude of its editors and so decided to name it The Catholic Worker. “Man proposes and woman disposes,” Peter responded meekly.
It took several months to move from uncertain interest to actual decisions, but by the spring Dorothy was beginning to envision, then work on the first issue. Peter knew a priest who, he thought, would allow the use of a mimeograph machine to get out the first issue, but nothing came of it, perhaps in part because Dorothy wanted a more enduring journal. She found that the Paulist Press was willing to set type for and print 2,500 copies of a letter-sized eight-page tabloid paper for $57, cash in advance. Dorothy calculated she could pay the bill with recent income from her writing and research work plus delaying payment of her gas and electric bills. “We would sell the paper, I decided, for a cent a copy,” Dorothy recalled, “to make it so cheap that anyone could afford to buy.” (The penny-a-copy price has never changed.)
She plunged into writing the first issue, preparing articles on labor, strikes and unemployment. Her own writing retained its usual highly personal style. In addition she selected six of Peter’s “Easy Essays.” These were an orator’s blend of manifesto and poetry. One of them included in the first issue protested the crippling grip of wealth on the Church:
Christ drove the money changers
out of the Temple.
But today nobody dares
to drive the money lenders
out of the Temple.
And nobody dares
to drive the money lenders
out of the Temple
because the money lenders
have taken a mortgage
on the Temple.
On the first of May, 1933, the radicals and workers who crowded Union Square to celebrate their revolutionary hopes were the recipients of the first issue. In it Peter Maurin’s name — misspelled Maurain — was listed with Dorothy’s as an editor, but he wasn’t among those distributing the new paper at Union Square. Apart from his own Easy Essays, which filled several columns, he found the new-born Catholic Worker a painful disappointment and had no desire to be considered co-responsible. “It’s everyone’s paper,” he said woefully after looking at the first issue, “and everyone’s paper is no one’s paper.” The “everyone” he referred to was Dorothy Day. It was her voice rather than his that was dominant and that would remain so the rest of her life.
Peter quietly left Dorothy’s apartment, where he had been an almost daily visitor for months. Weeks passed before she saw him again. Dorothy was so caught up with the needs of the infant paper that she may have felt some relief in his absence. Mailing out sample copies to nuns and priests, editors and friends, writing letters begging for support, all the while caring for Tamar, she would not have felt an immediate need for Peter’s indoctrination.
Peter returned while the second issue was being laid out. He had recovered from his initial disappointment and was ready to resume Dorothy’s education. He arrived daily in the mid-afternoon, often stayed until late at night, making his “points” — jabbing the air with his right index finger, an exclamation mark in motion, while Dorothy carried on with her chores and the care of Tamar.
It became clear that Peter’s objection to the first issue wasn’t simply that Dorothy’s voice rather than his own dominated its pages. Though Peter saw it as his role “to enunciate the principles,” Dorothy noted, he was remarkably free of the need for personal recognition and he admired Dorothy’s writing. What he found missing in the paper was a presentation of basic ideas and principles, a coherent strategy for a new social order, which he had hoped the paper would communicate on every page. He felt that Dorothy hadn’t really understood what he had been saying all those weeks. If the first issue were pruned of his Easy Essays and the occasional quotations from the Bible and papal encyclicals, it seemed to him that most of the surviving material — stories about strikes, trials, racism, child labor and economic exploitation — could have been published in any radical publication. As Peter saw it, the first Catholic Worker was simply one more journal of protest, different from others mainly because it was edited by Catholics rather than atheists and had some specifically Christian content.
Peter was a radical out of step with other radicals. He had little interest in protest, which he believed did almost nothing to bring about real change. The old order would die from neglect rather than criticism. He had never joined a union, he told Dorothy, because he didn’t want “to enlarge the proletariat.” What was needed first of all, Peter was convinced, was communicating a vision of a future society alongside an easy-to-grasp program of constructive steps with which to begin realizing elements of the vision — “building a new society within the shell of the old” — in one’s own life.
“Progress” was a word that summed up for many people the popular idea that history inevitably evolves upward, but Peter, like the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, saw too much evidence that civilization was moving downward, from the human to the subhuman, from decentralization to centralization, from freedom to slavery, from the divine to the demonic.
