Chapter One: Beginning ONE BEGINNING
JOHN DAY WAS A DIFFICULT man. A southerner of modest means, he had come North in his early twenties to make a living and find a wife, which he did, but his enthusiasm over the course of his married life was often directed less toward career advancement or family and more toward his race horses, professional sports, gambling, male bonding, the bottle, and nights on the town. And, on occasion, other women.
Sharp-tongued and opinionated, “Judge Day,” as he liked being called in later years (for no other reason than his demeanor and tendency to pronouncements), was used to being deferred to. Born in Cleveland, Tennessee, in 1870, he grew up in a Scots-Irish family that claimed a distant kinship to Daniel Boone and Sam Houston; his father had served the Confederacy as a surgeon and been taken prisoner in the last weeks of the conflict. In the recollection of his eldest daughter, Dorothy, John Day was a man not given to self-doubt or displays of paternal affection, and he shared many of the biases of his place of birth, his time, and his class. He was “intemperate,” in her generous words, about foreigners and African Americans. He had no use for religion. As a Republican, he had even less use for political radicalism.
It was a supreme irony that John Day lived to see three of his five children—two of them his girls, no less—become as critical of capitalist America, as politically radical, as it was possible to be in the United States in the early twentieth century. Della, his youngest daughter, was a longtime supporter of Margaret Sanger’s birth control crusade and walked the picket line in Boston the day the Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed. John, his youngest son and namesake, became a Communist in the 1930s. And Dorothy, his middle child, was to follow a path entirely beyond his grasp—one for which he felt nothing but amazement and a deep revulsion.
Grace Satterlee, his wife, came from a different background and had a very different temperament. Born in 1870 in upstate New York, she was the youngest of six and was put to work in a Poughkeepsie shirt factory at the age of nine when her father died, never having fully recovered from wounds incurred fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Like John Day’s father, he had been captured by the enemy and spent time in a prisoner of war camp. When a government pension belatedly came through, Grace was able to return to school.
Family finances didn’t allow for any misplaced notions of gentility for this young woman in want of a career, and it was while attending a branch of the Eastman Business School in New York City that Grace met John Day. About their courtship, we know very little. Grace must have been impressed with her suitor’s self-assurance, southern drawl, and sandy-haired good looks. Eight months after they were married on September 19, 1894, in an Episcopal church on Perry Street in Greenwich Village, their first child was born. Though the groom had been raised a Congregationalist and the bride an Episcopalian, neither was more than nominally religious, and their wedding day was the last occasion for some time that either set foot in a house of worship. None of their children was baptized.
The first three of those children came in rapid succession: Donald in 1895, Sam Houston in 1896, and Dorothy in 1897, on November 8. Grace Delafield, known for most of her life as Della, was born in 1899, and the last child, John, Jr., was born in 1912 after a series of miscarriages.
The family was living at 71 Pineapple Street in Brooklyn Heights when Dorothy was born, suggesting a level of gentility that Day’s income as a sportswriter for the New York Morning Telegraph
could not support for long, and they moved a year or two later to Bath Beach, a neighborhood at the other end of the borough near today’s Coney Island. A good deal less expensive, Bath Beach had the additional advantage of being closer to the Gravesend Race Track, John Day’s second home. Dorothy would remember frolicsome hours on the beach with her brothers when she wasn’t in school, fishing for eels in a nearby creek, running through open fields, hiding with a cousin in an abandoned shack by Fort Hamilton. More vivid still were the memories that followed the family’s move from the East Coast to the West Coast when her father decided to leave his job in New York, for reasons unknown, to try his luck with a San Francisco newspaper. John went on ahead to begin work and find a house; in the interim, which was longer than expected, Grace was forced to take in boarders in the Bath Beach house to make ends meet.
Finally, they were there, reunited, renting furnished lodgings in Berkeley while they waited for their own furniture to arrive by ship, living in a house with a garden filled with roses, violets, and calla lilies. The girls would fashion dolls out of the lilies, crushing flowers into a bottle of water to make perfume for themselves and their babies.
