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A new biography of Dorothy Day is an antidote to trying times

In Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, Kate Hennessy memorializes her grandmother’s extraordinary life.

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Even during the most tumultuous times in her life, Dorothy Day would wake up early every morning and spend several hours drinking coffee and reading the psalms. I am not one for psalms, but in these past tumultuous weeks, I have found comfort in reading about Day, specifically the lovely new biography Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty, by her granddaughter Kate Hennessy.

Day and Peter Maurin founded the Catholic Worker movement in 1933, in the depths of the Depression. Their goal was to combine the philosophy of love from the Gospels with the communist ideal of bringing people together, particularly the poor, to care for one another and create a better world. Or, as Hennessy puts it, "to change the hearts and minds of men and give them a vision of a world where it was easier to be good."

The Worker (as it was known) encouraged its followers to embrace pacifism and cooperative living, to actively support human rights and labor unions, and to offer hospitality to anyone who needed it. Day herself lived in voluntary poverty in a series of communal houses and farms run by the Worker. She devoted her life to keeping the organization united and spreading the good word through its newspaper, also called the Catholic Worker, which she edited for nearly 50 years. Well into her old age, she continued to march in protests against the Vietnam war and for the rights of laborers. Since her death in 1980, there've been active campaigns to elevate her to sainthood; Pope Francis has said that she's one of the four Americans he admires most, along with Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Trappist monk and philosopher Thomas Merton.

But Hennessy's book is as much about Day's daughter, Tamar, as it's about Day herself. And it's also a little bit about Hennessy, who's the youngest of Tamar's nine children and cared for her in her final years. She contributes her own memories to her account of Day's already extremely well-documented life, but more crucially, she presents Tamar as an interesting and complex person in her own right. Unlike Dorothy, Tamar wasn't much of a talker or a writer, and she spent most of her adulthood living quietly in rural Vermont. Hennessy assembled her story piecemeal, through an extended 30-year conversation.

If it's difficult to be a saint, it may be even harder to live with one. Tamar was seven years old when Dorothy established the Worker. Up till then, Dorothy's life had been an erratic search for meaning. Starting in her late teens, she earned her living as a journalist and sometimes as a nurse, and was part of the bohemian community in Chicago and Greenwich Village. She had love affairs and an abortion, which she described in an autobiographical novel called The Eleventh Virgin (which she later tried to suppress during what Tamar called her "severe and pious" phase), and a brief and unhappy marriage. She lived for several years with Tamar's father, Forster Batterham, but her gravitation toward Catholicism and his refusal to follow made their relationship unsustainable.

Though Batterham visited with Tamar regularly and paid child support when he could afford it, Dorothy was essentially a single mother—she and Tamar leaned on each other. "I was a terrible child," Tamar told Hennessy. "I scolded her all the time." She always called Dorothy by her first name, never "mother." Her first memory was saying to Dorothy, after they'd gotten into a car accident, "Why can't you be more careful?"

As the Worker grew, Dorothy and Tamar became part of a large, extended, and loving family—but it came with a price. "At the age of seven," Hennessy writes, "[Tamar] was asked—and would continue to be asked throughout her life—for a sacrifice that possibly would have damaged a less wise and sensible child. . . . Tamar was asked to give up Dorothy—to give up Dorothy the mother for Dorothy the saint." When Dorothy was away on speaking tours, Tamar was left in the care of other adults in the Worker house or on the Worker farm. Later, she was sent away to boarding school, and she married young, when she was just 18.

Her husband, David Hennessy, was 13 years older and had his own issues, which Tamar, a constant reader, later described to her daughter as a combination of The Great Santini and Lolita. (The Lolita part she never explained, much to Kate Hennessy's relief.) Tamar was a woman who could've benefited from a relaxing of the Catholic doctrines against birth control and divorce, and it was Dorothy's great failing as a mother—one she acknowledged—that she didn't encourage Tamar to pursue an education instead of marrying or leaving David sooner.

But she did leave, eventually, with Dorothy's help, and her life became a small-scale mirror of her mother's. Instead of taking care of the world, she tended various farms, gardens, and livestock and cared for her nine children, their friends, and neighborhood strays and, much later, Dorothy herself.

Like her grandmother, Hennessy is a writer of great skill, blending interviews, family letters, writings by Dorothy and other members of the Worker, and her own memories into a coherent whole. She stays close to the main thread of Dorothy and Tamar's often chaotic lives, full of children and friends and Catholic Worker characters; like a sermonizer, she gently reemphasizes the important points so they don't get lost. She clearly absorbed Dorothy's belief that, as the title says, the world will be saved by beauty, and she insists on finding it in her mother and grandmother's sometimes sad and difficult lives. (Tamar, by contrast, had what Hennessy calls "a cold, scientific eye.") There are pages and pages devoted to loving descriptions of Mott Street, then part of Little Italy, where the Catholic Worker set up one of its earliest homes; the back-to-nature Hennessy home in Vermont; and the beach on Staten Island, where Dorothy and Tamar spent their happiest times together.

But this book is more than the product of access, research, and skill. Like the Catholic Worker itself, Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty is a work of love, not greed or pride, and that's what gives it much of its beauty and made it such a comfort during the past few weeks. Through Dorothy, and also Tamar, Hennessy lets you see a way toward a better world, not through anger and coercion, but through love and kindness.  v

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