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Sheed, Wilfrid 1930- (Wilfrid John Joseph Sheed)

Sheed, Wilfrid 1930- (Wilfrid John Joseph Sheed)

PERSONAL:

Born December 27, 1930, in London, England; son of Francis Joseph (an author and publisher) and Maisie (an author and publisher) Sheed; married Miriam Ungerer; children: Elizabeth Carol, Francis, Marion. Education: Lincoln College, Oxford, B.A. 1954, M.A., 1957. Religion: Roman Catholic. Hobbies and other interests: Baseball, softball, boxing.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Sag Harbor, NY. Agent—Lantz-Donadio, 111 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

CAREER:

Writer and critic. Jubilee, New York, NY, movie reviewer, 1959-61, associate editor, 1959-66; Commonweal, New York, drama critic and book editor, 1964-71; Esquire, New York, movie critic, 1967-69; New York Times, New York, columnist, 1971—. Visiting lecturer in creative arts, Princeton University, 1970-71; Book-of-the-Month Club judge, 1972—; reviewer for numerous publications.

MEMBER:

PEN, Authors Guild.

AWARDS, HONORS:

National Book Award nomination, 1966, for Office Politics, and 1971, for Max Jamison; best fiction book of 1970 citation from Time magazine, 1971, for Max Jamison; Guggenheim fellowship and National Institute and American Academy award in literature, both 1971.

WRITINGS:

NOVELS

Joseph (juvenile), Sheed & Ward (New York, NY), 1958.

A Middle Class Education, Houghton Mifflin (Boston, MA), 1960.

The Hack, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1963.

Square's Progress, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1965.

Office Politics, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1966.

The Blacking Factory & Pennsylvania Gothic: A Short Novel and a Long Story, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1968.

Max Jamison, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1970, published as The Critic, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (London, England), 1970.

People Will Always Be Kind, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1973.

Transatlantic Blues, Dutton (New York, NY), 1978.

The Boys of Winter, Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.

NONFICTION

(Editor) G.K. Chesterton, Essays and Poems, Penguin (New York, NY), 1958.

The Morning After: Selected Essays and Reviews, Farrar, Straus (New York, NY), 1971.

Three Mobs: Labor, Church, and Mafia, Sheed & Ward (New York, NY), 1974.

Vanishing Species of America, 1974.

Muhammad Ali: A Portrait in Words and Photographs, New American Library (New York, NY), 1975.

(Author of introduction) James Thurber, Men, Women and Dogs, Dodd (New York, NY), 1975.

The Good Word & Other Words, Dutton (New York, NY), 1978.

Clare Boothe Luce, Thorndike Press (Thorndike, ME), 1982.

Frank & Maisie: A Memoir with Parents, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1985.

(Editor) Sixteen Short Novels, Dutton (New York, NY), 1986.

(Author of text) The Kennedy Legacy: A Generation Later, Viking (New York, NY), 1988.

Essays in Disguise, Random House (New York, NY), 1990.

(With John Weiss) The Face of Baseball, Thomasson-Grant (Charlottesville, VA), 1990.

Baseball and Lesser Sports, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1991.

My Life as a Fan: A Memoir, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.

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

The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of about Fifty, Random House (New York, NY), 2007.

Contributor to numerous periodicals, including New York Times Book Review, Esquire, Sports Illustrated, and Commonweal.

SIDELIGHTS:

Novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed has been a prominent man of letters in the United States for over four decades. Time correspondent John Skow called Sheed "almost certainly the best American reviewer of books," an elegant writer who is also "a novelist of wit and intelligence." Sheed, who was raised both in England and the United States, is often cited as an essayist who is penetrating but not pompous. The author may be slightly better known for his reviews, but he has also penned almost a dozen works of fiction, many of which draw upon his personal experiences from childhood to maturity. All of Sheed's works share two essential components, according to his critics: they display finely wrought prose and subtle, ironic humor.

Sheed may have seemed destined for a literary life from his birth. Four years before he was born, his parents, Frank and Maisie Sheed, established the prestigious publishing firm of Sheed & Ward, "one of the most respected religious publishers in the world," according to Walter W. Ross III in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. Thus Sheed and his sister grew up surrounded by the important Catholic writers and thinkers of their day; both children were encouraged to excel in their studies and to enjoy vigorous exercise. When Sheed was nine World War II erupted, and the family moved to the United States, settling in Torresdale, Pennsylvania. Sheed spent his early teen years there, fascinated by American sports, especially baseball. His own budding athletic talent was squelched abruptly at fourteen when he contracted polio, an event that shadowed the rest of his youth. Having recovered after a long convalescence, Sheed returned to England to attend preparatory school and Oxford University. Where he had been considered British in Pennsylvania, he was now looked on as an American in his native land. This too contributed to his conception of himself, both in his actions and in his philosophy.

