Thinking outside the (reliquary) box: A historicist approach to a socialist emblem

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“They were happy and lively times … we were alert … to what was happening to people, to poor people, all over the world … I think we really did try to understand how the different economic systems works, and the politics of our nations, and we wanted to see America change, really change, and we were going to do something about it.” Tom McDonough’s An Eye For Others: Dorothy Day, Journalist 1916-1917 — to be released April 5 — focuses on Day’s early years as an investigative journalist for a socialist newspaper, long before her conversion to Catholicism and subsequent fame.

The format of the book is fairly straightforward: the chapters are organized according to thematic content, and include relevant transcriptions of Day’s New York Call articles, complete with political cartoons. McDonough foregrounds the article transcriptions with helpful and at times, keenly insightful, historical context, including excerpts from Day’s later work. As a result, the book reads more like a work of scholarship than a hagiography. This distinguishes McDonough’s book from other biographies, and underscores the point that Day’s journalism and social commentary deserve wider consideration beyond the small Catholic circles in which she is revered.

McDonough’s compilation is particularly timely, since the period in which Day wrote for the New York Call was the last time Socialism held a small, yet admissible place in the public sphere. After the World Wars, the ideology became politically untenable due to its association with totalitarian states. To the chagrin of both political parties, socialism has recently made a comeback in the person of Bernie Sanders who, until his candidacy announcement, had been a lifelong independent and socialist. Given his robust support among millennial voters, it appears that this latest re-emergence of Democratic Socialism will continue to be a part of our national conversation. Hence, the timely consideration of how and why Socialism captivated the mind and heart of a young female journalist 100 years ago.

The re-emergence of socialism is not the only early 20th century phenomenon that parallels our nation’s current political climate. Large waves of immigration affected demographics then as they do now. In fact, American Socialism did not emerge from the Ivory Towers of liberal intellectualism as many think, but rather from the German, Italian, and Yiddish immigrants who brought their European-style political leanings to their new country. These ethnic groups established highly successful mutual-aid societies to help them settle into their frequently hostile surroundings. Far from echoing the intellectual trends, early 20th century American Socialism was a populist movement aimed at unseating the principles of Social Darwinism that held sway among the elite. Day was writing at the tail-end of what is now referred to as the Progressive Era; a time of dissatisfaction and attempted reform of a political system which many viewed as increasingly corrupt and acting against the public good. Both in Day’s era and ours, there seems to be a correlation between a growing gap between rich and poor, rapidly changing urban demographics, and an increased interest in Democratic Socialism.

Day’s newspaper, the “New York Call,” was “free” in the sense that it was part of the Free Press movement that criticized mainstream journalism for being beholden to the companies that generated their ad revenue. Like other “free” papers, revenue for the “New York Call” was drawn exclusively from donations, even though it meant frequent income shortfalls. The movement, which was also advocated by Hilaire Belloc in the UK, considered greed as the biggest threat to justice. This sentiment must have reverberated with Day, though she believed that ideology could also be a threat to justice.

Although it takes second stage to Day’s corpus, McDonough’s thesis is that, despite her early extreme-left political leanings and denouncement of religion (a theme curiously absent in her journalist writings of this period), Day displayed a genuine concern and desire for truth, particularly regarding the poor and downtrodden. More to the point, her willingness to act on those desires demonstrates a continuum in her life, rather than a sudden shift, between political radicalism and Catholicism.

(Courtesy of Clemency Press)

(Courtesy of Clemency Press)

This consistency is apparent in McDonough’s chapter on Day’s coverage of birth control pre-Griswold v. Connecticut. Day was the lead-reporter on the effort to secure access to birth control in New York, which was led by Margaret Sanger. As a socialist, it is likely that Day also supported the cause and perhaps sympathized with fellow female activist, Sanger, with whom she had direct contact. Sanger’s sister, Ethel Byrne, was involved at the time in a hunger-strike that was highly sensationalized in the public imagination. Her editor’s instructions were to paint the “martyrs” of the birth control movement in an ever-positive light. McDonough includes Day’s later description about her discomfort with this episode: “my job was to write up these women as martyrs in a holy cause and to paint harrowing pictures of [Bryne’s] suffering… I wrote the stories as the editor desired them. Just the same, I realized that I was distorting the truth, and it sometimes irked me that my job was to picture the darker side of life, ignoring all the light touches, the gay and joyful sides of stories as I came across them.” Similar quotes from Day permeate McDonough’s book. They demonstrate the tension she felt, even at this early stage in her career, between her dedication to discerning the truth of things and towing the party line.

McDonough’s historiography provides an illuminating look at Day’s intellectual development and her role as an early 20th century female journalist. Her experiences as a young reporter in New York and her coverage of the harsh conditions of the working poor should pique the curiosity of those interested in both urban and women’s history. McDonough’s approachable writing style also adds relevant historical context to Day’s own commentary, and provides good reading for those who, like Day’s original readers, enjoy a brief, intimate glimpse into the lives of others.

Catherine Hillcrest is a doctoral student in archaeology.