Harvey Wickham was born in Middletown, Orange County, New York on May 30, 1872. He was the son of George Wickham and his wife, Mary A. Sproat. Harvey's ancestor Samuel Wickham, a man of Puritan heritage, had migrated in 1740 from Southold, Long Island to the Orange County village of Goshen, where his cousin George Duncan Wickham became prominent. In about 1756, Samuel was an early settler of nearby Middletown when he purchased the central portion of Lot 35 that became downtown Middletown. Harvey's father was a farmer, while his grandfather Colonel Israel Harvey Wickham was prominent in Middletown's civic affairs. He served as Justice of the Peace in Middletown, President of the Orange County Agricultural Society, Organizer and Director of the Middletown bank, and Founder and Trustee of the Wallkill Academy. Israel and his wife abruptly died on March 12, 1868 from bread made with poisoned flour.
Harvey was a well-known pianist and organist noted for his performances of astounding brilliancy and power. In 1889, he spent a year as a special music student at Claverack College, a prestigious but now defunct Methodist military academy, where his teachers believed he had the potential to become one of the nation's leading musicians. There he was a schoolmate of future novelist Stephen Crane, who went by Stevie in those days. Harvey sometimes served as organist and choirmaster of the local Methodist church, where the older Crane sang as Harvey's lead tenor in a light, pleasant voice. On the parade grounds, the roles were reversed, with Harvey being a private and Crane being a first lieutenant who was quick to admonish his underling. While the two interacted frequently, they never became close friends, in part because Harvey was put off by Crane's bohemian lifestyle. In 1926, Harvey wrote one of his better pieces called Stephen Crane at College in The American Mercury that sardonically revealed details about his deceased schoolmate's personal life, such as romantic liaisons (see magazine).
After studying with Samuel K. Marrent of Grace Church, New York, Harvey served as choirmaster and organist for several years circa 1898 at Grace Church in Middletown, an Episcopalian church with an Anglo Catholic theology. There he directed a choir of about thirty-five voices, including his wife as lead soprano and sister as lead alto, that performed music by artists such as Felix Mendelssohn and Dudley Buck. These performances received warm praise from critics and attracted large audiences. He became a contributing writer for Etude music magazine and penned articles about musical education, including The Technic of the Intellect and Prevalent Faults of American Teachers.
Harvey moved to San Francisco shortly before the great earthquake of 1906 and became musical editor of the San Francisco Chronicle-Traveler. He continued to practice his music and to compose, but turned down chances to perform in concerts, preferring instead to play classical and experimental compositions on his piano for a few friends or alone. He started to publish numerous short stories, such as The Tides of Mercy (1906) and The Lord of Bad Valley (1906) in The Blue Mule magazine; The Spider-Man (1908) in The Pacific Monthly; and Joe Filliger's Wife (1911) and The Fighting Drop (1912) in New Story Magazine. During this time, he was seen as a subtle artist who was part of a group of young Western writers who were "attempting the dramatize in fiction the new doctrines of brotherhood." He also served as editor and chief contributor of the Pompeian, an experimental magazine that contained stories, essays and poems with cryptic themes.
After stints in London and Paris, he lived for the last 16 years of his life in Rome, starting in about 1914. There he immersed himself in Roman Catholic politics and philosophy, but declined to be affiliated with any church denomination. He started cranking out novels such as Jungle Terror (1920), The Clue of the Primrose Petal (1921), The Scarlet X (1922), The Boncoeur Affair (1923) and The Trail of the Squid (1924). He also wrote articles in The Saturday Evening Post, Atlantic Monthly, and The Commonweal, a magazine for lay Catholics in the United States.
In some of his early articles for The Commonweal in 1926, Harvey urged a pragmatic approach in dealing with Benito Mussolini's Fascist Italian government for the benefit of the Roman Catholic Church. While acknowledging that Mussolini was a dictator trampling on human rights, Harvey praised Mussolini for bringing order out of chaos, improving the economy, and staving off the Communists, who had put to death the patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church. Harvey believed that Italy in the mid-1920s was not ready for American-style government, writing "the suppressed newspapers of Italy were not so much newspapers as party organs that brought parliamentary government to a standstill and the Italian nation to a dilemma --- one horn being anarchy and the other Moscow." He further buttressed his stance by noting that Italy was a sovereign nation free to reject American cultural values. Harvey's non-Jeffersonian views were reminiscent of his cousin John Wickham, the Virginia constitutional lawyer, with Harvey even claiming that the "mystic doctrine of the equality of human souls" was not sound political theory, instead advocating a "great man" view of history where the end justified the means, not foreseeing that Mussolini's end would come in World War II.