“Even now,” Dorothy wrote in adulthood thirty years later, “I can remember the peculiar, delicious, pungent smell” of those flowers. The move to a permanent home in Oakland, or what was supposed to be their permanent home, brought the Days into an even more bucolic setting,
“near open fields and woods, where the windows looked out to the hills” and where periodic forest fires cast a delicate haze over the landscape.
For an eight-year-old with two only slightly older brothers who were a rough-and-tumble pair themselves and not averse (at that stage) to letting their sister tag along, unburdened by parents who gave much thought to their oldest daughter’s pronounced lack of daintiness, freedom from convention was a source of great joy. Her closest friend in Oakland, Naomi Reed, was told by her mother to stop playing with Dorothy after hearing the language she used in an altercation with Donald over ownership of the family’s guinea pigs. (
“I threw things besides,” Dorothy added about that incident.) The Reeds were strict Methodists and felt that their daughter’s friendship with a tomboy whose parents failed to respect the Sabbath had gone far enough. Dorothy had been joining the Reeds for church on Sunday for a while, enjoying the hymns and Naomi’s company, but when that came to an abrupt end, she took comfort in being adopted by the “tough gang” of the neighborhood, adolescent boys who stayed out after dark, didn’t listen to their parents, and did their best to sneak into Idora Park, avoiding the ten-cent admission, to watch the Ferris wheel or cadge a ride on the mountain slide or the circle swing.
In The Eleventh Virgin
, a somewhat autobiographical novel Dorothy would publish in 1924, she wrote about her protagonist, June, a girl at just the same age, playing in the late-summer weeds in the lots near her house, weeds
“so high that June could tunnel her way through them, making large green-roofed caves here and there. One of the boys let her share his cave with him, and some afternoons when the others weren’t around, he took her in his arms and kissed her, pressing himself up against her. He was one of the big boys, fourteen.” Though flattered by the attention, “there was wickedness in it,” she allowed. At the same time, she felt, “it was exciting.”
To a child like Dorothy, life in California seemed good, or good enough to hope it would last forever. Her mother found it hard to make friends in their new home, but that wasn’t something any of her children was aware of. Grace was adept at putting others’ needs first and at masking her own disappointments. John was out most of the day—given his flares of temper, something everyone in the bungalow counted as a blessing. When he wasn’t in San Francisco at the paper, he was at the Oakland Trotting Park or the stable where he kept a race horse. Money was flush, and he envisioned owning a string of horses. That hope ended, however, in the early morning hours of April 18, 1906.
The night before, John Day had noticed that the horses in the stable seemed unusually restless, neighing and stamping in their stalls. He thought no more about it. At 5:12 the next morning, the rumbling started and the family was awakened, Dorothy wrote, as
“the earth became a sea,” rocking their house tumultuously for what was less than a minute but seemed an eternity. The windmill and water tank at the back of the house started to totter, throwing water across the roof. The panicked children were hustled out of their beds and into the front yard. By the time the quake ended, the house was standing but scarcely habitable. Cracks ran from the floor to the ceiling, the chandeliers had been smashed, every glass and dish broken, the chimney toppled.
The flames visible from across the bay indicated that, bad as the damage was there, Oakland had been spared the worst of the disaster, and throughout the next few days residents greeted thousands of families from the city pouring over on the ferry and in private boats. Idora Park and the racetrack were now turned into campgrounds filled with cots, and anyone with a solid roof overhead invited strangers in to stay. Grace joined her neighbors, from morning until nightfall, cooking for the displaced San Franciscans at the refugee sites, and the family went back into the house when it seemed safe to gather up what clothes and blankets they could to give to those who had nothing.
The tragedy became personal to the Days as well when they learned that the plant in San Francisco that printed John Day’s newspaper had been leveled. He was out of work. A few months before Dorothy turned nine, the family packed everything they could salvage and prepared to relocate once again. After barely three years, their California venture was over.
The move from Oakland to Chicago was a
“great upheaval” for the Day family, as Dorothy remembered it, especially for the four children. There were no more vacant lots with tall weeds to play in, no more brooks to wade across, no lily-filled gardens or wide lawns or beautiful hills in the distance. Instead, there were buildings upon buildings, pavements, automobile and truck traffic, railroad tracks, soot on the windowsills—all part of urban living on a tight budget in a neighborhood that had seen better days.
