At the age of 15, Dorothy read a book that was to change her life-Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. It was a book about the frightening factory conditions in Chicago at that time, and it opened her eyes to the life of Chicago around her. She would walk the streets and neighborhoods of her city and think about the characters in this book, and she felt somehow that her life was linked with theirs. She was moved by the suffering of her neighbors and friends who gave so much of themselves to their horrendously difficult and dangerous factory jobs. She writes in her autobiography that she received "a call, a vocation, a direction to my life" through this book, wanting from that time on to devote her life to helping the poor and the workers.
At the age of 16, she received a scholarship to go to the University of Illinois, having academically surpassed all the other pupils in the county school district. She was very happy to leave home, looking for adventure. She did not really have plans to study anything in particular, but she was, she writes, seeking experience. She was young, and the world was waiting for her. Her schooling was to lead her to a fierce desire within herself to radically change many things about the world.
While at college, she read many books that inspired her: Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and the worker stories of Jack London. These books added to her interest in working conditions, and she became absorbed with the idea of radicalism and the class war. She sought friends who shared the same interests, joining a group of young Socialists on campus. Her favorite slogan at this time became the Marxist slogan, "Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!" and she would shout this whenever the situation availed itself, much to the consternation of her parents at the dinner table.
The philosophy of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy made her cling to her faith, but her new interest in workers' problems seemed in contradiction to her old religious feelings. Religion seemed to preach meekness and peace and joy, but there was so much suffering in the world that needed to be changed. She did not want to be meek, she wanted a revolution. And being religious seemed to interfere with social reform. One of her professors one day pointed out to his students that we should remember that religion throughout the ages brought comfort to many people. She interpreted this to mean that people who were weak needed religion. And she wasn't weak, she was strong! So she pushed, very consciously, all religious feeling from her heart. Religion, after all, was the opiate of the people.
After two years at the university, she left to become a full-time reporter on the Marxist paper, The Call. The year was 1915. There had recently been some changes in working conditions. Many places now had the reduced ten-hour work day, and there had been some increase in the hourly wage. But there was still so much work to be done, and there was great hope among young people that they would be the ones to change the world. Dorothy became attracted to the IWW at this time-the International Workers of the World, or the Wobblies, as they are more often called. Their idea was that one great union of the workers of the world would eventually solve the world's problems. They believed in direct action-organized unions, strikes, and pickets. They were perhaps the most passionate of the labor groups, very dedicated and organized. A real folklore developed around them, and they even had a book of songs which added to their appeal and ability to inspire. The Little Red Songbook, as it was affectionately called, was written to "fan the flames of discontent" among workers about their unfair and unsafe working conditions. Like the Marxists, the Wobblies thought religion was used by the rich to subjugate the poor. Themes from their songs often reflected this view. One famous refrain repeats: "You'll get pie in the sky when you die." In other words, the rich tell the poor workers not to complain, not to worry, to be good, pious and humble about their lot in the world, and when they die they will go to heaven and find all the comforts they could ever want. The group refrain in response to this reasoning is sung with vigor: "It's a lie!" The revolutionaries of the time felt that religion was used as a means of justifying the great injustices waged against workers, and so rejected all forms of it. They imagined a world free from hunger and pain, where one did not have to rely on God. The workers' union was everything.
Dorothy lived the life of a radical bohemian in New York during the 1920s. She was constantly writing, working for the Communist paper, The Masses, and trying to write The Great Novel, as were so many young idealists in the city at that time. She belonged to a group of young intellectuals who shared political and artistic ideals, and through this group came to know Eugene O'Neill, Hart Crane, and even Trotsky. All her friends were Communists, Socialists or Wobblies. She stayed out late every night in discussion at local cafes, walking the streets of New York, and singing songs of revolution.
On March 21,1917, she joined in the momentous celebration in Madison Square Garden, where thousands rejoiced in the victory of the workers in the Russian Revolution. All who hungered for economic justice saw the revolution as a "cry for world peace and brotherhood."
That same year, Dorothy was arrested and jailed for the first of twelve such occasions in her life. She had gone to the White House to picket for women's voting rights and was arrested with thirty-five other suffragettes of all ages. At their trial, the leaders were given six months imprisonment, the older women fifteen days, and all the others-herself included- thirty days. As soon as the verdict was declared, the women announced they would go on a hunger strike. A most moving rendition of the suffering they endured is found in the chapter entitled "Jail," in her autobiography. For ten days they ate nothing, using their twice-a-day visit to the hallway bathroom to drink as much hot water as they could to ease the hollow pain in their stomachs. A few of the older women grew sick, and the officers in charge force fed them through hoses down their throats. The press got hold of the story, and the attention that it raised was not good for the court's position. The strikers were all released on the eleventh day. But Dorothy was never to forget the deep sense of desolation that she felt, as she lay alone all day and night in her cell. Never had she felt so alone, and never had their cause seemed so hopeless to her. She had endless hours to think about the suffering and plight of all human beings, and found that she could find solace in no thought on her own. A guardsman gave her a copy of the Bible, and she found comfort in the lofty human spirit of the Psalms. She began to think that maybe human beings needed help from a source higher than themselves, and that there were times when the spirit of the workers' union was not enough.