In “Modern Times,” a film released only three years later, Charlie Chaplin converted a similar insight into the image of his silent, benevolent tramp being ingested into the gears of a giant machine. It was machines that were getting better, Peter noticed, not human beings. “History has failed,” he wrote. “There is no such thing as hi§storical progress. The present is not an improvement on the past.” Left-oriented political movements that described themselves as “progressive” were, in Peter’s view, simply attempting to make superficial improvements to structures that were innately destructive. While sympathizing with factory workers striking for better pay and better hours, the basic structures of industrialism, Peter had learned as a factory laborer, were hostile to human beings and to creation itself. Peter saw no point in struggling for minor concessions in places where the work was fundamentally anti-human. He considered assembly lines no less brutalizing than prisons, except that, when the whistle blew, the prisoners of the factory were sent home for the night. It is time, Peter argued, to leave behind time clocks and shift labor and “fire the bosses.”
You didn’t fire the bosses by briefly withholding your labor and closing factories for a week or a month. “Strikes don’t strike me,” Peter said. His solution to industrial ruthlessness, injustice and joblessness was summed up in one sentence: “There is no unemployment on the land.” The Catholic Worker, Peter argued, should stand for a decentralized society, a society of cooperation rather than coercion, with artisans and craftsmen, with small factories that were worker-owned and worker-run. Agricultural communities would be the basic unit in which worker and scholar could both sweat and think together, developing what Peter called a “worker-scholar synthesis.”
Another central concept for Peter was voluntary poverty — a poverty that he distinguished from destitution. To him, voluntary poverty did not mean having nothing but living simply, with less rather than more, sharing rather than hoarding, owning only what was truly needed, “going without luxuries in order to have essentials.” Voluntary poverty enabled the person “with two coats to give one of them to the person with none.” Like Francis of Assisi and many other saints, Peter had been living on less rather than more for years and had found it freeing rather than limiting. He sometimes quoted a passage from Eric Gill’s writings: “The poor man, in the sense of the Gospel, in the meaning of Jesus, is not he who has been robbed but he who has not robbed others…. [The] poor man … is not he who has not been loved, but he who has loved others rather than himself.”
All this, of course, struck many people as utopian — an attractive vision but not something that could happen in the real world. “Utopian” was a word that was often hurled at Peter as if no other response was necessary. Peter Maurin, his critics said, was trying to restore the medieval past. His plan also lacked details or reliance on political structures. As Dorothy noted in The Long Loneliness, “The trouble was that Peter never filled in the chasms, the valleys in leaping from crag to crag of noble thoughts.”
But Peter had a point in noting that capitalist and communist had more in common than they liked to admit: both were looking with a similar uncritical gaze toward a horizon of smokestacks. Both communist and anti-communist were generally city people who liked to get their milk and eggs at a nearby store. Few of them aspired to the plow, the chicken coop, the dawn milking, the midnight calving, and the 365-day work year that the care of livestock and the raising of crops requires.
Following Peter’s return, Dorothy became more open to his critique of assembly-line civilization and his vision of moving toward a post-industrial society. Surely there must be something more to struggle for than improved, unionized or even worker-owned industrialism. Surely community was better than mass society. Surely it was better for children to grow up with space, air, and land — where the main color was green rather than gray. Surely life on the land wasn’t just for our ancestors. And would not a decentralized, farm-centered society provide a better base for a way of life that was shaped by religious faith? Surely others too were longing for a society more congenial to faith, hope and love.
Yet Dorothy’s approach and Peter’s were different, a difference Dorothy attributed in part to what she saw as a basic difference between man and woman. Men, Dorothy felt, tended to be preoccupied with the future and were generally more abstract, more idea driven, more idealistic, while women tended to be more centered in the present, more practical and more rooted, involved as they were, as mothers and grandmothers, with solving the immediate practical problems of running a home and caring for children. Drawing on her own experience, she felt that “woman is saved by child-bearing,” a role which imposes on her “a rule of life which involves others” and through which “she will be saved in spite of herself.” Men didn’t have to be so anchored. “Women think with their whole bodies,” it seemed to Dorothy. “More than men do, women see things as a whole.”
Even so, it was Dorothy, not Peter, who used ideological labels like “pacifist” and “anarchist” in describing herself. Pacifism meant for Dorothy an across-the-board rejection of war — while some wars might have more justification than others, no war was in fact good, no war was just, no war was praiseworthy, every war was a catastrophe. For her the term “anarchist” (literally, a person without a king) meant taking personal responsibility, not expecting the government to solve every problem. As she would later explain to a friend, Rosemary Bannon, her concept of anarchism was “a religious one stemming from the life of Jesus on earth, who came to serve rather than to be served.”