John Day had sold his bungalow and horse at a loss and moved his family halfway across the country because, probably rightly, he saw no future for himself in the devastated Bay Area, but neither had he lined up a job before relocating. With more than a dozen newspapers in the United States’ second largest city, he was confident he could quickly find a position, an optimism that turned out to be misplaced. Suddenly money was even tighter than it had been. The first of the Days’ four moves in the city, after a brief stay in a hotel, was to a tenement apartment on the South Side above a saloon, where loud conversation came in waves at night with the smell of beer and whiskey in the air. With no girl brought in to help with the chores, as there had been in California, Dorothy and Della were pressed into service.
Genteel poverty brought out not just Grace Day’s fortitude but her quirks. It was she, not her husband, who had been sent out to find the apartment; she who was left to ask the landlord’s patience when the rent was overdue or the bill at the grocer’s reached an embarrassing figure; she who was called upon to put a good face on a difficult situation, making a bookcase out of orange crates, hanging curtains over fishing rods, and scrubbing every surface until cleanliness took the place of refinement. Yet after a day of making beds and sweeping and shopping and doing the laundry in the building’s basement, Grace would bathe and dress formally for dinner each night, whether her husband was home or not.
“She reigned over the supper table as a queen,” Dorothy recalled, “powdered, perfumed, daintily clothed, all for the benefit of us children.” Her daughters loved to watch and assist in these early evening preparations, adding a drop of cologne to their mother’s bathwater (proper bath salts being beyond the family budget), laying out her towels and kimono, combing her hair, insisting that the boys be quiet while Mother enjoyed her fifteen-minute nap before setting the table.
Grace also devoted herself to keeping from her children the mistake her marriage had been. Whatever their older brothers perceived, it wasn’t until they were adults that the girls came to realize just how unsatisfying a union Grace Day had endured. Men who expected their wives to bear as many children as Nature allowed while they had no intention of helping with the child rearing, who expected their moods at the breakfast table to be tolerated no matter the pressures their wives were under to feed six mouths, who took a night at a downtown tavern or brothel to be their right: John Day was not necessarily atypical for a husband and father of his time, but his belief that his responsibility as a breadwinner was all that was required of him was unshakable. He could also be delusional and cocksure. Before he found a job, he devoted months to writing an adventure novel that was supposed to make the family fortune but, of course, was never published, if it was even completed.
Later, Dorothy would sympathize with Grace’s need for a ginger ale in the afternoon livened up with a bit of “oh-be-joyful,” as she liked to call it, the shot of whiskey that she sometimes added even to her elder daughter’s soda, which led to a companionable feeling and her mother’s desire to reminisce warmly about her grandfather and his whaling ship, her childhood in Poughkeepsie, and her life before she had met John Day. There were times, though, when even Grace reached a breaking point. The Eleventh Virgin
tells of an incident that feels more a memory than an invented scene, when the protagonist’s long-suffering mother, overcome at the state of her life, suddenly picks up every plate in the house and smashes them one by one on the kitchen floor. It was a terrifying spectacle, the manic rage and disorientation of such a normally stoical woman, and in the story the oldest son hustles his sisters out of the room while their father, equally unnerved, tries to calm his wife and later runs out for ice cream,
“pathetic in his efforts” to comfort his crying daughters.
Eventually, John’s fortunes improved, and he landed a job on the staff of the Inter-Ocean
, a high-circulation daily and one of the most staunchly Republican papers in the nation. One of the strongest advocates for going to war against Spain, it was also one of the most insistent voices in journalism warning of the threat to the United States of anarchism and socialism. As one of its sportswriters, Dorothy’s father was in his element: at the track reporting on the races (always his favorite assignment), at the ballpark covering the White Sox and the Cubs, at boxing matches and college football games. The job paid well, and finally the family was able to afford a home commensurate with their needs, John’s aspirations, and Grace’s sense of propriety.
