Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1859
Robert Coles is famous for his listening. Reading any of his books of psychiatric research, one is amazed at the harvest of voices Coles takes from people on the edge, in one sense or another. Children in slums, Eskimos, migrant workers, the aged, wealthy but troubled children—what they say, Coles has always found to be revealing and important. As a psychiatrist, Coles’s presence, as projected in his books, is that of empathizer, seeker, and, in its comprehensive spiritual sense, lover. He is rich in respect for the people he comes to visit. He approaches them as a learner and as someone always ready to admit ignorance and receive instruction. His trademark as a psychiatrist is the constant reminder that theories about why people do what they do are never conclusive. Life evades theory.
In his work, Coles is ever conscious of the fact that he is a stranger to those he meets and questions. From the privileged world of intellectual culture, he descends into one place after another where intellect is present but not institutionalized. This intellect, and Coles would say, soul, is directed toward survival. The books which result from these visitations speak admiringly of the power distressed people have to live their lives, and Coles’s success as a witness to this power rests on his ability to retain, in his writings, the actual voices he has heard.
Dorothy Day, cofounder of The Catholic Worker daily newspaper and hospitality houses, was an acquaintance of and inspiration for Robert Coles while he was attending medical school in New York early in the 1950’s. He worked as a volunteer in her hospices during that time and developed a friendship with Day which remained close until her death in 1980. Over those more than thirty-five years he recorded fifty hours of their conversations and filled notebooks with more. Dorothy Day is another product of his listening. His subject is someone more like himself intellectually and culturally than those he usually interviews, a journalist and thinker who, for Coles, had still to be reached through a descent of the kind earlier noted. The young Robert Coles appeared for his first visit at a hospitality house and observed Dorothy Day sitting at a table speaking to a drunk, one of the hopeless her ministry was designed to serve. The impatient young man was noticed at last and Day asked if he wanted to speak “with one of us?” Day’s proposing her equality with the drunk made an impression: “One of us: with those three words she had cut through layers of self-importance, a lifetime of bourgeois privilege, and scraped the hard bone of pride: ’Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.’” In Day, Coles met a woman for whom the descent was a permanent fact—everyday contact with the oppressed from the early days of the Depression until her death fifty years later.
Written for the Radcliffe Biography Series, Dorothy Day is not a conventional biography but rather, as Coles says in the preface, something to give “readers the benefit of her distinct, compelling point of view.” The major share of the text is long quotations from Day responding to a line of questions about her life—her early pre-Catholic days as a journalist and activist in 1920’s New York, her common-law marriage and the birth of her daughter, her conversion, and her part in the formation of the Catholic Workers movement. The book is a dialogue. Coles preserves the nuances of their shared company over those thirty years—the incessant tea drinking, Day’s occasional silences, and his own feelings as a young psychiatrist attending to an older person for whom he feels admiration as well as no small share of psychiatric curiosity. While sharing her temperamental inclinations and understanding her vision for the poor, Coles presses for clarification when he cannot understand the radicalness of her position, such as her lifelong celibacy since the conversion, and especially the turn to celibacy while still a young and attractive woman. The pleasure of the book is in Coles’s admitting fear at bringing up the topic. He is no Barbara Walters, out to savage another interviewee, and his sensitivity is rewarded by searching answers: “I wanted to die in order to live,” and “I loved [God], in other words, and like all women in love, I wanted to be united to my love.”
Coles’s first chapter dispenses necessary biographical data. Though a young and beautiful intellectual involved in the social scene and with aspirations for a career as a novelist, Day felt a demand to look at other people each day of her life and ask: “Could I live that way?” She came as close to others as she could, at first through a political activism which landed her in jail, and earned for her the label “whore” for affiliation with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and through her ongoing satisfaction of the urge to be in close contact with anyone she met: “Dorothy Day was constantly noticing people, constantly ready to engage with them and let them become . . . part of her life.” Late in the 1920’s, wanting to settle down, living with Forster Batterham, she gave birth to a girl, Tamar, who became the occasion for the common-law marriage to end. Batterham, a biologist, anarchist, and atheist, resisted his wife’s widening quest for spiritual meaning. Day’s conversion to Catholicism ensued. Batterham believed that she needed the attentions of a psychiatrist, since she was making a bond with the invisible, contentless proposals of religion.
Day makes it clear to Coles that the split with Batterham, the man she loved, even craved, was a separation caused by her sense that even their unsurpassable love was insufficient as the basis for a life. The church offered a relationship with the eternal. Day’s explanation was unconvincing to other friends, as well, and her sanity became an issue.
Coles, who studied the motivations of young political activists fighting for black freedom in the 1960’s, knows as well as anyone can the psychological motions which can lead a young person to dedicate his life to a “greater cause” than mundane existence and domestic happiness. Day denies that her conversion and subsequent founding of the Catholic Worker movement was simply a substitution of something more heroic for conventional happiness with a man. She makes it clear that her idealism was always part of her nature and was based on what she calls her lifelong curiosity about life and how people manage to live. Coles terms her motivation “inquiring idealism,” to emphasize the element of curiosity which is seemingly an odd rationale for taking up the cause of the poor. Day calls this urge to know and involve herself with others an inspiration, planted within her by God. Yet it had to be founded in conversion. Young radicals without God can be terrific hypocrites, she says, remembering how things were before the conversion in her activist circles: “A lot of the time we’d say these beautiful things about justice and fairness and equality, but we weren’t so nice to each other.” Spiritual transformation was the basis for the succeeding decades of devotion to the poor.
