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Tribute captures Day’s vision of solidarity


By Jack Cook
Xlibris Books, 189 pages, $17.84

Reviewed by MICHAEL TRUE

Long regarded as one of the best writers to appear in the monthly newspaper Catholic Worker on which he served as associate editor from 1966 to 1973, Jack Cook has gathered columns from his tenure there, along with more recent writing, in this insightful and beautifully written tribute to Dorothy Day. Among the various commentaries on the Catholic Worker movement, Cook’s reporting provides the best understanding of the Worker’s contribution to American life and the church since the books by Robert Ellsberg and Mel Piel published in the early 1980s.

In brief portraits of Bowery residents, draft resisters and striking farm workers, Cook takes the reader into the lives of men and women on the soup line, in the courts and jails at the time of the Vietnam War, and in the fields of the United Farm Workers in California. He shows us people living and doing the works of mercy without fanfare, the day-to-day chores performed by Catholic Workers at their hospitality houses on Christie Street and, later, just off Second Avenue in Manhattan.

For example, Cook describes a two-week fast he undertook while picketing the National Shrine in Washington, “for the guilt we all bear for the crimes being done in Vietnam.” Returning “to the people of Christie Street and the all-too-human faces of men on the line” and the “sacrament of soup, bread and tea” dramatized the contrast between two ways of being in the world.

“After the marble, gold and ivory of the National Shrine,” he writes, “we yearned for the dingy walls, chipped paint, worn rooms” and “the waters of our Jordan: the relentless poverty and need of the Bowery. It chills the body but not the soul.”

These details take their place with many others from the author’s years at the Worker, following his introduction to Dorothy Day at a Friday night meeting in the old Chrystie Street House of Hospitality on the Bowery. She brought extraordinary authority to her effort to build “a non-authoritarian society of equal individuals: No structure, no hierarchy, no formulated program; just people helping other people.”

Dorothy Day’s commanding presence, Cook feels, was the result of five decades of hard work as an activist and journalist, informed by a deep knowledge of and direct involvement initially in the American radical tradition, first of all, and later her conversion to Catholicism in her mid-30s. Although the latter event tends to dominate the focus of much writing about Dorothy Day since her death in 1980, Cook emphasizes that her commitment to, solidarity with and compassion for the powerless arose from her early life as a communist and anarchist. As he rightly warns, “To write off her ‘hedonistic’ youth is to do her a great disservice.” Her youthful attachments were important, he argues. As Day reminded people, she chose Catholicism not after reading the social encyclicals of the popes, but while reading William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience.

Dorothy Day’s love for the church gave meaning to her life after the sacrifice of leaving her partner, Foster Batterham. Yet “her concern with the poor,” Cook writes, “predated in vital and substantial ways her conversion.” Catholicism provided a religious base for confronting the injustices that her generation had faced earlier in secular ways. Throughout her life, Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Emma Goldman took their rightful places beside Francis de Sales and Thérèse of Lisieux in her panoply of saints.

One reads and rereads these essays for the delight of a well-constructed argument, but also for insights on the human condition at present. “Truly to empathize with humankind, and to stop the unending history of American carnage here and abroad,” he concludes at one point, “we must project within ourselves the image not simply of benevolent master, not simply the hapless victim, but both victim and master. We contain both. It’s our heritage. Our bloody inheritance. The experience of being an American teaches us that slave and master share a common root.” Such acknowledgement of our pain and confusion in the midst of global dehumanization is rare in contemporary writing, particularly when it is offered with practical, if modest, hints at what must be done.

The book triumphs over its somewhat random samples of memorable prose and forgettable verse by sheer force of will. In calling it “a tribute to Dorothy Day,” Cook points toward the book’s unifying theme and the vision informing people who incarnate the ideas and ideals of the Catholic Worker movement. A reader can only be grateful to Day, once again, for suggesting to Cook 30 years ago that he gather these writings together.

Author of a powerful memoir of the Vietnam era, Rags of Time: A Season in Prison, Cook taught American literature at Cornell University, wrote another book on Herman Melville and now lives in western New York.

Michael True is author of An Energy Field More Intense Than War: The Nonviolent Tradition and American Literature (Syracuse University Press).

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2001