Reading: “The Long Loneliness,” Parts Two and Three

[continued from an earlier post, “Reading: ‘The Long Loneliness,’ Part One”]

The second part of The Long Loneliness, titled “Natural Happiness,” seemed a contradiction in terms, which made me want to read further. This book with such an ominous title that invokes thoughts of difficulty and struggling has as the title of its fifty-plus-page middle section such an uplifting image— the second part’s first chapter is called “Man Was Made for Happiness.” Frankly, I was looking forward to Dorothy Day’s autobiography getting better as it progressed, as she got closer to becoming the person she is most well-known for being.

The first two chapters in part two are pretty mundane: Day explains how she leaves the city to live on the coast with a man named Forster, to whom she is committed but not married. There, she has good, friendly neighbors and plenty of time to herself to read and lead a pleasant life. The next chapter, “Having a Baby,” should explain the next plot turn; it is from this new maternal love that we get the sentiments expressed in the middle section’s title. The third chapter, “Love Overflows,” and the fourth chapter, “Jobs and Journeys,” then explain how having a baby and having experience in the labor movement begin to mesh with Catholic social teaching. By the end of part two, Dorothy Day has had her daughter baptized and become Catholic herself, Forster is nowhere to be found, and Day’s mentor, the French peasant/organizer Peter Maurin, appears in the final paragraph of the section.

Thankfully, “Love is the Measure,” the third part of The Long Loneliness, is a better read. Much of part three centers on the work of implementing Maurin’s ideas. To me, in some ways Peter Maurin sounded like a prophet of equality, but in other ways he sounded a little like a know-it-all. As regards the former, I proffer this passage:

Peter rejoiced to see men do great things and dream great dreams. He wanted them to stretch out their arms to their brothers, because he knew that the surest way to find God, to find the good, was through one’s brothers. Peter wanted this striving to result in a better physical life in which all men would be able to fulfill themselves, develop their capacities for love and worship, expressed in all the arts. (171)

Yet about the latter, I cite this of Peter Maurin’s ideas, which Day elaborates upon over and over: “‘Indoctrination’ was his word” (172). If I am to buy into her description of Peter Maurin, then he believed that he had everything – everything! – figured out, and he mainly spent his time talking people into doing things his way.  Day goes into how Maurin was always “indoctrinating,” always talking to get his points across, always reeling in the next potential follower. That side of the man turned me off, I have to be honest. Maybe he was better than that, but I didn’t get that from my reading.

As a former French peasant, Maurin believed in a back-to-the-land approach to renewing quality of life for so many poor and working people. He called the concept “agronomic universities,” places where groups of people would live out a collective rural farming life that balanced hard work with engaged discussions on philosophical subjects, resulting in communities of scholar-workers: a lifestyle that nurtures the body, mind and soul. Where Dorothy Day acknowledges that her experiences in the labor movement were squarely political and urban, Maurin seemed to advocate a way of life centered on rural communes, which were to be based on human goodness and an ethic of hard work.

Quite frankly, I fell in with Dorothy Day far more than I did Peter Maurin, and didn’t find the guy nearly as appealing as she tries to make him out. Day’s concepts of hospitality houses and going on-site to help people solve localized problems seemed to me far more in touch with human reality than going around “indoctrinating” people to “drop out,” as Timothy Leary would later call it. And beyond that, with no money, Maurin’s ideas were totally dependent on charitable donations of land, tools, seed, and other necessities of setting up a farming life.

In the chapter, “People, Paper and Work,” Dorothy Day also gets into the complexities of working in a context of the Jesus’s teachings and the Catholic faith, while still having public perception issues due to a style of rhetorical language that is rooted in radical politics. Speaking of the Catholic Worker newspaper, she writes:

. . . the very word worker made people distrust us at first. We were not taking the position of the great mass of Catholics, who were quite content with the present in this world. They were quite willing to give to the poor, but they did not feel called upon to work for the things of this life for the others which they themselves esteemed so lightly. Our insistence on worker-ownership, on the right of private property, on the need to de-proletarize the worker, all points which had been emphasized by the Popes in their social encyclicals, made many Catholics think we were Communists in disguise, wolves in sheep’s clothing. (188)

Later in the same chapter, Day writes of the solution to that dilemma:

We were constantly confronted with the fact that on the one hand our papers, radio commentators, and now television were shaping the minds of the people, and yet they were still responsive to basic and simple religious truths. They were attracted to the good; they were hard-working, struggling human beings living for the day, and afraid of the unknown. Once that sense of fear of the unknown was overcome, brotherly love would evoke brotherly love, and mutual love would overcome fear and hatred. (203)

By the time her narrative reaches the chapter titled “Labor,” Dorothy Day is full-on writing about her own work, life, and ideas. She begins by connecting the life and teachings of Jesus Christ to a way of living that transcends charity and moves into a sacred interconnectedness:

. . . we did not feel that Christ meant we should remain silent in the face of injustice and accept it even though He said, ‘The poor ye shall always have with you.'” (205)

In some of the final chapters, “Community,” “Family,” and “Retreat,” these kinds of meaty discourses continue. As the book ends, sadly, Peter Maurin dies, and Dorothy Day has to continue the work without him. As the next-to-last sentence in her autobiography, Day leaves us with a sense that their merged ideals carry her forward: “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community” (286).

Unfortunately, though I admire Dorothy Day’s work and ideas very much, this book, The Long Loneliness, was hard to read. In addition to having a very journalistic writing style, Day only rarely provides dates in the book, which made the narrative fairly hard to follow as to what period of time she was referring; in places, it was hard to tell whether she was explaining what happened in a year or in a week. She also periodically broke into overly long explanations of mundane details about minor facts, like how many rooms a house had and how it was laid out, yet neglected some in-depth descriptions that I would have liked to have read, like what went on and what was said at the workers’ meetings she covered for the New Masses. The combination of these two factors made for a mixture of boring in some parts and confusing in others. I have to admit that I thought several times about just putting the book down and not finishing it . . . though I’m glad I kept on trudging through it.

I am glad, because I have to admit that much of what brought me to the Catholic faith was its social teaching. Like Dorothy Day, I converted as an adult and had a generally un-religious though highly structured upbringing. I was most curious to read The Long Loneliness to find out what specifically appealed to Day that made her want to convert, but I wasn’t really satisfied in that area. I had hoped that she would get more specific about what made her convert, other than just the birth of her daughter, as for instance I know firmly that I reached by the messages of two homilies that I heard on successive Sunday mornings while attending Mass with my Catholic wife. Having now become Catholic myself, my initial interest in social teaching is coupled with a greater sense of the role of faith in that mission, which serves to invigorate and support the beliefs that I already held.

My one final thought about The Long Loneliness and about its author is that I believe I learned something, but I don’t see myself being able to use what she has done as a model to follow. Day writes in several sections about how younger people typically left their jobs at the hospitality houses and farms when they wanted to get married and start a family, which I understood completely. Day had chosen to let the entire community of the poor be her “family,” and as a result was willing to leave her daughter at camps or boarding schools or with friends, sometimes for months, when she traveled. On an intellectual level, I get her point, but I couldn’t see myself leaving my own wife and children. Dorothy Day’s book gave me some things to think about, some ways to change my own habits, and for that I am grateful. If nothing else, I learned this, which made the whole reading worth it: “Where there is no love, put love and there will be love.”

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