U.S. Intellectual History Blog

On the Apparent Obscurity of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton

In his speech to Congress yesterday, Pope Francis built his remarks around the memory of four Americans who “were able by hard work and self-sacrifice – some at the cost of their lives – to build a better future”: Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the media has reacted to this list of names by running pieces introducing (or rather reintroducing) the American public to Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. “Pope Francis Praised Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Here’s who they were,” reads the headline on the Washington Post’s website. “The Pope is Really Into Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Who Are They?” asks Slate. In a feature on Day and Merton for NPR’s All Things Considered, host Ari Schapiro called them “two lesser-known figures“… though, admittedly, compared to King and Lincoln, pretty much any two people you choose will be “lesser-known.”

I appreciated all the attention paid to Day and Merton by the Pope and those reporting on his speech, even if some of the media coverage tried to present the economically radical and pacifist Day as providing a “little something for the right and a little something for the left” due to her vocal opposition to abortion and birth control, an aspect of her activism that the Pope did not in fact highlight. But I was a bit disappointed, if not exactly surprised, that the media assumed that most Americans had never heard of Day or Merton.

Both, after all, had major public profiles in the mid-twentieth century. Merton was an acclaimed author, whose first book, the autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain was one of the best-selling books of 1948 and whose later works on, among other things, Christian mysticism and Eastern religions, were also widely read. Although he first became famous in the late 1940s, his interests in mysticism made him a key figure for the spiritual explorations that many Americans took in the Sixties and Seventies. Similarly, while Day founded the Catholic Worker movement in the 1930s, her political views, and especially her pacifism, made her an important presence in the 1960s. Abbie Hoffman called Day “the first hippie.” Merton died suddenly in 1968, electrocuted at the age of 53 while attending an interfaith conference in Bangkok. The older Day, who was born in 1897, passed away in 1980.   During their lifetimes, both were among the most famous American Catholic thinkers and activists.

And yet both are precisely the kind of thinkers that Americans, in the decades since their deaths, rarely encounter in our public culture or even history survey courses. Radical politically (though Merton’s political conviction apparently became better known after the posthumous publication of his letters) and religiously, they fit somewhat uncomfortably into the most common stories we tell ourselves about American religion and politics. Whatever the cultural importance of Day’s social activism or Merton’s mysticism, social activists (with a few notable exceptions) and mystics (with almost none) are distinctly at the margins of American history and public culture. Thus most Americans find themselves in the odd position of having to be told by an Argentine Pope about these important figures of the recent U.S. past.

But all this focus on Day and Merton also made me reflect on the two “better known” figures the Pope mentioned: Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. Both Lincoln and King are, of course, among the best-known figures from the nation’s past. They feature very prominently in the stories we tell about ourselves. Each has had a federal holiday dedicated to his memory. Each remains very alive in our public culture. Certainly neither needed to be introduced to the American public following the Pope’s speech.

And yet both Lincoln and King are “known” in often-distorted forms. As Richard Wightman Fox reminds us in his recent book Lincoln’s Body, Lincoln’s memory has been ever evolving in in the century and a half since his assassination, with the martyred President meaning very different things for different groups of white and black Americans at different times. If the public memory of Lincoln has been complicated and contradictory, the public memory of Martin Luther King, Jr., in contrast, has become heroic but two-dimensional, his entire career reduced to a single speech, occasionally supplemented by a single great piece of writing. The last five years of King’s career, his opposition to Vietnam, his attempts to bring the movement to the north, his support for organized labor, and his concern for the problem of poverty have been largely left out of his public image. It’s not surprising that the media would feel the need to explain who Day and Merton were, but not ask us to look anew at such familiar figures as Lincoln and King.

Whatever one’s feelings about the social vision of Pope Francis, his speech was designed to challenge its listeners, not simply to flatter them, as our public images of Great Men (and Women) like Lincoln and King often do. But the Pope was still very much using these figures for present-minded purposes. The brief history lessons that the media has given us on Day and Merton are designed to make them more available to us as figures in a distinctly usable past. Our interest as historians is, of course, rather different. While I wish most Americans knew who Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton were, my interest is not principally in turning them into exemplary figures for our contemporary contemplation, but rather in seeing them as windows into larger complexities of American thought and culture in the last century. Nevertheless, I took some pleasure in the fact that the Pope made millions of Americans learn about two small, but important, pieces of twentieth-century U.S. intellectual history.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Michael Harrington’s connection as a young man with the Catholic Worker movement (he was an editor of the movement’s paper for a couple of years in the early ’50s, Wiki reminds) is what I think of first when I hear Dorothy Day’s name, which in a way, I suppose, is not fair to Day, but we all have different points of reference (depending on our personal histories, etc.). For the reasons you suggest, it’s not surprising that the media assumed most of their readers or listeners needed to be told who Day and Merton were. I had heard of and knew something about both, but in both cases my knowledge is quite superficial.

    I wondered briefly if there were other names the Pope might have mentioned instead of, or in addition to, those four that would have served his purposes in the speech. But I’ll let others among this blog’s readers take the first crack at answering that question.

    • As a Harrington fan, that too is the first time I heard of Dorothy Day. I then started getting the Catholic Worker in the mail, much to my mother’s worry that the FBI was now building a file on me. It was always more radical than my views, but I certainly recognized its compelling narrative and point of view it was presenting.

      • Interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever read the Catholic Worker. I assume it still exists.

  2. Ben,

    I think it’s right to assume the obscurity of Day and Merton to most of the American public. Why? Because of the differences, in America, between religious cultures—particularly any awareness of the history of Protestantism and Catholicism in the United States. One should never assume that one group knows the history of the other. When you combine that with the general historical “forgetting” that occurs Americans broadly, it was safe for journalists to assume that their audiences did not know either.

    As a personal aside, growing up in the Midwest I learned next to nothing about Catholicism or Catholic history until I converted. There is no general awareness of Catholicism in large pockets of the Midwest. I’m pretty sure that neither of my parents, nor most of my family on either side, know anything about Day or Merton. And large swaths of my family practice neither as Protestants nor Christians. For me, even after I converted, it was not as if Merton and/or Day were mentioned prominently in my RCIA courses, nor in regular homilies at mass. And even if they were mentioned, unless the name were elaborated upon, it would’ve been possible to forget/ignore the reference.

    Let us never underestimate ignorance about historical figures among the general public (though that’s also no reason for any of his historians to be condescending, of course).

    – TL

    • You make an important point about the very different cultures and public memory of the Catholic and (various) Protestant communities in this country. I think the collapse of anti-Catholicism and the growth of political ties between conservative Evangelicals and conservative Catholics over the last half century often obscures the fact that these two separate worlds still exist.

      That being said, Day and especially Merton were “crossover” figures in their day, who reached audiences well beyond their Church. And attaining such status as a Catholic was significantly more difficult in the mid-20th century than it would be today. When Merton rose to fame on the basis of the success of The Seven Storey Mountain in 1948, it was extraordinarily unusual for a Catholic religious book to be a national bestseller.

  3. We in the Marquette University Archives have been doing our best to make information about Day available to scholars and the general public since she donated her papers to us in 1962. Inquiries and visits are welcome!

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