Much of Sheed's fiction contains autobiographical elements, and many of Sheed's early novels deal with themes that mirror his youth, although the author admits that he alters incidents immensely. A Middle Class Education, his first novel, is a satire on school life in England and the United States. The book The Blacking Factory & Pennsylvania Gothic: A Short Novel and a Long Story explores childhood isolation in rural Pennsylvania, and People Will Always Be Kind concerns a teenager stricken with polio. One theme remains more or less constant throughout all of Sheed's fiction: his protagonists, regardless of age, are prone to self-analysis of the most intense sort.

Several of Sheed's best-known novels, including The Blacking Factory & Pennsylvania Gothic, Office Politics, The Hack, Max Jamison, and The Boys of Winter, deal with the wry and sometimes sordid worlds of journalism and publishing. For instance, Office Politics, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1966, analyzes a vicious power struggle that ensues among members of a magazine staff after the editor-in-chief becomes ill. In an essay for Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Richard Lehan wrote that Of-fice Politics "uses the drab world of New York City to intensify the drab, sordid, meaningless routine that turns young men into cynics and romantic expectation into despair." New York Times commentator Charles Poore suggested that Sheed "has a splendid gift for dramatizing the search-and-destroy diabolism of outrageous fortune. His characters are multidimensional without hazing off into the pretentiously symbolic."

Max Jamison, published in 1970, is one of Sheed's most successful novels. In another case of thinly veiled autobiography, the book spotlights a Broadway theater critic whose life is consumed by his work. Saturday Review correspondent Robert Cromie called it "a darkly engaging book, which may be read purely as entertainment, or, as I am sure Sheed intended it should, as a sympathetic, occasionally ribald, always engrossing portrait of a tragi-comic man, mired in a profession he no longer respects or truly enjoys, a man doomed to boredom and despair, with only an occasional slight flash of pleasure in prospect to keep him alive until the fall of the final curtain." Max Jamison also received a nomination for the National Book Award and has been generally well-received by critics. Commonweal essayist David Lodge found in the work "impressive evidence of the mature poise and skill Wilfrid Sheed has achieved as a novelist," and a National Observer contributor called the book "one of the most unhappily accurate accounts of a critic's day-to-day life ever committed to paper."

Transatlantic Blues, Sheed's 1978 novel, concerns the travails of a continent-hopping television personality with roots in England and the United States. New York Times Book Review correspondent Julian Moynahan found the work "fictional autobiography structured as a general confession in the old Catholic sense of the term…. It turns out to be a tale of growing up between two countries and is one we have been waiting for from Wilfrid Sheed…. That isn't, of course, to pretend that the book is Sheed's own confession." According to Walter Clemons in Newsweek, Transatlantic Blues "is a rich mess of a novel, the funniest and freest Sheed has written. The miserable [protagonist] Chatworth is endowed with a ripped-open version of a transatlantic style Sheed has made his own, in which Oxonian clarity joins with American lowdown colloquial…. Chatworth's confessional prose is rawer and speedier, edgier and more combative than anything we have heard from Sheed before. At full throttle it is exciting and explosively funny." Many observers have found Sheed's use of first-person narration in the book more conducive to his humor and prose style. Critic essayist Laurence P. Smith called the book "clearly Sheed's finest novel to date…. His voice seems less coldly detached, revealing an emotional concern for his characters that his sardonic, cutting style has often obscured. Transatlantic Blues is a novel filled with so much humor that the temptation is to speak of nothing else. It is rich in the irony, parody, satire and witty verbal gymnastics that have earned Sheed his reputation as a leading novelist of manners. Yet his vision is the entire sad human predicament…. It is humor with a serious purpose." Smith elaborated: "Between the laughs are the leads, the themes and insights which help to explain the chaos within every man. Tear-washed eyes, from laughter or grief, may offer the clearest view of the truth, or at least of one's own soul."

Nine years separate the publication dates of Transatlantic Blues and The Boys of Winter, a tragi-comic novel about struggling authors and their editors set in the rural reaches of Long Island. As Herbert Gold noted in the New York Times Book Review, the subject of the tale "is not so much the life of literature as careerism—also sex and softball—in an exurban Long Island colony." Sheed makes forays into the jealousies between competing fiction writers, the vagaries of the book business, and the macho antics of grown men let loose on a softball diamond. Gold wrote that The Boys of Winter "brings Grub Street to contemporary times and the exurbs—and it's funny. Finally it does the satirist's good work of demolition, but it also, alas, tells much of the truth about literary politicking…. The gloomy conditions of publishing are not rubbed in our faces, and the implications are among the subtexts adroitly not emphasized. There is a nostalgia for times when the Word really did seem haunted and holy." Los Angeles Times Book Review contributor Art Seidenbaum concluded: "Anyone unfortunate enough to earn or learn a living in the book business will relish the back-biting behind the backslapping in this artful novel about the wiles of writers, editors, publishers and hangers-on. Every character, as a matter of fiction, is a hanger-on here, trying to survive over somebody else's live body."