On Webster Avenue, near Lincoln Park, the Days moved into a stately brick rowhouse with enough bedrooms to allow siblings some privacy, fireplaces in their parents’ bedroom and the library, a large kitchen, plenty of comfortable furniture. Finally the children could have a dog. John could have his horses. The other boys and girls Dorothy and Della met in their new neighborhood seemed boringly well mannered after the raucous immigrant children they had known in the less genteel parts of town they’d come from, adventurous friends they could go wandering, scavenging, or swimming with when they had been expressly told not to. Her brothers seemed to have an easier time of it finding their element anywhere (Sam was of an especially pugilistic nature), and they naturally wanted less to do with their sisters as they aged. For the girls, it was different. Comfort and security came at a price.
At different times in childhood and adolescence, natural questions arose. Grace’s many pregnancies was the subject of one. Learning where babies came from was something Dorothy and Della picked up from their brothers and boys in the neighborhood; that there might be any choice involved in the matter—that possibility didn’t even arise as a question, though it certainly accounts for the girls’, especially Della’s, later intense interest in the controversial topic of family planning. Exactly how many times Grace was pregnant after the birth of her fourth child isn’t clear, but it appears to have been more than a few, all but one of the pregnancies ending in a miscarriage, and the fact of John’s birth thirteen years after Della’s, when Grace was forty-two, indicates that contraception was unknown in the Day bedroom. The confusing part of the matter, at least in Dorothy’s mind, was that John Day didn’t seem to take any particular interest in his many children when they were young. He preferred to have his meals alone with his wife when that was possible, Sunday dinner being the one exception. Hating noise and clutter, he began to pay attention to the children only when they were old enough to take part in adult conversation and to hear his opinions about world affairs. And weren’t four children enough, anyway? Dorothy’s efforts to get some conversation out of her mother on the subject appear to have gone nowhere.
A topic about which Grace was less reticent—though her responses were no less unsatisfying to her daughter—was religion. Other families went to church, belonged to things called “denominations,” said a prayer before meals. Not so at the Days’. When an Episcopal minister had visited them early in their time in Chicago, having heard from someone that they were a Protestant family new to the neighborhood, he had invited them to join his congregation, but John Day had let him know that wasn’t going to happen. He wasn’t necessarily telling the world he was an atheist (though he would rather proudly claim that by the time he was in his sixties), but he had no interest in setting foot in a church or having his children baptized. Nor did Grace, who was reading avidly about Christian Science as a potential cure for the headaches she was enduring so chronically of late.
Donald, Sam, and Della weren’t especially troubled by the family stance on things spiritual, no more than John, Jr., was later, but Dorothy found it less easy to take her mother’s nonchalance as a final word on the topic. She could clearly recall saying the Lord’s Prayer in her first-grade class at Bath Beach, though that practice had no more meaning for her out of any context than many other school rituals. More vivid was her memory of coming upon a Bible, the first she had ever seen, left behind by a previous tenant in the attic of the furnished house in Berkeley they’d rented. She would recall it as a meaningful moment, the
“dim attic” and the “rich, deep feeling” of holding the thick, mysterious leather-bound book in her hands at the age of eight made a strong impression—though of what exactly, she couldn’t say. Observing the piety of the Reeds in Oakland, the family of her friend Naomi, Dorothy wondered if their harmony was in any way connected to their churchgoing. Mrs. Reed’s warnings that the Days were not among the saved didn’t rankle. None of what the lady said quite made sense. Knowing that her parents and siblings didn’t want to hear about Methodism or salvation, Dorothy concluded, “I did not want to be saved alone, anyway.”
In Chicago, in the working-class neighborhoods they had first called home, she met her first devout Catholics. Walking one morning into the railroad flat of a friend, Kathryn Barrett, she didn’t know that all of the six children were out and she made her way to the back bedroom, where she came upon Mrs. Barrett, fresh from her chores, on her knees praying—not a posture she had ever observed her own mother in. Turning to tell the girl that her playmates weren’t there, Mrs. Barrett then resumed her prayers quietly and fervently. For the moment, the sad state of this family’s apartment, the blight of their poverty, had fallen away; Mrs. Barrett was clearly elsewhere, uplifted.