Harvey's strategy proved to be a winning one for the Roman Catholic Church, when in 1929 Pope Pius XI signed the Lateran Treaty with the Italian government which established an independent Vatican City State, recognized Roman Catholicism as the official state religion of Italy, restored Catholic religious teaching in all schools, and provided financial compensation to the Vatican for the loss of the Papal States. While the treaty has been honored by successive Italian governments, the Roman Catholic Church soon parted ways with Mussolini. A year after Harvey's death, Pope Pius XI issued the encyclical Non Abbiamo Bisogno, in which he criticized the idea of a totalitarian state and Mussolini's treatment of the Church, after Mussolini attempted to ban church youth groups in 1931.
Harvey is best known for his trilogy of books The Misbehaviorists (1928), The Impuritans (1929) and his crowning achievement, The Unrealists (1930). The three books used witty sarcastic prose to attack contradictions in subjective liberal philosophies while defending conservative viewpoints such as Scholasticism and Realism. The books were published by the well-known Catholic publishing house of Sheed & Ward of London, which was founded in 1926 by Australian-born lawyer Francis Joseph "Frank" Sheed and his wife Maisie Ward. Broadly speaking, Harvey's trilogy of books are part of the Christian apologetic tradition that include titles like G.K. Chesterton's classic Orthodoxy (1908), but Harvey's books are more specific in analyzing science issues of the period and are thus more dated. Although he wrote the trilogy during the decade of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, Harvey did not argue against evolution and in fact was an admirer of Augustinian friar and geneticist Gregor Mendel. A cousin, John Clements Wickham, had accompanied Charles Darwin during his expedition aboard the HMS Beagle. However, when associate H.L. Mencken portrayed Christians as simple-minded yokels during his coverage of the Scopes Trial, Harvey was inspired to make a rebuttal of sorts. According to the New York Times, Harvey's books are considered to be brilliant, though the paper also joked that Harvey was "a Pomeranian triumphantly yapping at a group of Great Danes."
In The Misbehaviorists, Harvey skewered Sigmund Freud, calling him a quack and his interpretation of dreams pseudo-science (see book). In Harvey's view, Freud and his kind were engaged in one of "the most preposterous attempts of hocus-pocus ever recorded in the history of the human race." In the less successful The Impuritans, Harvey stoutly defended conservative morality. Trendy writers of sexually graphic material such as D.H. Lawrence were depicted as purveyors of sophomoric smut that had been ignored by earlier writers because they had better taste. In Harvey's best and greatest work, The Unrealists, Albert Einstein was ridiculed as the new Ptolemy, the 2nd century astronomer whose mathematically complex but incorrect model of the universe fooled people for 1,500 years. While Einstein made lasting contributions to areas such as the photoelectric effect, his efforts to broadly redefine cosmology ended in frustration when he failed to develop a unified field theory before his death. Harvey also mocked Einstein's use of "thought experiments" saying that these mental exercises were the physicist's personal opinion and had no place in the scientific method. Despite Harvey's criticism, Einstein continued his irresponsible use of thought experiments, co-authoring with Princeton colleagues Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen in 1935 an infamous research paper called Can quantum-mechanical description of physical reality be considered complete? that attempted to use a thought experiment to disprove quantum mechanics. When French physicist Alain Aspect conducted the real experiment in 1982, Einstein's imagined results were completely disproved. The Unrealists also lampooned other celebrity intellectuals such as Alfred North Whitehead, Bertrand Russell, William James, and George Santayana, whose elaborate philosophies Harvey considered nonsense because they were divorced from reality.
Harvey's books were well received by the Roman Catholic Church. Cardinal O'Connell, the cardinal archbishop of Boston, wrote: "I can say unreservedly that Mr. Wickham deserves the greatest praise for unmasking the specious and wholly false arguments of modern philosophers and psychologists. Not for many a year have I read such a closely reasoned document, perfectly fair, admitting whatever good there is to be found, but going with the author's keen mind to the very point of falsity and folly, tearing the mask away from those who, under the guise of science, are endeavoring to wreck the last vestige of faith in the youth of the land. It is these sophists who have for so long laughed to scorn the calm and reasonable deductions of the greatest minds in Christendom."
Harvey died suddenly in Rome at the age of 58 on November 3, 1930 at the peak of his fame and influence. He was survived by his wife Phyllis, his daughter Mrs. Madfry Odhler of San Francisco and a sister, Mrs. Carl E. Martin of Greenwich, Connecticut. His colleague John C. Cahalan at The Commonweal lamented his abrupt demise, calling him "a Catholic actionist of the best sort" even though he "was not, unfortunately, of the Faith." He also noted that Harvey was a kindly and good natured gentleman who loved the arts and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, but "hated above all things the fraud and buncombe which has come to honeycomb the modern concepts of what is called science, and he had a bludgeon, in logic and common sense, with which to crack many august and well-domed heads. Only he found the heads empty when he had cracked them, and he was, for one, not at all surprised."