If the Ministry of Truth had devoted their full attention to obliterating the memory of Harry Sylvester, his elimination from the public consciousness could not have been more total.
Born in 1908, Sylvester seemed by the 1930s set for a career as a Major Catholic Writer. After graduating from Notre Dame (where he played football for Knute Rockne), he enjoyed a solid reputation as a prolific journalist and short-story writer who often took as his theme the world of sports. His work echoes that of Ring Lardner, while the stories about boxing, hunting, and bullfighting-the best found in his 1948 collection, All Your Idols -evoked comparisons with Hemingway. Soon Sylvester was one of the most frequent and best-paid contributors to magazines like Collier’s and Scribner’s, and he also wrote regularly for America and Commonweal . In the 1940s, he was a much read if acerbic commentator on Catholic matters, and in 1949 he was one of the writers Evelyn Waugh included in his survey of American Catholic thought, alongside Dorothy Day, J.F. Powers, and Thomas Merton.
Unfortunately, it was also at this time that an intellectual disconversion persuaded Sylvester to leave the Church, permanently and irrevocably. When that messy spiritual divorce was complete, his works lost much of the appeal they might once have had, even for reform-minded Catholics. Unlike J.F. Powers, an author whom he closely resembles in both political and religious attitudes, Sylvester dropped off the Catholic map. Though he continued to write in the 1950s, as an observer of political turmoil in Latin America, he lost much of his previous readership. By the time of his death in 1993, Sylvester was largely forgotten, even by the older Catholics who had once read his anticlerical portrait of New York Irish-American life in Moon Gaffney (1947). Not only does no Sylvester biography exist (his extensive papers languish at Georgetown University), he also lacks even the minimal fame of a Wikipedia entry.
Forgotten writers often deserve their oblivion: Either they were not all that good in the first place, or their work made sense only in the context of a particular era. Neither applies to Harry Sylvester or his three Catholic novels, Dearly Beloved (1942), Dayspring (1945), and Moon Gaffney . To read them today is to recognize their relevance for modern audiences. In the mid-1940s, a generation ahead of their time, Sylvester’s novels were already exploring such themes as Catholic social activism, church involvement in civil rights, Christian mysticism, and Hispanic religious practice.
Moon Gaffney would have a special appeal for the contemporary Catholic left, and, in fact, it could easily become required reading for Voice of the Faithful. Though many modern Catholics imagine the American Church of the 1930s in terms of triumphalism and unquestioned orthodoxies, the novel portrays a running series of brushfire wars between an entrenched clergy and insurgent activists. Sylvester’s sympathies at this point were firmly with the Catholic Worker movement, and the book is dedicated to a group of good Catholic radicals, with Dorothy Day appearing as a heroic character in the novel.
Sylvester was also deeply involved in interfaith efforts to promote Catholic-Jewish relations at a time when many working-class urban Catholics were exposed to anti-Semitic agitation. In Moon Gaffney , New York’s senior clergy are depicted as cynical allies of corrupt politicians and business leaders, and Church authorities act as oppressive landlords, with diocesan real estate handled by pietistic shysters. At their worst, Sylvester’s clergy are anti-labor, anti-black, anti-Jewish, misogynistic, and their terrible obscurantism makes them all too willing to succumb to the demagogic appeal of Fr. Charles Coughlin.
His racial concerns emerged still more strongly in Dearly Beloved , a depiction of the old, established Catholic community on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where schools were still segregated in the 1930s. Like Moon Gaffney, the novel feels as if it comes from a later period of American life, with its central concern for issues of racism and discrimination, especially when perpetrated by the clergy. For Sylvester, the Church had a moral imperative to confront segregation with the doctrine of the Mystical Body of Christ, which holds that all men, regardless of race or other delineation are part of one another in Christ, [and this] does not admit of different interpretations in different places. Despite the author’s Yankee credentials-he was definitively Brooklyn Irish-the book’s themes make it fit well into the tradition of mid-century Southern literature.
Both Dearly Beloved and Moon Gaffney have a strong political slant and both are unabashedly polemical, so one could easily argue with them on grounds of their historical accuracy, to say nothing of their ecclesiology. Yet both remain eminently worth reading, and not just for the rich and unexpected picture they offer of mid-century Catholic attitudes. Each in its way represents the agonized response of a Christian to the compromises that a powerful institution makes to live in the world. The Church in Moon Gaffney is a substantial urban landowner, which seeks to maximize profits, yet at the same time the demands of charity and faith require that church authorities exercise mercy toward the poor. In practice, Sylvester thinks, financial motives usually triumph, and the novel shows cynical church officials relying on the docility of the faithful, who dare not seek legal or journalistic assistance. They have both the temptation and the opportunity to become exploiters.
Both these novels reflect Sylvester’s immersion in the political causes of the 1940s, issues from which he largely escaped in Dayspring , his best novel and a classic of American religious fiction. Like many artists of the time, he spent lengthy periods in New Mexico, which had become wildly fashionable because of the primitivist vogue for Native American cultures. For Sylvester, though, the area was a revelation because it introduced him to the Hispanic religious tradition symbolized by the Penitentes, made nationally famous by Alice Corbin Henderson’s book Brothers of Light (1937). While many Americans saw in Hispanic religion merely another tourist attraction, Sylvester found a radically different version of Catholic Christianity, apparently free of the clericalism, bureaucracy, and compromise he so despised. This was palpably not the Irish-French kind of Catholicism that’s managed to bitch the Church up over here. It’s why a few people have come here or stay here [in the Southwest], where Catholicism is still pretty close to what it should be.
