Who is Harry Sylvester?

Author:Jenkins, Philip
Position:Catholic writer - Biography

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...

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