Dorothy Day, Reactionary

The eminent Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs (1924 – 2019) was so disgusted by the trajectory of American conservatism that he referred to himself exclusively as a reactionary. Well—hear, hear!

I sincerely regret never having dipped into Lukacs’s writing. I’m not bright enough for the kind of high-level history that he wrote. It would all go right over my head. (If any reader has a recommendation for some more accessible work, please drop me a line.)

Earlier today, I was reading an excerpt from the great Bill Kauffman’s book Look Homeward, America. In it, he quotes an article by Lukacs, which makes me doubly regret my ignorance of his work. It’s too good not to share here. Here’s Lukacs, recalling an extravagant National Review fundraiser he had the misfortune of attending:

During the introduction of the celebrities a shower of applause greeted Henry Kissinger. I was sufficiently irritated to ejaculate a fairly loud Boo! A day or so before that evening Dorothy Day had died. She was the founder and saintly heroine of the Catholic Worker movement. During that glamorous evening I thought: who was a truer conservative, Dorothy Day or Henry Kissinger? Surely it was Dorothy Day, whose respect for what was old and valid, whose dedication to the plain decencies and duties of human life rested on the traditions of two millennia of Christianity, and who was a radical only in the truthful sense of attempting to get to the roots of the human predicament. Despite its pro-Catholic tendency, and despite its commendable custom of commemorating the passing of worthy people even when some of these did not belong to the conservatives, National Review paid neither respect nor attention to the passing of Dorothy Day, while around the same time it published a respectful R.I.P. column in honor of Oswald Mosley, the onetime leader of the British Fascist Party.

Here’s another excerpt from Look Homeward, America. The author of this blurb is Allen Tate, one of the Southern Agrarians. He’s writing to his comrade Donald Davidson:

I also enclose a copy of a remarkable monthly paper, The Catholic Worker. The editor, Dorothy Day, has been here, and is greatly excited by our whole program. Just three months ago she discovered I’ll Take My Stand, and has been commenting on it editorially. She is ready to hammer away in behalf of the new book. Listen to this: The Catholic Worker now has a paid circulation of 100,000! … She offers her entire mailing list to Houghton-Mifflin; I’ve just written to Linscott about it. Miss Day may come by Nashville with us if the conference falls next weekend. She has been speaking all over the country in Catholic schools and colleges. A very remarkable woman. Terrific energy, much practical sense, and a fanatical devotion to the cause of the land!

(As Mr. Kauffman notes, Tate failed to mention that an annual subscription to The Catholic Worker cost a penny.)

A few years back, some fellow reactionaries and I coined the phrase “Dorothy Day Syndrome.” It refers to that process whereby some unfortunate Catholic goes from the fusionism of William F. Buckley to the traditionalism of Russell Kirk to the distributism of G.K. Chesterton. So far, so good. But then our subject discovers Miss Day and the Catholic Worker movement—and, within a year, he’s become a generic HuffPo liberal.

We see it happen all the time. And, try as we might, we can’t quite figure out what causes the last, fatal turn. Clearly, the fault is not with Miss Day, who was a strident critic of American progressivism. (Seriously, read Kauffman’s essay.) It must be the fact that Lefties are more welcoming to anti-capitalists than Righties are. Don’t get me wrong: the Republican Party’s sudden turn against market fundamentalism is nice and all. But four years ago all of these Philippe Égalités were chasing distributists, localists, and agrarians out of the Conservative Movement™ with bullwhips.

Anyway, my fears of contracting Dorothy Day Syndrome have led me to keep her at arm’s length. That’s another error I’m working to correct. If such excellent reactionaries as Lukacs, Tate, and Kauffman found in Miss Day a kindred spirit, I’m more than happy to risk infection.

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