Sylvester’s admiration for southwestern religious culture goes far to explaining the novel’s poor reception among critics, who could not believe they were seriously expected to admire the ridiculous savagery of the Penitentes. In the New York Times , literary oracle Orville Prescott reacted coldly to what he described as only a religious tract spiced with plenty of sex, while the Penitentes were not masochistic; only barbarously fanatic. No reviewer, as far as I have discovered, found time to remark on, still less to admire, Sylvester’s genuinely impressive descriptions of mystical experience or the visionary encounters that transform the baffled protagonist, trampling all his previous experience and expectations.
Dayspring uses the familiar device of an anthropologist visiting a primitive alien community. Increasingly, the anthropology professor, Spencer Bain, realizes that the true aliens, the true primitives, are to be found among his own Anglo people, especially among the sexually liberated progressive colony centered on the horrendous Marsha Senton. (The colony is a barely disguised version of Taos, and Marsha is just as clearly meant to be Mabel Dodge Luhan.) For the time, Dayspring offers startlingly frank accounts of the sexual temptations that Bain faces, the predatory promiscuity, and even an attempted homosexual seduction. One central theme is Bain’s distant relationship with his wife, Elva, who has already had one abortion, for the sake of both their careers, and who is now, reluctantly, pregnant for the second time. Bain’s newfound encounter with faith is measured by his wavering attitudes to the prospect of a second abortion.
Initially, Bain accepts Catholic baptism as a means of gaining entry into the Penitente sect and achieving a level of direct observation denied to previous anthropologists. Soon, however, the sacrament starts taking effect in unexpected ways. Through his encounters with the honest, simple, God-struck Penitentes, he becomes ever more aware of the presence of sin and grace, the reality of healing and mystical experience. The carved santo of Santiago in his room ceases to be a piece of naive folk art and becomes a symbol of intercession, of the presence of the holy. Bain realizes how remote from God had been his own life and those of his friends. He begins to identify the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design (the line of Cardinal Newman’s that appears as the book’s epigraph). The dayspring begins to enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.
Bain truly becomes a Catholic but of a distinctive sort, something quite different from the world of Sylvester’s Brooklyn. In fact, contemplating the Catholicism of the Southwest raised startling questions about separating the core of the faith from its culture-specific accretions. In the novel, the character Father Gannon represents the Irish-American faith of the mainstream Church, a different animal from the Hispanic variant. While local believers know the power of the devil and believe in spiritual healing, the more rational Gannon is scornful: Of course, priests aren’t supposed to cure’ people. Nothing so sentimental. And while he is anxious to see Bain join the Church, Gannon wants to accomplish this on familiar lines rather than by exploiting his romantic fascination with Penitente neo-medievalism. He seeks rather to link Bain up with Fulton Sheen, who sort of specializes in converting the intellectuals. But the appeal is wasted on Bain: No, I never heard of him. In his present circumstances, the carved santo is much more eloquent.
Yet Bain does experience an inner revolution, a conversion at once intellectual and spiritual. He is no longer able to share the assured certainty of his colleagues, who see in the Penitentes only the masochistic rituals of an irredeemably backward society. They begin to make sense, as when Teran, the leader of the Hermanos , explains that we are a violent people, with many passions. It is the reason for the penances of the brotherhood. We do not feel that the ordinary penances imposed by the priest in the Confessional are enough. By this point, Bain knows that his own Anglo people are at least as deeply imbued in sin, just as pagan and bloodthirsty, although they lack any awareness of the need to change. It is ironic, then, to hear Teran’s skepticism as to whether a man in a profession as refined as yours could commit serious sin. Oh, indeed, but he could.
Bain, in fact, forsakes academic detachment to join the Penitentes wholeheartedly rather than as an observer, and he goes so far as to let his friends see him participating in these supposedly quaint ethnic rituals. While leading a penitential procession, he has a vision in which his bohemian friends all bear the demonic faces that symbolize their besetting sins of lust, greed, and fanatical ambition, the prurient, the greedy, the uncharitable. In this odd clarity, the face of Mrs. Senton showed as a nameless kind of wanton desire for sensation and shock; any sort, any thing, not unlike the undiscerning, tasteless and blank maw of the shark . . . .For all of them, for himself, it was suddenly possible for Bain to believe that he was doing penance. In such a landscape, visions are possible, even commonplace. Exhausted after the ordeal, he lies down in the Penitente chapel, the morada , where he wept-for those he had beheld, for his own past unbelief, for Elva . . . .But mostly, and in what amazement he was capable of, for the icy vanity of his own people.
Harry Sylvester’s novels are worth reading for many reasons, not least because they so challenge the widespread sense among younger American Catholics that they are the first to confront the paradoxes created by an institutional church living at once in the world and beyond time. But Dayspring is modern also in the questions it asks about the nature of Catholic Christianity and the tremendous spiritual appeal of the forms of faith found outside the European mainstream. During the 1940s, at a time when other Westerners were seeking enlightenment in the religious mysticism of India, Japan, or Tibet, or in the imagined primitivism of Native America, Sylvester was among the few who grasped the power of the faith in Hispanic spirituality. His openness to hearing those voices is all the more attractive at a time when Catholic numbers are growing so rapidly in the global South and when churches across the United States are being transformed by the Latino presence.
In Harry Sylvester, we find novels of devotion, of social activism, of mystical experience. What else do we need to see all his books back in print?
Philip Jenkins is Distinguished Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University and the author of Decade of Nightmares:The End of the Sixties and the Making of the Eighties.