Friday, January 21, 2011

Wilfrid Sheed, 1930–2011

Wilfrid Sheed died Wednesday of a bacterial infection in Great Barrington, Mass. He was eighty years old.

In a nearly fifty-year career, Sheed wrote eight novels, including Max Jamison (1970), the best thing ever written about a critic, and a political novel called People Will Always Be Kind (1973), which (as I observed earlier on this blog) is about a “golden-tongued young liberal senator runs for president, although he is not sure what he will really do if he gets elected—or, for that matter, what he really believes.” After Transatlantic Blues (1978), a novel about a cultural personality whose life is divided between England and the United States (much like the novelist himself), Sheed abandoned the novel for nearly a decade, and only wrote one more.

His later books were memoirs, a kind that was only beginning to come into fashion. His lavishly illustrated book on Clare Boothe Luce (1982) was described by his publisher as “part memoir, part biography.” “I’m not dead sure what it is,” he admitted. Much the same could be said of Frank and Maisie, his three-years-later book about his parents, the independent Anglo-Catholic publishers Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward. Still not sure what exactly he was writing, Sheed gave it the subtitle A Memoir with Parents.

My Life as a Fan (1993) tells a story that only Sheed could tell. Brought to America at the age of nine, he adjusted to his new country—he became an American—by following major league baseball. It a measure of the difference between the sports and countries that one cannot imagine a similar book being written about cricket in Great Britain. Sheed’s very best book may have been his final memoir. In Love with Daylight (1995) tells the story of someone who survived paralytic polio at the age of fourteen only to be stricken late in life with metastatic cancer of the tongue. As he wryly puts it, the only diseases that he ever contracted were incurable.

Sheed may never have been cured, but he was not defeated by his diseases (nor by addiction to prescription drugs). He cited two principles that kept him afloat. The first, discovered when he was battling polio as a teenager, was that “God, or the Great Whoever, has been so lavish in His gifts that you can lose some absolutely priceless ones, the equivalent of whole kingdoms, and still be indecently rich.” This wisdom, confirmed by suffering, was his inheritance from his parents’ Roman Catholicism. Although he never succeeded in surrendering himself to the Church in the way that his parents did—his ambivalence is on rich and rewarding display in his second novel, The Hack—Sheed remained a Catholic for the rest of his life. He was more than a cradle Catholic and less than a renegade.

The second principle came out of his literary commitments:

Writing survives everything, even the most paralyzing depression. Recently I came across something I had to write in this condition and found it surprisingly ingenious, like a chicken dancing with its head cut off. Technique can apparently cover for anything short of rigor mortis.Only a certain kind of writer understands this, a writer for whom a high personal criterion of style is non-negotiable. If you never permit your style to flag, if you never lower your standards for the parts of speech, you might even endure the worst of patches.

There in a single nugget-like idea is the reason that Wilfrid Sheed deserves to be remembered. He was a writer who never let down his style.


Lee said...

I have never read any Steed but now have ordered several of his books of criticism to make a start. There is nothing new under the sun - except style.

RkC said...

Thank you for this. I read Sheed in the Times and The New Yorker, then went to his novels. I was young and didn't understand everything, but I enjoyed reading his writing. Renee

Dick Stanley said...

Yep, it's like the creative writing teacher I once asked if he thought I could be a writer. "Do you have any choice?" he replied.

Fran Manushkin said...

Sheed's last book was THE HOUSE THAT GEORGE BUILT (2007, Random House), about George Gershwin and other composers in the "American Songbook."

Anonymous said...

I came late to the news of Wilfrid Sheed's passing, and it saddens me greatly. In my 20s (40 years ago) I discovered Sheed's fiction; I think it was after reading a review of Max Jamison by Andrew Sarris. After reading Max I proceeded to seek out all Sheed's novels. It says something about how the world, or at least the book world, has changed that in about 1975 I could order a copy of the Hack (written, as I recall, late 50s) from the publisher, who still had copies in stock. Max, Office Politics, People Will Always Be Kind are must reads for their wit and observations of people who, though pretty petty-spirited, are oddly likable.