Harry A. Sylvester was born, January 19, 1908, in Brooklyn, New York, the son of Harry Aaron and Margaret (Curtin) Sylvester. His grandfather was Jeremiah Crimmins Curtin, a well-known translator and editor.
Sylvester graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a B.A. in journalism, in 1930. During his university years, Sylvester played football for legendary coach Knute Rockne. He started writing seriously in his senior year under the encouragement of Charles Phillips, and sold his first story while still an undergraduate. In 1931, Sylvester returned to Notre Dame for graduate work in English and was further encouraged in his vocation by John T. Frederick, sometime editor of “The Midland.”
Sylvester began his career as sports, and later political, reporter for the ‘Brooklyn Eagle.” He also wrote for the “New York Herald Tribune,” and the “New York Post.” In 1933, Sylvester left the newspaper business to become a freelance writer. In his lifetime, Sylvester published over 150 short stories and articles, which appeared in Catholic periodicals including “America” magazine (under Wilfrid Parsons, S.J.); “Catholic Digest”; “Catholic Worker” (under Dorothy Day); “Columbia”; and “Commonweal.” Sylvester's writings were also published in popular journals and magazines including “American,” “Atlantic Monthly,” “Collier's,””'Cosmopolitan,” “Esquire,” “Pictorial Review,” “Scribner's,” “Story,” “The Midland,” and “This Week.”
According to Paul F. Kneeland of the Boston “Daily Globe,” Sylvester was the highest paid fiction writer for “Collier's” magazine since Damon Runyon died (Hoehn, 1957). Sylvester's work was also recognized and reprinted in anthologies such as “The O. Henry Memorial Prize Stories” (1934), and “The O'Brien Best Short Stories” (1935, 1939 and 1940).
Although primarily a writer on Catholic themes, many of Sylvester's stories reflect his wide-ranging interests, which included boxing, bullfighting, football, hunting, labor disputes, as well as the nature of faith and miracle. Sylvester was also especially interested in Latin America and Mexico. His novels “Moon Gaffney” (1947) and “A Golden Girl” (1950), were written in Guatemala City and Lima, respectively. Of the former, Sylvester is quoted as saying to Paul Kneeland, “I wanted a change of scenery when I did my last book, so the whole bunch of us went to Guatemala City where I worked 90 days straight in a hotel knocking out 100,000 words on a typewriter for Moon Gaffney. He's my most expensive character, by the way -- the trip cost me $12,000…” (Hoehn, 1957).
In March 1938, Sylvester obtained an interview in Mexico with General Saturnino Cedillo in his stronghold at Las Palomas. He was the last journalist to interview Cedillo before the revolt in May, and was able to predict it before any other news sources. He was accompanied by William M. Callahan, managing editor of “The Catholic Worker,” and Daniel Kern, a painter.
As a writer, Sylvester was interested in and influenced by Ernest Hemingway. Also among his favorite authors were Georges Bernanos, William Faulkner, Edward Garnett, James Joyce, and William McFee. Sylvester's great love of books and reading inspired “Joy in Reading” (1941), for which he was associate compiler.
In three of his works, Sylvester explores various aspects of the Catholic faith which also reflected his own concerns regarding skepticism and rejection of faith on the personal level, and hypocrisy and institutional corruption in the Church. These were his novels “Dearly Beloved” (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1942); “Dayspring” (New York: Appleton-Century, Co., 1945); and his most well received, “Moon Gaffney” (New York: Henry Holt, 1947). Sylvester was not alone as a Catholic writer at odds with his faith. In a review of work by J.F. Powers, Evelyn Waugh mentions Sylvester among “many American Catholics” who were becoming aware that the Catholic Church, though known for '”countless solid virtues,” was nevertheless not “the parent or nurse of the Arts” (from Waugh's review of “The Prince of Darkness,” by J.F. Powers in “The Month,” March 1949).
Other principle works by Sylvester include two novels, “Big Football Man” (1933), and “A Golden Girl,” (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1950); as well as an anthology of short stories, “All Your Idols,” (New York: Henry Holt, 1948).
In 1947, Sylvester delivered a lecture in Chicago, entitled, “Problems of the Catholic Writer.” Initially, it was well received; however, a few months later, the “Atlantic Monthly” published the lecture which created a stir in the Catholic community, as Sylvester was to recall in a biographical sketch for “Twentieth Century Authors”: 'The many letters, the numerous angry, astonished and occasionally vicious replies in the Catholic press to what I had thought of only as a somewhat weary statement of problems with which I had lived and under whose pressures done my writing for fifteen years, forced me to consider the possibility that between myself and my variously excited critics, one of us was not a Catholic and that it might be me. Other letters, including some of the friendly ones, suggested that I was already out of the Church or on the way out…” (Kunitz, 1955).
Eventually, Sylvester was to renounce the Catholic faith. His “apologia” is expressed in his comments in “Twentieth Century Authors”: “I do not know exactly when I left the Catholic Church although I know that I am out of it permanently and irrevocably. For those interested in such details, I last attended the Sacraments in a church whose name I have forgotten in a suburb of Lima, Peru. The month was March 1949, the disconversion intellectual. I cannot accept the church's teaching on such basic matters as transubstantiation, the assumption of the Virgin, or the infallibility of the Pope. I do believe that great aboriginal truths lie at the roots of Christianity but that in its formative decades some dreadful error involving misinterpretation or expediency, like a mistake made early in a long algebraic equation, conditioned and invalidated all that followed. There is no other explanation for a church finding its way from the Sermon on the Mount to the four hundred thousand dead of the Inquisition...The sense of freedom and release which has steadily grown since leaving the Church is worth whatever I may have paid for it…” (ibid.)
Together with his second wife, Janet Hart, Sylvester joined the Quaker religion and became an active member of the group called the Religious Society of Friends. Correspondence, journals and notes relating to his work with the group are included in the collection (Box 7, Series 9).
After 1950, no other novels were published, although Sylvester did complete the manuscript for a novel about the life and career of a U.S. Foreign Service officer, initially entitled, “De Gloria,” and later, “A Watch in the Night.” Sylvester described the latter as his best novel, and a “moral tale of the sort that the late John Gardner would have approved” (Tynan, 1989). It did not concern the Catholic Church. Typed manuscripts for the novel are included in the collection.
Increasing financial pressures and the responsibility of supporting a family compelled Sylvester to return to newspaper work writing book reviews, political commentaries, and letters to editors. Some of these articles are included in the collection in manuscript and printed form (see Series 5).
In 1951, Sylvester joined the U.S. Information Agency, working in Mexico, New York, and Washington, D.C., where he lived for almost 40 years. He retired in 1971 and resided in the Washington, D.C. area until his death on September 26, 1993.
Sylvester married Rita Ryall Davis (died 1978), in 1936. They had four children, John C. Sylvester, Anne R. Sylvester, Joan A. Sylvester Wise, and Clare C. Sylvester Strickler. After divorce in 1952/3, Sylvester married his second wife, Janet Hart (died 1947), in 1954.
- Hoehn, Matthew (ed.), 'Catholic Authors: Contemporary Biographical Sketches 1930-1947,' (Newark, N.J.: St. Mary's Abbey, 1957).
- Tynan, Daniel J. (ed.), 'Biographical Dictionary of Contemporary Catholic American Writing,' (New York: Greenwood Press, 1989).
- Kunitz, Stanley J. (ed.), 'Twentieth Century Authors, a Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature,' (New York: Wilson, 1955).
- 'New York Times' and 'Washington Post' obituaries for September 1993.