Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces The Long Loneliness Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 962

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The Long Loneliness is at once a number of things. Viewed from the most obvious perspective, it is an account of a spiritual journey beset by obstacles that sent the pilgrim off the main highway onto side streets headed in a different direction. In each case, however, the detour in the end provided a new impetus to return to the highway and continue the journey.

Day viewed all of this as something other than a series of coincidences. On one of her detours, living a thoroughly sensuous life while cavorting with a variety of radicals and playwrights whose lives centered on the Provincetown Playhouse and the nearby saloons on Cape Cod, she first heard Francis Thompson’s haunting poem “The Hound of Heaven” recited in the unlikely “atmosphere of smoke and drink” by Eugene O’Neill. The idea of being pursued by God hit home and started her thinking once again of the meaning of life. In time she was back on the long-abandoned highway. As this is not the last time she mentions “The Hound of Heaven,” it seems clear that she came to view her life in the light of Thompson’s poem.

Literature in all of its forms played a vital role in shaping Day’s thought and actions, as the book makes evident. She was an avid and eclectic reader and became a very complex person. The works of Upton Sinclair and Pyotr Kropotkin were instrumental in focusing her attention on the plight of the working-class poor, and the latter, together with those of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Leo Tolstoy, helped set her in the direction of anarchism. At the same time, Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevski’s writings kept her faith in God alive, and Nikolai Gogol’s kindled it to a white heat. William James’s works awoke her to the value of voluntary poverty while Jack London’s nourished her radicalism.

Such readings alone, however, do not a Catholic make. The psalmists of the Old Testament and the writers of the New Testament were her frequent companions. The fifteenth century Imitatio Christi (The Imitation of Christ) was a source of strength at crucial times, as were the works of Saint Augustine, whose life was so similar to her own. She read Augustine’s works in her teens and quoted him often, thus indicating his impact on her. In her autobiography, she refers to his negative view of the state to bolster her contention that there is no contradiction in being both a Christian and an anarchist. Countless other authors, ancient and modern, are cited throughout the book. Her ability to absorb the best from the great was phenomenal.

The Long Loneliness, then, is a testimony to the power of ideas and a philosophical and theological discourse of some depth. It is also a commentary on human nature. That human nature is flawed became a given for Day; for her, it explained the existence of evil. Greed, selfishness—evils of all sorts—she encountered daily. The humiliations and brutalities suffered during her several imprisonments made a lasting impression, as her vivid accounts attest. Moreover, reflecting on her childhood she notes that she became “disgustingly, proudly pious.” Even a good can degenerate into an evil.

By the same token, however, an evil can lead to a good. The great San Francisco earthquake of 1906 sent a multitude of refugees into the city of Oakland, where the people of that battered community worked tirelessly to ease the lot of their more unfortunate neighbors. This childhood memory probably influenced the course of her later life.

Of particular interest is Day’s repeated emphasis on tradition, ritual, and worship as essential to human nature. Such values would seem to be alien to the anarchist mentality. Anarchism, however, is not a single coherent ideology. For example, the anarchism of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin involved no violent destruction of the social order or its institutions. They envisioned self-governing communities based on Christian principles. Dependence on the state, they held, made one a slave of the state. Dependence was to be on God, one’s work, and one another. They saw the welfare state as destructive of human dignity and creativity, believed that it intruded where it did not belong and could make government handouts a substitute for work, which they considered both the lot of fallen man and the source of his creativity. Day and Maurin believed that overcoming obstacles adds to one’s sense of self-worth and that bearing one another’s burdens builds a sense of community. Community, according to Day, is “the social answer to the long loneliness.” What she proposed was the equivalent of a religious community of lay people, both individuals and families, one of both private and communal property, combined with the renunciation of nonessential material goods.

She was not, however, unmindful of the limitations of human nature. Her vision was seen as realizable only through the grace of God. Her goal was nevertheless realized, along with other elements of a larger vision. The Catholic Worker, a radical and pacifist tabloid, led the way. Next came the inner-city New York house of hospitality which, like the paper, soon had offshoots around the country and abroad. The unemployed, eccentrics, anyone in need, found food, clothing, and temporary quarters plus kindness, understanding, and spiritual nourishment. Intellectual discussions for staff and visitors were an integral part of the vision and the reality, just as it was workers of all kinds, including those who worked with their minds, whose needs were to be met. Retreats given by the most renowned retreat masters of North America became an essential part of the whole. Maurin’s “green revolution” materialized as communal farms sprouted far and wide. The long loneliness had given way to community.

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Masterpieces of Women's Literature The Long Loneliness Analysis