Phil Jenkins in First Things had an article on the forgotten Catholic novelist Harry Sylvester. I found Sylvester’s novel Dayspring. It is remarkable, and I am trying to see if it can be republished.

Sylvester wrote two political novels, Dearly Beloved and Moon Gaffney.  As Jenkins wrote,

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, forElva….But mostly, and in what amazement he was capable of, for the icy vanity of his own people.” 

The novel is painfully pro-life. Bain does bloody penance for the abortion of his son, the child he had torn to pieces so that his and his wife’s professional careers would not be interrupted.


The role of penance in Christian life is generally ignored, because all of us have sinned so deeply and should somehow try to make up for the evil we have done. Among many Catholics, including bishops, this easy-going attitude to sin extends, as I discovered in writing my book, to child rape and murder. Because he had committed adultery a Penitente carried a cross and walked bare footed in the snow until he collapsed from exhaustion; what should one do for raping a child and driving him to suicide?

Leave a Comment