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Sheed, Wilfrid (John Joseph)

SHEED, Wilfrid (John Joseph)

Nationality: American. Born: London, England, 27 December 1930; emigrated to the United States in 1940. Education: Downside Academy, Bath; Lincoln College, Oxford, B.A. 1954, M.A. 1957. Family: Married Miriam Ungerer; three children. Career: Film critic, 1957-61, and associate editor, 1959-66, Jubilee magazine, New York; drama critic and book editor, Commonweal magazine, New York, 1964-67; film critic, Esquire magazine, New York, 1967-69; Visiting Lecturer in Creative Arts, Princeton University, New Jersey, 1970-71; columnist, New York Times Book Review, 1971-75. Judge, Book-of-the-Month Club, 1972-88. Agent: International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019. Address: Rysam and High Streets, Sag Harbor, New York 11963, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

A Middle Class Education. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1960; London, Cassell, 1961.

The Hack. New York, Macmillan, and London, Cassell, 1963.

Square's Progress. New York, Farrar Straus, and London, Cassell, 1965.

Office Politics. New York, Farrar Straus, 1966; London, Cassell, 1967.

Max Jamison. New York, Farrar Straus, 1970; as The Critic, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970.

People Will Always Be Kind. New York, Farrar Straus, 1973; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974.

Transatlantic Blues. New York, Dutton, 1978; London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1979.

The Boys of Winter. New York, Knopf, 1987.

Short Stories

The Blacking Factory, and Pennsylvania Gothic: A Short Novel and a Long Story. New York, Farrar Straus, 1968; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.

Other

Joseph. New York, Sheed and Ward, 1958.

The Morning After (essays). New York, Farrar Straus, 1971.

Three Mobs: Labor, Church and Mafia. New York, Sheed and Ward, 1974.

Muhammad Ali. New York, Crowell, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975.

The Good Word and Other Words (essays). New York, Dutton, 1978; London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1979.

Clare Boothe Luce. New York, Dutton, and London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982.

Frank and Maisie: A Memoir with Parents. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1985; London, Chatto and Windus, 1986.

The Kennedy Legacy: A Generation Later, photographs by Jacques Lowe. New York and London, Viking, 1988.

Essays in Disguise. New York, Knopf, 1990.

Baseball and Lesser Sports. New York, HarperCollins, 1991.

My Life as a Fan. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1993.

In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery. New York, Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Editor, Essays and Poems, by G.K. Chesterton. London, Penguin, 1958.

Editor, Sixteen Short Novels. New York, Dutton, 1985.

* * *

Wilfrid Sheed is an acute cultural historian, critic, and satirist who has mapped out a special province of Anglo-American life as his own. His novels are polished comedies of manners on highly serious topics: the degeneracy of the "communications industry" in all its forms, the anxiety of Roman Catholics in a secularized society, the profound alienation of individuals who find themselves trapped between two cultures.

Beginning with A Middle Class Education, Sheed deals with the failure of both schooling and learning, especially the vaunted British public school and university system, a major target of satire recurring in The Blacking Factory and Transatlantic Blues. In The Hack Sheed combines two favorite subjectsthe failure of the Roman Catholic church in the modern world and the variegated follies of modern communications media. The story tracks hapless Bert Flax, a freelance writer grinding out theological pulp for popular religious magazines. Office Politics focuses half of this theme on Gilbert Twining, a writer for a struggling popular magazine, in an extended study of self-deception in life and literature.

Behind the vaudevillian comic turns Sheed constructs are serious investigations of alienated, self-divided individuals in a world with little solace or aid. Fred and Alison Cope (who, of course, can't cope) in Square's Progress try to flee the confines of their middle-class educations and marriage for beat-bohemian-hippy freedoms, only to find the hip life as empty and sharp-cornered as suburbia. Max Jamison charts another hack writer's attempts to understand his own unravelling life. Max, a magazine critic, finds himself unable to reconcile his vocation with his desires, although writing criticism has been his life's goal: "The difference between a critic and a reviewer is, I forget I've always wanted to be a critic. Yes, really. Like wanting to be a dentist or an undertaker. Some kids are funny that way. No, ma'am, I have never wanted to write creatively. I was an unnatural little boy in many ways. The rumor that I used to torture flies probably contains some truth. I did write a poem once, in alexandrines, but I didn't much care for it. Yes, it's in my wallet now."

People Will Always Be Kind observes the anomalies and aberrations of American politics in the early 1970s through a journalistic point of view, a mock-biography of an Irish Catholic presidential candidate feeling profound conflicts between religious, moral, and political realities. The novel is divided between a view of Brian Casey's personal and political life and the ruminations of a political hack writer, Sam Perkins, so Sheed again analyzes the failure of journalism, of writing, to capture the subtleties of life.

In Transatlantic Blues Sheed pulls together many early satiric themes. In some ways, the novel inverts and expands the brilliant short novel The Blacking Factory, detailing the schizophrenic development of Pendrid "Monty" Chatworth, a TV talk-show host educated in Britain and working in the U.S. Chatworth, a Roman Catholic, dictates the novel in the form of a sprawling mock-confession, a litany of the sins and disasters of his life. The conflicts between a British identity (Pendrid) and an American one (Monty), between high British culture (Oxford) and U.S. popular culture (TV ratings), between Catholicism and secular fame, make the novel painful as well as comic. Pendrid is another version of the "hack writer," the "office politician," the Anglo-American accepted in neither world, the Catholic who finds no solace in the church and who is rejected by the secular-Protestant culture in which he is immersed.

In The Boys of Winter, Sheed constructs a clever intellectual comedy based on analogies between writing, publishing, sexual pursuit, and sandlot softball. Set in a Long Island writer's haven, it chronicles a "hot stove league" of hack writers and their editor, Jonathan Oglethorpe, who organizes and coaches them to compete against a visiting Hollywood film crew. The skein of satire involves parallels between macho gamesmanship and schlock-merchandizing, a theme which provokes Sheed to some of his most penetrating analysis of American literary culture.

Sheed's acute ear for both British and American speech (and thought), his ability to parody popular idioms in journalism, his serious questions about education, the content of popular culture, the role of the Roman Catholic church in a secularized society all make him one of the most penetrating satirists of our day. His specific view of the world in which rootlessness, divorce, and flamboyant failure are imposed against the old values of work, stability, marriage, and modest success gives his novels a sharp edge and clarity, the bite of classic satire.

William J. Schafer

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