“Who is Harry Sylvester?” from First Things

Source: “Who Is Harry Sylvester?”, by Philip Jenkins, from the March 2007 issue of First Things: the Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Dayspring'“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,” writes Jenkins in this profile of a neglected American novelist. Of Sylvester’s three novels on Catholic themes, his three Catholic novels, Dearly Beloved (1942), Dayspring (1945), and Moon Gaffney, he writes, “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.”

A few traces of Sylvester can be found online, even though Amazon shows only one out of three of the above titles available in used copies:

In American Novelists of Today (1951), Sylvester’s biographical sketch states,

Mr. Sylvester’s first three novels present a comprehensive treatment of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Strong elements of anti-clericalism mark his serious work, but his central and pervading theme has been that of growth, spiritual and intellectual, and the various ways and the events by which he feels it is sometimes achieved:

  • Dearly Beloved, his first novel, is an ironic and realistic portrayal of the psychological and social problems of a young man, John Cosgrove, who allies himself with a Jesuit priest in an effort to improve the conditions of poor fishermen in St. Mary’s County, Maryland….
  • Dayspring concerns Spencer Bain, an anthropologist, who visits New Mexico to study the Penitentes, a group of Roman Catholics who practice flagellation. He participates in their religious services with strong intellectual reservations, but comes to feel a steadying influence upon his life as a result. Some critics consider the book the first serious novel concerning “grace” by an American.
  • Moon Gaffney traces the career of the son of a Tammany Hall politician in New York City. The young man, who has been reared strictly as a Roman Catholic, is ambitious to become mayor. Yet his friends with social insight and liberal ideas lead him to take a vigorous stand for progress.

  • A Golden Girl (1950) is a sharp departure from the earlier novels and reflects Mr. Sylvester’s two visits and a period of residence in Peru. It concerns Therese Morley, an American girl of exceptional vitality and intuitive honesty, who has misused her talents.

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