A GOOD BIOGRAPHY holds your attention; a great one transcends its subject and sheds light on the myriad forces bearing down on an individual at a particular point in time. Adam Hochschild’s Rebel Cinderella: From Rags to Riches to Radical, the Epic Journey of Rose Pastor Stokes rests securely in the first category. John Loughery and Blythe Randolph’s Dorothy Day: Dissenting Voice of the American Century belongs, luminously, to the second. Both books tell compelling stories of American women radicals of the early 20th century whose lives were both fraught and fulfilling.

Hochschild chronicles the life of Rose Pastor Stokes, a Jewish immigrant who toiled in a cigar factory under deplorable working conditions, all the while dreaming of a better life. As a hobby, she wrote for a small socialist newspaper, the New York Call, and would eventually go on to write for The Masses and The Century Magazine. Following an assignment to interview a very rich man, James Graham Phelps Stokes, she married him a few years later. He found her enthusiasm for social change enticing until he eventually didn’t. But this didn’t deter Rose from her lifelong pursuit of justice for the working poor.

Born Raisel Wieslander in 1879, she felt the miserable sting of antisemitism growing up in imperial Russia, in what is now the far northeastern corner of Poland. Hochschild describes the prejudice she experienced and the mark it left on her:

Poles and Jews […] had long been the officially sanctioned scapegoats for all the ills of the creaky realm of the Romanovs, with its corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy. Famine deaths? Jewish grain dealers hoarding all the wheat. Debt? Jewish moneylenders. Disease? Spread by the Jews, of course. Defeats on the battlefield? The Jews were spying for the enemy.

Rose learned early the stigma of being continually painted as traitorous and somehow tainted. Her arrival in the United States brought new and unexpected hardships. After settling with her family in Cleveland, she was forced, at age 11, to take the job at the cigar factory to help support her five siblings. Her father began to drink heavily and eventually abandoned all of them. But there was something unsinkable about Stokes’s life force that Hochschild never really explains satisfactorily. She always loved writing and reading, publishing a few poems while still a very young girl. She grew increasingly attracted to the left-wing movements swirling around her, and she became a fervent advocate for labor rights and women’s rights, including the right to birth control. She took part in the 1909 Shirtwaist Strike and often participated in meetings and rallies with Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman, and other luminaries of the early 20th-century left.

Her husband was her close ally for many years, seeming not to perceive the inherent contradiction between the privileged life he led and the socialist rhetoric that, for a time, titillated him. After his father’s death, however, he was drawn back into the world of his origins and Rose’s rhetoric began to embarrass him. After they parted, she remained entrenched in the socialist movement, enamored with the noble ideas it put forth:

A place where the people would own and control the economy[,] […] no more concentration of wealth at the top[,] […] equality for women and people of all races[,] […] labor unions would set fair and safe labor conditions[,] […] generous pensions, care for the elderly, free kindergartens, […] solidarity among workers.

She continued writing about labor issues and political events throughout her life while also working as a translator of Yiddish poetry. But of her many gifts, it was her speeches that were most memorable — they were inspirational and incendiary. Hochschild describes how crowds were overwhelmed by “[h]er clouds of red-brown curly hair,” which “shook loose as she spoke forming a lovely frame for her large expressive brown eyes and her clear-cut cameo-like features.” Her activism led her to be prosecuted, during World War I, under the Espionage Act, though the case was successfully appealed and eventually dismissed. In 1919, she helped to found the Communist Party of America and worked tirelessly on its behalf up until her premature death from breast cancer in 1933.

Unlike Hochschild, who sticks to a traditional narrative path in his handling of Rose’s biography, John Loughery and Blythe Randolph veer off the map, sometimes with an excess of abandon, in trying to understand the complexities of Dorothy Day. By definition, she was a contradiction in terms: an Orthodox Catholic and a political radical. Born in 1897 in Brooklyn to a solidly middle-class family, she moved as a child to San Francisco, just in time to experience the 1906 earthquake. Like Rose, Day was an avid reader from an early age, being drawn into left-wing causes by the writings of Jack London and Maxim Gorky. She grew skeptical of the affluence she saw around her, believing it corrupted people’s souls. Dorothy had a wild bohemian youth, with many lovers, an illicit abortion, and an out-of-wedlock child, and she began to drink heavily while struggling to establish herself as a writer. Like Rose, she became involved in activist movements, and was arrested in 1917 during a march for women’s suffrage at the White House.

Her fraught life, her drinking, and her bouts of depression led Dorothy to embrace religion as a demanding and transcendent source of personal reassurance. In 1927, she converted to Catholicism, a faith that never relinquished its grip on her. According to Loughery and Randolph, Catholicism was “a call, inexplicable at the time even to Day herself.” Her parents were Protestant, politically conservative, and not deeply religious, indeed, her father had palpable disdain for her newfound beliefs. Dorothy was further inspired by an eccentric man named Peter Maurin, whom she met in 1932 and who beguiled her with his religious passion. He pushed her to use her considerable rhetorical powers to go on speaking tours, addressing the pressing issues of the day: labor strikes and corporate abuses, the moral wasteland of American materialism. The couple began a newspaper, the Catholic Worker, that at its peak had a circulation of over 100,000. Day was a committed pacifist even during World War II, and afterward opposed the nuclear arms race. Yet she refused ever to utter a critical word about the Pope and accepted unquestioningly the Church’s teachings on birth control and abortion. She found the 1960s counterculture distasteful and 1970s feminism unappealing, though she did criticize priests who turned a blind eye to racism.

The authors brilliantly try to make sense of Dorothy’s complicated worldview. They focus on her transition to Catholicism and the questions she must have been forced to ask herself:

What kind of world do we want to live in, and what sacrifices are we willing to make to achieve it? Do we believe that our primary concerns should be our physical ease, our family’s and our nation’s well-being, our happiness as individuals? Can a sense of the mystical thrive in a culture that has made sacred causes of the rights of the individual, material progress, and technology? Is a flight from suffering and struggle actually a flight from God and an escape from the fulfillment of our deepest humanity?

They chart the reading she is known to have done — including Poe, De Quincey, Swinburne, Conrad, political biographies of all sorts, and her beloved Russian writers — searching for clues as to why she transitioned from a bohemian free spirit to something of a religious ascetic. They show how Gorky must have forced her to reckon with the brutal cost of poverty, how Tolstoy might have influenced her with his startling views about the difference between marriage and passion, how Chekhov might have moved her with his emphasis on empathy for all living souls, how Dostoyevsky (whom she revered) might have made her feel closer to God and given her a sense of mission, something she could grab hold of and never let go. Loughery and Randolph do a strong job depicting the urgency and intensity of her thinking, but they also reveal the blind spots that prevented her from seeing her own serious shortcomings, particularly regarding her daughter Tamar, whom she rarely saw and of whom she was extremely critical.

Reading about these two powerful women is deeply inspiring; one can’t help but be impressed by their brazen refusal to accept the status quo for the poor and disenfranchised. Hochschild gives us a solidly researched and impressive biography that leaves us with a clear picture of Rose Pastor Stokes, but Loughery and Randolph go beyond traditional biography to give us not a singular, cohesive portrait of Dorothy Day but several overlapping and mutually inconsistent ones. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) that complexity, her essence emerges, pristine and unforgettable.

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Elaine Margolin is a book critic whose work has appeared in many venues, including The Washington PostThe Jerusalem PostThe Denver Post, and San Francisco Chronicle, as well as many literary journals. She lives in Hewlett, New York.