Friday, September 11, 2009

Dorothy Day: Childhood Influences

Late in life, Dorothy Day, the Roman Catholic social activist, ruminated on the powerful influence of some of the books she read as a child. If we want evidence that childhood books have a profound bearing on who we become, Day is exhibit A.

Day writes about being influenced by Queechy and Wide, Wide World, two novels by Susan Bogert Warner (aka Elizabeth Wetherell) written around 1850. I have not read these novels, but http://merrigold.livejournal.com/1342.html offers the following description of Queechy:

"Like her wildly popular first novel, "The Wide Wide World", "Queechy" focuses on the development of a female character from childhood to marriage. Fleda is by nature a girl "of velvet softness; of delicate, downcast beauty; of flitting but abundant smiles, and of even too many and ready tears". It is religion that enables this soft and delicate character to exert all her strength and face adversity, achieving "patient continuance in well-doing". When those around her are found incapable of providing moral, emotional, or practical support, it is Fleda who finds unknown physical and emotional strength. When all others fail you, says Warner, rely on the promises of God, and persevere.

Fleda's experience is in some part, Susan Warner's. In 1834 Susan and Anna Warner moved to Constitution Island with their father, Henry Warner. They intended to live on the island only during the summer but reverses in Henry Warner's fortune forced them to sell their home in New York City. Even after their writing became popular, the sisters continued to live on the island, doing their own gardening and cooking, sometimes spending winters on the mainland at friends' houses. The sisters promoted the somewhat radical idea that young ladies could actually do their own physical work such as gardening -- Fleda finds pleasure in her garden as well as hard work. The Warner sisters were also known for their deep commitment to religious teachings. The beauty of the natural world, and religion, are beloved by Fleda in "Queechy".


The above is almost a blueprint of Day's life: She became a convert to Christianity (in her case, Roman Catholicism), went to live among the poor and strove every day to be patient and help build a world where it was "easier for people to be good." Like Fleda, she was the pillar of strength in her community. She relied on God. She persevered. As in the real life story of the Warners, Day bought a house on an island--Staten Island--and traveled between it and New York City (and other places). Like Fleda, Day embraced physical labor and found it nurtured the soul. She loved the beauty of the natural world and religion.

Day also read Sinclair Lewis's The Jungle with fascination as a child at a time her family was living in Chicago, and as result of the book, would roam the poorer neighborhoods of South Chicago. The poverty did not repel her. In fact, she was drawn to smells: baking bread and garlic, flowers. This prepared her for living among the poor in the lower East side of New York.

In Day's early reading, we find stunning support for the theory that childhood reading helps form who we become as adults.

I have two questions: what books from childhood can you look back at and see that, unwittingly, had a disproportionate influence on the rest of your life? In what ways? Second, if the early books we read have a disproportionate impact on the "tabula rasa" of young minds, should we be concerned about what's out there? Or can we trust that the influence of the less substantial books will fade away?

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