Peter, in contrast, avoided every label except Catholic and one other: “personalist.” A personalist, in Peter’s view, was a person seeking not to reform the state but to reform himself. Unhappy with the world? Then become yourself the person you want others to be. Do yourself what you wish others would do. “Don’t criticize what is not being done,” Peter said over and over again. “See what there is to do, fit yourself to do it, then do it.” (The modern concept of personalism had been developed by the French philosopher, Emmanuel Mounier, whose writings Peter translated and brought into the pages of The Catholic Worker.)
With the second issue of The Catholic Worker, Peter formally withdrew his name as an editor, announcing that henceforth he was responsible only for what he signed himself, yet from that issue onward, the paper as a whole, including Dorothy’s own writing, bore greater evidence of Peter’s influence. This wasn’t, however, at the expense of Dorothy’s preoccupation with the here and now. She continued to identify with anyone who was protesting injustice and struggling for even slight improvements in the existing social order. She continued to side with strikers and union organizers and to approve of much that those on the left were doing, even if they never questioned urbanization or industrialism. But she found ways to articulate a vision of a future with fewer smokestacks and smaller cities.
In the second issue Peter described his program in more detail: his call for discussion and study groups and for the foundation of houses of hospitality and farming communes. In essence, it was a call, he cheerfully admitted, for Christian communism. “I am not afraid of the word communism,” he wrote, but it was not something to be imposed on anyone — a green rather than a red communism. “I am not saying that my program is for everyone. It is for those who choose to embrace it.”
Readers were invited by Peter to the first “round table discussion,” an image suggesting a gathering in which all who take part have equal standing. A $3 deposit had already been paid — $7 was still owed — for a hall on East 4th Street, he announced to his readers. He must have been disappointed when only fifteen people showed up, but an enduring Catholic Worker tradition began that night. At the New York Catholic Worker, rarely has a week passed since then without a weekly public meeting, usually on Friday evenings. A similar practice is followed by many other Catholic Worker communities.
For Peter, teaching was a full-time job, not something to be done just one night a week but at every possible opportunity. By the summer of 1933, the young people drawn to the Catholic Worker began to gather at Dorothy’s apartment, or in the apartment’s backyard, for informal discussions with Peter. Dorothy did not always take part — by now she had a solid grounding in Peter’s ideas and also had work to do preparing the next issue as well as caring for Tamar.
Those participating in these exchanges, of course, had ideas of their own, often at odds with Peter’s. He listened with interest and patience to each person, but if it happened that someone came up with a thought or experience that connected with what he had been saying, Peter would exclaim, like a miner who had found a gold nugget, “See the point! See the point!”
Dorothy regarded Peter as a saint. “There are many saints,” she wrote, “here, there and everywhere and not only the canonized saints that Rome draws to our attention.” In fact saints should be common, she added, for after all, as Saint Paul had written, we are all called to be saints. Peter’s patient and tireless teaching reminded her especially of Saint Paul, “who talked so much that a young man fell off the window seat, out of the open window, and was picked up for dead — Saint Paul had to revive him.” (Acts 20:7-12)
By the fall, it was clear that the new paper, envisioned by Peter but edited with a firm grip by Dorothy, was meeting a real need. Few publications have experienced such rapid growth as did The Catholic Worker in its first year. Within the first six months, the number of copies printed rose from 2,500 to 35,000, thanks not only to many individual subscribers but also to bulk orders from parishes, schools and seminaries. Readers found a voice in The Catholic Worker that was unique among both religious and political journals. There were articles about principles and columns full of news. At the same time, the paper was written with a special intimacy and at-homeness, as if it were a letter between friends. The paper, rooted in a specific city and neighborhood, was full of local smells, sounds and small events that other national papers ignored, yet it appealed to readers living in distant places and different circumstances. Dorothy’s intensely personal approach to journalism was a major factor in the paper’s appeal. “Writing,” she explained in a 1950 column, “is an act of community. It is a letter, it is comforting, consoling, helping, advising on our part as well as asking it on yours. It is part of our human association with each other. It is an expression of our love and concern for each other.”
“By the mid-summer of 1933,” Dorothy recalled, “The Catholic Worker ceased to be just a newspaper but had become the voice of a movement.”
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Jim Forest’s books include All Is Grace: a Biography of Dorothy Day and, most recently, a memoir, Writing Straight With Crooked Lines.
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