Another family on the block, the Harringtons, had nine children. Twelve-year-old Mary, older than Dorothy, was a close friend who talked to her, as they stretched out on the back porch after dinner, about the saints and sainthood, a concept that Dorothy had never been introduced to. It would be interesting to know how a girl Mary’s age explained the idea and what saints’ stories she told, but we can assume she had a gift for explanation and drama.
Dorothy felt a
“lofty enthusiasm” for the “high endeavor” of suffering for a holy cause, believing in something that mattered more than one’s own life, being one of a sacred elect. It was then that she went through what she described in The Eleventh Virgin
as her protagonist’s youthful “morbid” phase, telling her sister the more gruesome and glorious stories of martyrdoms that she had read about and convincing her bedmate to sleep with her on the bare floor of their bedroom in emulation of the saints who slept on the stone floors of prison cells and lived on bread and water. It was a phase—quoting snippets of the Bible to her uninterested parents and siblings, eventually derided by her sister for hectoring and posing (for Della’s patience had its limits)—that Dorothy abandoned readily enough.
When she was twelve, however, she had a kind of victory: the Days allowed Dorothy to be baptized as an Episcopalian. Her mother had given in to the urging of the minister at the Church of our Savior on Fullerton Avenue, Dorothy’s ally, while her father grudgingly agreed, if only out of concern that worse yet might happen—namely, that his most eccentric child would eventually be lured to the embrace of Rome by her Catholic friends. That thought was intolerable.
“Only Irish washerwomen and policemen are Roman Catholic,” he informed his daughter.
Dorothy went contentedly for weekly instruction, especially as one of her brother’s many girlfriends was doing the same. The girlfriend turned out to be something less than a spiritual partner. She had a
“precocious interest in sex,” Dorothy said, combined with a Uriah Heep–like cleverness at misleading unsuspecting parents. Nonetheless, Dorothy studied her prayer book, was baptized and confirmed on the same day (describing her first trip to the Communion rail before the entire congregation as
“an agony”), and began attending Sunday services, where the music, more than anything, stirred her.
“I had never heard anything so beautiful as the Benedicite
and the Te Deum
,” she later wrote. For a year she was a diligent churchgoer until the thrill of the Episcopal service wore off. Her parents were relieved.
The next two years were occupied with school and friends, caring more frequently for the new baby she adored as Grace’s headaches worsened, and acknowledging her own growing awareness of the power of desire. The summer John was born, a handsome musician down the street became the focus of an erotic obsession. Dorothy dragged Della to every concert his band gave in the park, even when it was drizzling and they had to spread paper on the seats, and wheeled the baby carriage past his house at every opportunity. She fantasized about the man’s wife running off with a lover, leaving him desolate and available. When she heard his violin through the open window, she convinced herself that the achingly beautiful notes were intended for her. Passing him on the street, she felt sure he knew what was going on inside her.
“We never exchanged a word, but I hungered for his look!” she would write in The Long Loneliness
, her most telling memoir.
Though Dorothy was clearly the student of the family, her public-school education doesn’t seem to have held any special allure for her. In all of her writings or references to her school years, only a single teacher merits mention. Mr. Matheson at the Robert Waller High School taught Latin—a great deal more interesting to her than math, science, history, or English composition—and was sufficiently enthusiastic about how ably a small group of his students had translated The Aeneid
that he met with them separately to read Virgil’s Eclogues
and to give them lessons in Greek after school. That group included Dorothy. Her mastery of Latin would be a source of pride all her life.
If school didn’t matter to Dorothy to any significant degree, pleasure reading did. The Days were a family of readers, and none so avid as Dorothy. The library at home on Webster Avenue, with its good light, fireplace, snug sofa, and ever-present bowl of apples on the center table, was a refuge. Indeed, Dorothy chose later in life to characterize the evolution of her adolescence as much by what she read as what she did. Three writers she came to on her own struck a particular chord.
