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James T. KeaneMarch 05, 2024
Wilfrid Sheed in 1987 (Library of Congress)

“Don’t look to this story for the steak and potatoes of Edwin O’Connor or the rich, earthy fare of Joseph Heller or Norman Mailer,” wrote Tom Greene in his 1966 review for America of Wilfrid Sheed’s novel Office Politics. “You might find the delicacy of J. F. Powers or Walker Percy, however, and that should have you coming back for more.”

Ninety percent of the writers on earth would die for such words in a review. Why, then, do they seem somehow inadequate when describing Wilfrid Sheed? Maybe because too many reviews of Sheed’s novels start with such qualifiers or otherwise hedge the bet. His books are a delight to read, but to paraphrase Rodney Dangerfield, he never got no respect. Or, to be more precise, the British-born Catholic seems in hindsight to have been slightly too much of an outsider, never one of literature’s cool kids.They knew who he was, of course—Martin Amis, probably in response to a tart review, once sneered that Sheed was a “capable middleweight”—but he never truly got the accolades he deserved.

Walker Percy on Wilfrid Sheed: "Let an author come on pretentious or meretricious, and God help him. The saber flashes now, slash, cut, zing and there goes the jugular."

It was partly his fault. Sheed was somewhat legendary as a reviewer for his ability to eviscerate a book or an author with a well-aimed line or two. Like the Irish, writers might forgive, but they never forget, and so Sheed’s reviews earned him more than a few enemies. Two of his more famous targets were the director Jean-Luc Godard, whom Sheed once described as “fifth-rate,” and Norman Mailer, whom Sheed compared to G. K. Chesterton, calling both “dazzling, slovenly mystics.” He wasn’t afraid to spar with Gore Vidal, himself no slouch at biting criticism. Even Sheed’s friend John Leonard once commented on Sheed’s style that “behind the warm irony is cold anger.”

“His criticism was so lively that it was a continuing argument among his readers as to whether he was a critic who wrote novels or a novelist who wrote criticism,” wrote Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in his 2011 obituary in The New York Times. One memorable exchange in 1974 with the author and pundit Michael Novak, who had complained bitterly for more than 500 words in a letter to the New York Review of Books about Sheed’s reviews and his perceived bias against Slavic people, concluded simply with “Wilfrid Sheed replies: ‘Joe Namath is a Hungarian.’”

In his 1973 review for America of Sheed’s novel People Will Always Be Kind, Walker Percy (that’s right, that Walker Percy) praised Sheed’s rapier wit:

Sheed does criticism so well, and maybe so easily, that he shrugs it off. It’s nothing, he says, but a couple of insights and a few simple waltz steps. Well, it’s more than that when Sheed does it. When he gets down to business, the knife flashes, sometimes the surgeon’s scalpel dissecting the tissue of the author’s good intentions and occasional successes. But let an author come on pretentious or meretricious, and God help him. The saber flashes now, slash, cut, zing and there goes the jugular.

In a 2011 tribute to Sheed in Commonweal, Matthew Boudway quoted from Sheed’s brilliant essay for the magazine in 1964, “A Guide to Hatchet Jobs.” There, Sheed explained the craft thusly, with his tongue presumably lodged somewhere near his cheek:

Since the last thing a hatchetman wants is sympathy, the thing to aim at is a hair-line cut, almost invisible until the victim moves and his head topples off. An angry letter from him is equivalent (change metaphors there) to the death lunge of the brave bull. Three or four lines in riposte will sever his aorta for good.

Sheed was the son of Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, the eminent founders of Sheed and Ward. (He was also the godson of the aforementioned Chesterton.) Born in London in 1930, he immigrated with his parents to the United States in 1940. He contracted polio at the age of 14, the symptoms of which would return later in life. He returned to England to attend Oxford University, an experience that provided him the subject matter for his first novel, 1960’s A Middle Class Education.

In a moving passage from In Love With Daylight, Sheed noted his struggle with polio was small potatoes compared to the other maladies life had in store—but also noted that every sickness “contains within it its own antidote.”

Upon returning to the United States, Sheed began writing for several lay-run Catholic magazines, including Jubilee and Commonweal; he was the book review editor of the latter from 1964 to 1971 (you know, the staid, quiet years of American Catholicism) and continued to write for the magazine for decades. He was also a columnist for The New York Times Book Review from 1971-75.

Sheed had three children from a first marriage to Maria Darlington, which ended in divorce in 1967; he later married Miriam Ungerer, and they lived for many years on Long Island, the setting of his last novel, The Boys of Winter. He died in Great Barrington, N. J., in 2011.

His second novel, The Hack, about a writer who ekes out a living contributing to small Catholic publications (ahem), was published in 1963. It was followed soon after by Square’s Progress in 1965, Office Politics in 1966 and Max Jamison in 1970. People Will Always Be Kind arrived in 1973, 1978 brought Transatlantic Blues, and in 1987, Sheed published The Boys of Winter. Both Office Politics and People Will Always Be Kind were nominated for the National Book Award. Astute readers of a certain age may even recognize Commonweal’s old offices—and some of its denizens—in the pages of Office Politics.

His nonfiction books included three books of literary criticism, a biography of Claire Boothe Luce and the best-selling The House That George Built, a personal history of American popular music, which was published only three years before Sheed died. He also wrote a memoir of his experiences with polio, alcoholism, drug addiction and cancer titled In Love With Daylight. Like most gentlemen of discerning tastes, he was also a rabid baseball fan (and admitted once that his bout with polio had stolen his true calling, to play in the major leagues) and often wrote about the sport.

In a moving passage from In Love With Daylight, which itself includes a sharp critique of addiction rehab centers and contemporary psychology, Sheed noted his struggle with polio was small potatoes compared to the other maladies life had in store—but also noted that every sickness “contains within it its own antidote.” The “God one turns to in sickness, and only in sickness, is, on reflection a sickly fellow himself, made of slender hopes and corrosive fears, and is easily blown away,” he wrote. However, “the God of Recovery fairly bursts with confidence...and the landscape seems to be littered with His gifts.”

In his obituary for Sheed in 2011, Matthew Boudway noted that Sheed wanted his headstone to read: “He wrote a few good sentences.” Truth be told, Boudway wrote, his life and work had been much more than that: “Bless him, he wrote no bad ones. Requiescat in pace.”

Like most gentlemen of discerning tastes, Sheed was a rabid baseball fan (and admitted once that his bout with polio had stolen his true calling, to play in the major leagues) and often wrote about the sport.

•••

Our poetry selection for this week is “Trees,” by Greg Kennedy. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, big news from the Catholic Book Club: We are reading Come Forth: The Promise of Jesus’s Greatest Miracle, by James Martin, S.J. Click here to watch a livestream with Father Martin about the book or here to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

​​Who’s in hell? Hans Urs von Balthasar had thoughts.

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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