“Under Miss [Dorothy] Day's guidance, the Catholic Workers have devised an inexpensive and effective technique of fund-raising: they pray to Saint Joseph, their patron saint.”—Dwight Macdonald, “The Foolish Things of the World,” The New Yorker, October 4, 1952
Readers of The New Yorker were likely to have gazed in amazement at the profile of peace and anti-poverty activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980) and the Catholic Worker movement when they picked up their issue of the magazine 60 years ago today. After all, the leftist journalist and critic Dwight Macdonald (1906-1982) made no bones about his lack of religious belief (“I didn’t go through the ‘crisis of belief’ most of my teenage contemporaries did because, not only didn’t I believe, I didn’t muster up the interest to doubt,” he said in an interview with Paul Kurtz years later).
Yet here he was, in this first of a two-part profile, writing without condescension about a Catholic convert whom, he noted, many regarded as a saint. On one level, Day’s simple moral luminosity appealed to him, as he noted that she “has no 'presence' at all, but in spite of that, or perhaps because of it, she is impressive to meet or hear, communicating a moral force compounded of optimism, sincerity, earnestness, and deprecatory humor."
Yet, as a contrarian whose thinking might be best summed up in the title of his essay collection, Against the American Grain, Macdonald also found something profound in Day’s belief in nonviolence and a preferential option for the poor: “Politically,” he observed, “the Catholic Workers are hard to classify. They are for the poor and against the rich, so the capitalists call them Communists; they believe in private property and don't believe in the class struggle, so the Communists call them capitalists; and they are hostile to war and to the state, so both capitalists and Communists consider them crackpots."
Thirty years after his death, Macdonald is not read widely, but his influence during the 1950s and 1960s was considerable. The profile of Day brought the Catholic Worker movement to a larger, often secular audience previously unaware of it. His praise of James Agee’s A Death in the Family gave to that posthumously published novel enough ballast to propel it toward the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and his demolition of James Gould Cozzens probably did more than anything else to shrivel that novelist’s previously considerable critical reputation. Most important, his extended New Yorker review of Michael Harrington’s The Other America brought that work to the attention of the Kennedy Administration, which, inspired by the book, launched the War on Poverty.
(Photo of Dorothy Day from 1916 by an unknown photographer.)