In back to back chapters, “Conversion” and “The Church Obeyed and Challenged,” Coles presents the two conflicts Day faced when her life changed. Entering the church, she alienated her radical friends who thought that the conversion signified mental illness. “After I became a Catholic I began little by little to lose track of my friends. Being a Catholic, I discovered, put a barrier between me and others; however slight, it was always felt.” Day entered into a period she called “the long loneliness,” which is also the title she gave to the book she wrote on her new life with God. The loneliness was both distance from her former society and a distance from the society she had entered—the Church. Her friends were dubious because entering the Church was joining to the enemy position. The Catholic Church was not known for humanitarianism. It was not waiting for communists and socialists to fill the pews. It was not a generous place, but was notorious for taking from the poor and building for the rich. Yet something, or Someone, called her to the Church and she went, “poor, chaste, and obedient.” She took with her, however, all the political sensitivity of her radicalism. She looked through the history of the Church’s hypocrisy back to the first hypocrite, Peter, who was the founder of an institution which has made plenty of trouble for people through the centuries. With Peter the denier as its foundation, the Church was the best that God could do for reclaiming humanity. “Jesus compared the Church to a net cast into the sea and hauled in, filled with fishes, both good and bad. ’Including,’ one of my non-Catholic friends used to say, ’some blowfish and quite a few sharks.’”
Coles focuses at length on the loneliness and alienation which characterized Day’s life, but he devotes his final chapter to her “spiritual kin,” writers secular and sacred, who she read all of her life for inspiration. Like Coles himself, who works face to face with troubled people in crisis but also writes books on the likes of William Carlos Williams, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor, Day was always alert to the two domains—the real world and the imaginative, intellectual response to the real world in literary creations. Typically, she was closest to those writers who wrote about the poor—Ignazio Silone, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevski, and Anton Chekhov. Yet, as Coles leads her to admit, the company she sought was not the writer or intellectual but the poor working-class person whose presence the great writers sustained visions of in books. When she wrote her innumerable articles, she tells Coles, the audience she was addressing was always the “factory workers and farmers” to whose existence it was her destiny to attend. Thus, Day was not really lonely, since the family of the poor was always at her doorstep and eating the food she provided. Poverty and religion were inseparable. She saw the Church’s failure to care for its greatest treasure, the poor worker, in whose person she believed she could daily meet Christ. She meant to have real intimacy with her brothers and sisters, a “companionship,” which Coles points out literally means “the sharing of bread.” The writers she admired she knew to be looking for the same person—God—she was seeking, and the company of the poor gave the nearest approximation.
Robert Coles’s portrait of Dorothy Day is the result of such close companionship. Years of talking, letter-writing, and praying for the life of the other, are now arranged into a book which shows that Dorothy Day knew her family instinctively. She did not need to marry and rear children. Her family was there immediately, numberless, reaching out for food, and desperate beyond words. Robert Coles, though a father and husband in fact, will similarly be remembered. He awaits his listener and biographer.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341
The plight of the homeless is one of the most widely discussed social issues of the 1980’s. Certainly, there has been no lack of newspaper and television stories documenting this growing problem, and editorialists have not hesitated to identify its causes: Reaganism, the selfishness epitomized by the yuppie generation, the gradual erosion of America’s position in the world economy. The causes, it seems, are always somewhere out there. One shakes one’s head and turns the page, or changes the channel.
The example of Dorothy Day points to an alternative response. On May 1, 1933, Day and Peter Maurin, a visionary layman who had emigrated from France some years before, distributed the first issue of THE CATHOLIC WORKER, a newspaper which called for social justice in radical Christian terms. Day, then a woman in her mid-thirties, a journalist and novelist and a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, chose a life of poverty and self-sacrifice among the urban poor. Over the years, the Catholic Worker movement established “houses of hospitality” across the United States--places of refuge for the hungry, the homeless, the unemployed.
DOROTHY DAY: A RADICAL DEVOTION is not a conventional biography. (That job, as Coles notes, has already been done by William D. Miller in his biography DOROTHY DAY.) While Coles summarizes the essential facts of Day’s life, he concentrates on an in-depth portrait. Drawing on remembered conversations, tape-recorded interviews, and an extensive correspondence with Day, ranging from their first meeting in the early 1950’s to shortly before her death in 1980, Coles also quotes frequently from Day’s wonderful autobiography, THE LONG LONELINESS. The vitality of her voice, and the conversational give-and-take between Coles and his subject, give this book a striking immediacy.
The text is supplemented by notes and a selected bibliography. This volume is an outstanding addition to the Radcliffe Biography Series, devoted to “depicting the lives of extraordinary women.” Day herself would be pleased by it but would remind the reader that “ordinary” lives, too, are of inestimable value. That is what her work was all about.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35
Booklist. LXXXIII, June 1, 1987, p. 1476.
The Christian Century. CV, January 6, 1988, p. 28.
Library Journal. CXII, July, 1987, p. 72.
The New Republic. CXCVII, August 31, 1987, p. 9.
The New York Times Book Review. XCII, September 6, 1987, p. 10.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXI, May 1, 1987, p. 58.