The Long Loneliness

by Dorothy Day

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

In The Long Loneliness, Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, recounts the story of her life.

She begins with formative events in her childhood, including her experience of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. She learned at a young age to be self-reliant when her parents left her to get out of the shaking house herself as they scooped up her younger sister, Della, and gathered her older brothers. She was also impressed at the solidarity and self-sacrifice of those, including her mother, who pulled together after the devastation to help people left homeless and hungry by the disaster.

The earthquake occurred before federal disaster insurance, so the newspaper her father had worked for went bankrupt. As a result, the family migrated to Chicago. Having lost everything themselves, the family rented an apartment in a working-class neighborhood, where Dorothy was impressed by the warmth of the poorer families and the example of the simple, pure devotion of a Roman Catholic neighbor who Dorothy once caught kneeling at her bedside in prayer. This was a far cry from her sophisticated, nominally Episcopal family.

In college, Dorothy became a Communist, dedicating herself to improving the lot of the working masses whom her heart went out to. When her family moved to New York City, Dorothy followed. She took a job on a Communist paper and moved to a rented room in a tenement slum so that she could write about what it was like to live on $5 a week, her starvation-level newspaper salary.

Beautiful, intelligent, politically radical, and charismatic, Dorothy soon fell in with the Bohemian community in New York, making friends with people like playwright Eugene O'Neill. She published a novel, and when it was optioned by Hollywood in the 1920s, she used the proceeds to buy a small summer house on Staten Island. There she often stayed with her boyfriend Forster.

In the late 1920s, in Washington, D.C., Dorothy had a Catholic conversion experience. As a result, when she got pregnant, she kept the baby; even worse, at least in the eyes of Forster, the baby's father and a Communist, she had their daughter Tamar baptized. This led to the end of her relationship with Forster, who did not believe in marriage and wanted no part of Christianity.

Thus began the "long loneliness" for Dorothy. Buffeted by the Great Depression, she eventually moved into a working-class apartment with Tamar, her sister Della, and Della's husband. Old friends, knowing of her conversion, put her in touch with Catholic thinker Peter Maurin. This productive relationship of an older mentor and charismatic younger woman coincided with the opening of the first Catholic Worker house in lower Manhattan. Dorothy, with his encouragement, also began a newspaper called the Catholic Worker, which sold for one penny.

In her book, Dorothy emphasizes the simple, organic beginnings of what became the world famous Catholic Worker movement: she was lonely and drew people, including the poor, around her simply to have companionship and community. She is honest in outlining the many difficulties and stresses of running the Catholic Worker houses and, later, farms. Rather than romanticize the movement, she graphically describes the problems of dealing with mentally-ill individuals, alcoholics, rats, lack of food, racism, and the sometime opposition of the Catholic Church hierarchy to her social radicalism and pacifism.

Day's autobiography nevertheless traces the development of a young girl attracted to working-class values, social service, and Catholicism. She moved her idealistic longings from Communism to Christianity and dedicated her life to serving the poor. While her autobiography is forthright about the problems of helping the poor, it also overflows with the energy of the many ideas generated during the crisis of the Great Depression that helped combat the crisis of poverty and unemployment.

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