Upton Sinclair had created a nationwide sensation in 1906 with The Jungle
, in part a novel about the lives of recent immigrants living in urban poverty and in part an exposé of the horrors of the meatpacking industry. It told a long and gripping story about a Lithuanian family struggling to survive when “the lash of want,” the corruption of the system, the filth and hazards of their work environment, and the exploitation of unscrupulous landlords and predatory bosses make it all but impossible. Two of the principal women, including the protagonist’s wife, are eventually forced into prostitution, one at the insistence of a rapacious factory boss and the other to earn food for her family. Children comb through garbage dumps for scraps of food; a boy stupefied by liquor is killed by rats. A worker falls into a meat tank and is ground up with animal parts to be sold as part of the product. The need for the solace of alcohol and drugs in Packingtown is constant.
Dorothy was reading the novel in the right setting: Chicago itself, the meatpacking capital of the country. Some scenes are placed amid neighborhoods not so very far removed from the Days’. Dorothy took to pushing baby John in his carriage, with Della at her side, walking for miles along those
“interminable gray streets, fascinating in their dreary sameness, past tavern after tavern,” where she could imagine episodes from the book like the manic wedding party that opens the novel and the family’s doomed efforts to find an affordable home. Yet it was also, she wrote, an area of pungent smells, “the one beauty in those drab streets… the odor of geranium leaves, tomato plants, marigolds; the smell of lumber, tar, of roasting coffee.” A lifelong effort not to be entirely undone in the face of squalor had already started.
The success of The Jungle
conferred a kind of immediate respectability on Upton Sinclair; everyone, after all, no matter his or her politics or party affiliation, cared about the condition of what was served to the family at dinnertime. The Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act were the result, in part, of Sinclair’s muckraking exposé. Even President Theodore Roosevelt, who looked with a jaundiced eye upon the author and his influences—Émile Zola, Maxim Gorky, the later Leo Tolstoy—had to agree to investigate the stockyard conditions Sinclair described and grudgingly invited him to the White House. Prior to 1906, though, Upton Sinclair was a highly questionable figure in middle-class households, and certainly no one John Day wanted to see his teenage daughter reading. Sinclair was a friend of the social worker Jane Addams, the founder of Hull House in Chicago, and in New York City had organized a socialist society with the novelist Jack London as its first president.
Part of Sinclair’s appeal for Dorothy was that, above and beyond the transfixing drama of The Jungle
, he was exactly the kind of influence her father deplored. The family of the fictional Jurgis Rudkus were the very people he insisted had no business befouling his America, a view shared by her oldest brother, who was becoming as narrow in his opinions about immigrants and other races as their father. Even more pointedly, the novel took a swipe at John Day’s bread and butter: racetracks are places of corruption, one character insists to Jurgis, no different from any other big business. The onetime sport of gentlemen had become a crass moneymaking enterprise, and the “doping” and doctoring of horses and the corruption of the jockeys were open secrets. Only a fool thought otherwise.
Upton Sinclair naturally led Dorothy to Jack London. She read his adventure novels, which were passed on to her brothers, as well as his essays and political diatribes in fiction, which would have been of less interest to Donald and Sam. She was especially taken with the semi-autobiographical Martin Eden
, about the awakening of a young indigent sailor to the fact that his life need not be the one assigned to him at birth, despite the hold that class distinctions and class consciousness exert over modern America. London’s protagonist is also a character of phenomenal grit. His family can doubt him all they want; he will find his own way.
Both Sinclair and London had the effect on their young reader of prompting a closer observation of her surroundings. An indefatigable walker by the time she was in her early teens, Dorothy began to take note not only of how differently people lived in Chicago but also how many of those differences were based on factors that might not be under their control and how hopeless the lot of some people seemed. Her father’s newspaper insisted that the leadership and values of the Roosevelt and William Howard Taft years represented the best of all possible worlds, but in a city with a population of over two million, the contrasts were stark and painted a different picture: the Romanesque Palmer mansion on the Gold Coast so blatantly in contrast to the overcrowded Polish and Irish slums, the debutante entertainments featured in the press coexisting with Chicago’s five thousand prostitutes, so numerous the city couldn’t decide whether to maintain its red-light district or give up and let them wander where they might.
