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River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative 5.1 (2003) 59-63

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A Question for Dorothy Day

Robert Atwan

When I was a college sophomore I once raised my hand after a stimulating lecture by the activist Dorothy Day and asked that admirable and saintly woman an urgent question. I had been sporadically attending meetings of the Catholic Workers in their lower-Manhattan office with a female friend who had published a few poems in their radical penny tabloid The Catholic Worker and who could claim a far more developed social conscience than mine. I don't recall being presented to Miss Day during any of those visits, and I would not have had the temerity to introduce myself. So I attended the well-publicized lecture eagerly. I had a serious question about social activism that troubled me and I wanted to hear Dorothy Day herself answer it.

I remember well the few gatherings I attended in New York—the sassafras tea, the anti-nuke poetry, the anxious conversations with ex-monks and seminary dropouts over pacifism, civil rights, and our social obligations. Would I fight a war if called? I didn't know; I believed in just wars, let's wait and see. Would I travel to Mississippi and help register Negro voters? I wasn't sure, maybe, though at the time I myself had never voted in any election and if I had to leave my part-time job selling hardware at Sears-Roebuck in order to volunteer, who would cover my tuition—the Catholic Worker Movement? Would I join a picket line for a local union protesting unfair wages? No, probably not. As a kid, I'd accompanied my father to many of his union activities—I'd even written and printed flyers for him on a toy press when he made a bold but futile attempt to form his own local. Watching his efforts get crushed, I learned firsthand what thugs labor organizers could be. I didn't need On the Waterfront to teach me about corrupt unions. No, you could count me out of that one. [End Page 59]

The intensity of the self-interested struck me as more authentic than the intensity of the social reformer, whose benevolent motives never failed to make me suspicious. My parents were both factory workers, high school dropouts who struggled daily to make ends meet, and I grew up in a shamefully distressed neighborhood surrounded by chemical factories and junk yards. To my mind, the sort of people who glamorized poverty or simply appeared to be on cozy terms with it were perverse, untrustworthy, certainly naïve, and perhaps dangerous. I believed that many of these people enjoyed the pretense of poverty in the same way that the nobility surrounding Louis XIV played at being shepherds and shepherdesses or that Count Tolstoy, scythe in hand, labored in his fields like one of the serfs. Or that—just a few years after my encounter with Dorothy Day—well-off graduate students would rent houses on the outskirts of universities and claim to live in "communes." In other words, their "poverty" was simply one of William Empson's versions of pastoral.

If I'd known his poetry in my sophomore year, I might have agreed with the Scots poet Hugh MacDiarmid who protested that "Unlike these pseudos" (he was referring to W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender) "I am of—not for—the working class." I would learn that those little prepositions make a great difference, sometimes subtle, sometimes pronounced, despite the blurring of social class the "pseudos" enjoy promoting. The major difference between the rich and the poor is not only, as Hemingway so bluntly put it to Fitzgerald, that the very rich have more money; but it's also that the rich possess the wonderful privilege of being poor when they feel like it—when it looks more respectable, when it's socially or politically advantageous, or whenever solidarity with some cause requires it. But, alas, the poor can't pretend to climb upward as painlessly...


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