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Craftsman Remembered

Wilfrid Sheed, 1930-2011.

Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By JOHN SIMON
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Wilfrid Sheed, who died on January 19, was a great critic, splendid essayist, and vastly entertaining novelist. Also a biographer (Clare Boothe Luce), autobiographer, popular music historian, and probably something else I am forgetting. “A utility man of letters,” he called himself—and I would emphasize the “man of letters” part, a precious rarity nowadays. And one more thing: a great guy.

Craftsman Remembered

Wilfrid Sheed, 1970

Leonard McCombe / Time-Life Pictures / Getty Images

Sheed was the child of Francis Joseph Sheed and Maisie Ward, influential Roman Catholic publishers who brought out books by G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Dorothy Day, and Robert Lowell. Literature and Catholicism are what he grew up with, and his faithfulness to the former makes up for his loss of faith in the latter. Wilfrid—he was indignant about the poet Owen’s “corrupt” spelling of his name as Wilfred—was also a great conversationalist with a wonderfully amused countenance impending elegant, charming, witty, and unfailingly perceptive talk. I remember chats with him that were equally stimulating in disagreement as in agreement, the sort of thing you can glean, for example, from his most famous novel, Max Jamison (1970).

This was thought by many to be a satire on a protagonist modeled on me, including a scene of violence that erupted at a critics’ meeting between me and Brendan Gill. Sheed always staunchly denied this provenance, insisting that Jamison was really he himself, inasmuch as he had been a distinguished book critic and (briefly, for Commonweal) a provocative film critic. There was the embarrassing moment when, at a literary gathering at a downtown New York restaurant, I stood next to the formidable Miriam Ungerer, the second Mrs. Sheed, perched on a barstool. The first Mrs. Sheed had been a sweet Catholic girl who couldn’t quite cope with all of Wilfrid’s needs, made considerable by some of the lasting aftereffects of childhood polio. Thus I remember him going about with the middle button of his jacket hanging like an amulet from a necklace.

I asked Miriam why Bill (as he was known among friends) had not come to the party.

“Of course he has,” she replied, pointing to the bald, taciturn man next to her, which is what the handsome Sheed had unrecognizably become. His speech was slurred because part of his cancerous tongue had been surgically removed. Ashamed of my gaffe, I extorted a promise from him of a reunion upon one of his rare visits from Sag Harbor to Manhattan. But I never heard from him. The master of scintillating conversation was evidently loath to inflict his impediment on a fellow critic.

Still he lived on, occasionally writing, until his death in the New England nursing home he had transferred to from his Sag Harbor one, to be near his wife living there with a daughter. Few, I imagine, had heard from him in the last years, while they were doubtless reading or rereading his novels, as well as the critical and essayistic writings collected in The Morning After, The Good Word & Other Words, and Essays in Disguise.

Take, for example, the concluding words of “Kael vs. Sarris vs. Simon,” an essay from his first collection about the so-called wars among film critics:

Some people affect to be bored by all this professional infighting: not I. Criticism is a contact sport; and besides, who will criticize the critics if they don’t jump each other?

When I wrote to him, foolishly protesting his mischievously cordial words, he answered me with, among others, these words: “I can’t help feeling you have lost perspective both on yourself & your profession—something I am used to in Pauline [Kael] and Andy [Sarris], but hadn’t expected in you.”

Sure enough, Sheed never lost his sense of perspective, finding, for instance, “deplorable .  .  . fine sentence-by-sentence writing at the expense of form.” Yet it seems to me he could never write a sentence that was not individually crafted as well as snugly fitted into a larger form. I tested this by randomly opening The Good Word and happening to alight on this sentence from an essay entitled “The Interview as Art”:

It is possible that the malice of writers has been overrated (by myself among others). Reading their ruminations on their craft, one sees why this writer could not possibly like that one, would indeed consider him a menace. Literature is a battleground of conflicting faiths, and nobler passions than envy are involved. Even those writers like Nabokov who are crabby by habit usually have a powerful aesthetic to back it up. (Nabokov’s self-statute is chiseled so fine you can run your finger along the smirk.)

Could there be a stronger, yet perfectly spontaneous-sounding, image than the one in that parenthetic remark? Do not consign Sheed to the shade of oblivion.

Read him for what delights as sheer, sunny entertainment, but is, in the disguise of artful essayism, a maximum of useful common sense.

John Simon, author and critic, lives in New York.

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