A third writer took Dorothy down yet another path, one more psychological than sociological, and it is somewhat harder to know what he might have meant to her. Thomas De Quincey, the author of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
and some brilliant, idiosyncratic essays on Macbeth
, John Milton, his obsession with William Wordsworth, his obsession with book buying, murder as a fine art, dreams, drug taking, childhood, and literary style, was not on any high school syllabus in 1913. (For that matter, unlike so many other classic British literary figures, De Quincey is not a writer well known to most educated Americans today. He was claimed as an important influence, though, by Nikolai Gogol, Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Robert Louis Stevenson, Oscar Wilde, Alfred Hitchcock, Vladimir Nabokov, and Jorge Luis Borges—a list that forms a telling picture in itself.)
If it is difficult to imagine what a girl her age made of Thomas De Quincey’s confessional narratives, musings, and fevered reveries, there can be no doubt that Dorothy’s interest was genuine—
he was her favorite writer at the time, she asserted—and that she was not in the least bit intimidated by his circuitous prose, avalanche of allusions, drollness, or extreme life experiences. The living embodiment of William Blake’s credo that “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” De Quincey understood both defiance and ecstasy. He also believed that our lives could best be seen as a palimpsest; beneath the erasures and the overdrawing was our experience of childhood, the events, core questions, and sensations of which would always haunt us.
For any exceptionally smart adolescent, reading need not be systematic to be meaningful, even life-changing. Personal needs, helter-skelter curiosity, and even confusion are the usual, more useful driving forces. Certainly there was no apparent consistency or programmatic order to Dorothy’s voracious reading at this period of her life. Sinclair and London obviously looked to man to solve the problems of poverty and injustice; God plays no role in their thinking. They looked to socialism to make the world right. De Quincey inhabited an imaginative universe of his own, an explorer without a compass other than opium and a faith in poetry and his own intellect. For that matter, Dorothy’s new love among British poets that year, Algernon Charles Swinburne, was a devout sensualist.
Yet at the same time, her thoughts were drawn in another direction that had—or seems to have—nothing to do with these admired authors.
She worried in a letter to a friend with whom she shared confidences about the “lust of the flesh,” the intense “cravings” that tormented her, as one crush on an attractive boy from school followed another. She debated whether it was right for her and Della to spend Sundays at the movies, the only day their father would let them attend, finally deciding that there was no need to be strict about the Sabbath if one were honoring God during the rest of the week. She made her way through the Bible in determined stages during her last year of high school and dipped into St. Augustine.
Maggie Tulliver, the rebellious heroine of The Mill on the Floss
, attempts to find solace in Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ
, and Dorothy was inspired to do the same after reading George Eliot’s novel with great enthusiasm. Alone with her baby brother in the park, especially on a desolate winter day, “under the trees and looking over the wide expanse of lake,” she felt, she told her friend, an apprehension of the divine—until she returned home and the old uncertainties took over. Her mother was relentless in urging her to pay more attention to the healing powers of Christian Science, and the Episcopal minister whose church she had attended for a while came by one day to talk all afternoon to her about his wish for her to return to the fold, a prospect that held no appeal.
In hindsight, it is possible to see more similarity than conflict in Dorothy’s interest in the world view of an Upton Sinclair or a Thomas De Quincey, on the one hand, and a Mark, a Matthew, or a St. Augustine on the other. None was really acceptable to her family. None suggested well-trodden paths for a child of the American middle class. Her father thought Dorothy was becoming annoyingly peculiar, and her mother was unsure of what to make of her daughter’s concerns and conversational tangents. But for an intellectually inclined girl of fifteen and sixteen, these writers offered unknown possibilities and touched on a growing discontent with the life she saw around her, the injustice no less than the smug contentment. She could write an essay for her senior English class on Prince Peter Kropotkin and the Russian revolutionists, suspecting that her choice of topic and her views would shock her prim composition teacher, even as she continued to question her mother about the family’s indifference to religion. The resolution of those impulses, though, would be anything but easy or imminent.