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Harry Sylvester's "Novel of Conversion" | Foreword to Harry Sylvester's Dayspring | Philip
Jenkins | Ignatius Insight
Literary reputations are delicate things. An author who today is touted as the
next Faulkner or Dickens can be completely forgotten in only a few years, while
others rise from utter obscurity. Harry Sylvester, unfortunately, followed the
first of these trajectories. He was hugely popular in the 1940s, when
knowledgeable critics compared him to other great Catholic writers of the era,
to Thomas Merton, J. F. Powers, and Dorothy Day. Today, though, he is all but
forgotten, and until recently even his best-known works were hard to find.
That eclipse is a tragedy. Not only was Harry Sylvester a powerful novelist in
his own right, but Dayspring belongs in
the very select list of American spiritual classics, of its great Christian
novels. If the book had been written in Europe--if the book you have before you
had been translated from French, say, or from Russian or Danish--then we would
now regard it as a cherished religious text, a mainstay of college literature
courses. We would know it as the kind of book that changes lives. Any literate
person would be ashamed not to have read it. As it is, the book suffered from
being just too accessible, and then it vanished without trace. Ignatius Press
deserves our highest thanks for bringing it back to a general readership.
Born in 1908, Harry Sylvester seemed destined to be known as one of America's
great Catholic writers. 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. As he wrote so much about boxing, sports,
hunting, and bullfighting, it was natural to call him the "Catholic
Hemingway". By the 1940S, Sylvester was one of the most frequent
contributors to magazines like Collier's and Scribner's, and he also wrote for
America and Commonweal. At the end of the 1940S, though, an "intellectual
dis-conversion" pushed Sylvester away from the Church, and that
transformation cut him off from his natural readership. He effectively dropped
off the Catholic map, and none of his later writings had anything like the same
appeal for a mainstream secular audience. By the time of his death in 1993, he
was largely forgotten in the literary world.
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, and especially to his three
finest novels, Dearly Beloved
(1942), Dayspring (1945), and Moon
Gaffney (1947). In the mid-1940s, a
generation ahead of their time, his novels were already exploring such enduring
themes as Catholic social activism, corruption and secrecy within the Church
hierarchy, and Church involvement in civil rights and racial reconciliation. Dearly
Beloved denounced the Church's failure to
confront segregation and racial discrimination. Moon Gaffney, meanwhile,
presented a daring and sometimes anticlerical portrait of New York
Irish-American life, exploring the cynical involvement of some clergy in
political and financial wrongdoing. Neither book makes any boast of calm
objectivity, and we could easily dispute their historical accuracy, 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 devout Christian to the compromises that
a powerful institution makes to live in the world. The questions Sylvester
raises are timeless.
Dayspring, though, is timeless in
another sense, in that it deals with an ordinary man suddenly and shockingly
exposed to eternal realities far beyond his experience or comprehension.
Spencer Bain, who is wholly a man of his time, must confront the primal
spiritual facts, of sin and damnation, redemption and revelation, and this
encounter forces him to re-evaluate everything he thinks he knows about his
life and the world around him. Dayspring is above all a novel of conversion, of how the rising sun of faith
begins to "enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of
death". And although the transforming spirituality Bain comes to know is
passionately Catholic and Christian, it is a Catholicism utterly different from
what he has come to expect in the sophisticated technological society of
twentieth century America.
Like many artists of the time, Harry Sylvester spent lengthy periods in New
Mexico, which had become wildly fashionable because of the primitivist vogue
for Native American cultures. In the late 1930s, moreover, Anglo visitors
turned their attention to the Penitentes, who used different forms of
self-torment to subdue their sinful bodies. But while many Americans saw in
Hispanic religion merely another tourist attraction, Sylvester found here an
intoxicating and radically different version of Catholic Christianity, and one
apparently free of the clericalism, bureaucracy, and compromise he so detested.
This culture forms the backdrop for Dayspring.
Sylvester's profound 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 to his eyes, the Penitentes were "not masochistic; only barbarously
fanatic". No reviewer found time to admire Sylvester's superb descriptions
of mystical experience or the visionary encounters that transform the puzzled
Bain, trampling all his previous experience and expectations.
Nor could the critics understand how the absolute religious vision of the
Penitentes--their medieval obsession with sin and salvation--might have the
slightest relevance to Bain's own Anglo community, which was so firmly rooted
in the secular modern world. Initially, Bain himself is a dispassionate
observer of the Hispanic world, and only gradually does he come to see through
their eyes. When he does, though, he is appalled by the ways and customs of his
own 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.) Bain comes
to realize that his own Anglo people are at least as deeply imbued in sin as
the "primitive" Hispanics, at least as pagan and bloodthirsty, although
they lack any awareness of the need to change. Who are the real barbarians, he
asks? Who are the true fanatics? Adding a powerful contemporary theme to the
novel, his wife's plans for a second abortion serve to focus Bain's growing
awareness of sin and personal responsibility.
Dayspring is a thoroughly modern
book 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. Sylvester was after all writing during the 1940s, at a time when
other Westerners were seeking enlightenment in the religious mysticism of
India, Japan, or Tibet. In contrast, he was among the few who grasped the power
of Hispanic Christian spirituality and the astonishing depth of the Christian
mystical tradition. Sylvester's openness to hearing those other voices is all
the more relevant 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. Christians worldwide are again exploring the power of
charismatic faith and visionary experience.
Perhaps Americans forgot Dayspring
because the book's vision meshed so poorly with the religious commonplaces of
the 1950s. In the early twenty-first century, though, it seems more relevant
Professor of Humanities
Pennsylvania State University
Dayspring: A Novel | by Harry Sylvester
Spencer Bain is a modern man of science, a university anthropologist doing fieldwork in a small New Mexican town. Used to long separations from his wife, a UCLA professor equally dedicated to her career,
he is mostly untroubled by his infidelities, and hers; that is, until now.
In order to study the religious practices of the Penitentes, a brotherhood of local men who engage in severe, medieval penances, Bain feigns a conversion to Catholicism and participates in their Lenten
observances, including their dramatic public procession on Good Friday.
Nothing in Bain's skeptical academic training has prepared him for the profound remorse that he begins to experience. Though no sentimentalist with respect to the poor and ignorant who surround him, he
cannot help but contrast the simple yet solid lives of the men and women he studies with his own fruitless relationships and those of the jaded, over-sexed sophisticates--the self-proclaimed artists and
intellectuals--he considers his peers.
Artistically descriptive of the rugged Southwest and the people who dwell there, the novel also movingly portrays the inner landscape of a man coming to grips with his need for redemption.
Author Harry Sylvester masterfully illustrates both the objective reality and the subjective experience of guilt and grace.
Also available as an E-Book.
Philip Jenkins (personal website) is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Religious Studies at Pennsylvania State University and Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Institute for Studies of Religion at
Baylor University. He is the author of numerous books on Christian history and culture.
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