Sheed began his career as a critic writing reviews for popular periodicals, and he prefers a more colloquial and less academic style for his criticism—and a popular rather than academic forum. Sheed's essays and reviews have appeared in such disparate places as Sports Illustrated, Life, Esquire, and the New York Times Book Review. The best of them are collected in two works, The Morning After: Selected Essays and Reviews and The Good Word & Other Words. Sheed's fiction is widely respected, but his criticism has made his national name. Time commentator John Skow claimed that Sheed is not a critic but a reviewer, "and in his weight class, one of the best in America. He has the good taste to know that glibness is slightly shabby…. Sheed's opinions seem right most of the time, but not so invariably right as to be insufferable. Too much rightness shuts off debate and stifles the thought process. Sheed provides a good mixture of wisdom and nonsense."

Drawing on the love of baseball that found its way into such fictional works as The Boys of Winter, Sheed has also written several nonfiction works on that subject. Baseball and Lesser Sports, a collection of essays on the game, is dedicated to Roger Angell, who writes on baseball for the New Yorker. Covering a wide variety of baseball personalities—not only players but notable fans such as David Halberstam as well—Sheed "has added a new perspective" as a foreign-born fan, according to New York Times Book Review critic Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria. Sheed "contributes a distancing element that lets him see himself and the game in a context broader than that of an ordinary American childhood, and from a viewpoint that is something like a split vision," noted Echevarria. For Sheed, memories of baseball combine with those of his personal battle with debilitating polio, a battle that he ultimately won but that ended his dreams of participating in his favorite sport as anything but a fan. In 1993's My Life as a Fan: A Memoir, Sheed provides readers with both his manner of reconciling his nonparticipant status within the game and an unsentimental but entrancing account of the history of America's favorite pastime. Beginning his history in 1941, the year Sheed and his family immigrated to the United States to escape the German Blitzkreig, his travels through baseball's colorful past include such moments as the 1947 World Series, the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles in 1957, and his continuing concern over both the New York Mets and the future of the game.

Sheed also has full-length biographies on his list of publications. Both Clare Boothe Luce and Frank & Maisie: A Memoir with Parents are intimate accounts of their subjects, less scholarly, and more personal. In a Chicago Tribune Book World review of Clare Boothe Luce, Ronald Steel found the work "a brilliantly written pastiche," adding: "Sheed is a masterly prose stylist, as addictive as chocolates, and as biting at one-liners as the lady herself…. And in doing so he shows one way that an intelligent and ambitious woman made it in America in the days before affirmative action." Likewise, New York Times contributor John Gross noted that in Frank & Maisie, Sheed "has not attempted to provide a full-scale portrait of his parents. Instead, he has written an account of what it was like to grow up as one of their two children…. But the book is Frank and Maisie's, beyond a doubt, and a very eloquent memorial to them it is—both entertaining and deeply felt, full of wry insights into the contradictions of human nature, a demonstration (if one is needed) that love and what in the end can only be called filial piety are no barrier to the incisiveness that readers of Mr. Sheed's novels and journalism have come to expect of him."

Sheed wrote 1995's In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery with a different subtitle in mind; he expected that it would be published after his death. The work is a full and open expression of his encounter with three separate and potentially fatal illnesses. Polio struck in 1945; depression and its attendant drug and alcohol addiction would follow in the mid-1980s, when the novelist was in his fifties. A tortuous year-long stay in a sanatorium, during which time Sheed was put on a variety of antidepressants, did little to help the recovery. The diagnosis of cancer in 1991 forced him to come to terms with his own self-destructive impulses; the battle for his body joined that for his mind. "Sheed proves that the greatest enemy of life is capitulation," noted Thomas Curwen in People, "yet he also knows that loving it too much has a price as well." Robert Stone commented in the New York Review of Books that Sheed's loosely interpreted Catholicism and the early bout with polio helped to inform the attitude that enabled him to overcome his tragic later circumstances. "In Love with Daylight's account and its style, aphoristic, forthright, humorous, and irascible," Stone wrote, "will provide the stuff of a few useful arguments for anyone who has experienced addiction-depression at close quarters, from the inside or the outside." New York Times Book Review contributor Sherwin B. Nuland wrote that "like all the finest narrators of illness, Mr. Sheed teaches as he tells…. When serious depressions lift, those who experienced them can no longer call up or even imagine their painful despair, but Mr. Sheed's account is as close to the reality of those forlorn days as one can reasonably be expected to come."

In 2007's The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of about Fifty, Sheed takes a look at the history of American songwriting through the first half of the twentieth century, including biographies of those people who made a significant contribution in shaping American music during that time period. This includes such well-known songwriters as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Hoagy Carmichael, and Richard Rodgers. "Sheed's story takes off, embarking with the Jewish side of that music, diving first into the bowels of lower Eastside New York City after the turn of the 20th century. Soon, he moves it briskly around the States to develop jazz currents, first up in Black Harlem, and down in Dixie, thence to mid-America's Chicago and Detroit. Finally, of course, he reaches … Hollywood," wrote Julia Braun Kessler in her review of the book for the California Literary Review. New York Times contributor Stephen Holden observed that Sheed "appears to have assimilated every biography and critical study from the period and talked with almost every pre-rock songwriter who was still alive when he was preparing the book. He assumes a widespread familiarity with the subject that younger readers may not possess. The book provides a view of its distinguished crew as driven, competitive artists in a close-knit community, many of whose members struggled with depression and alcoholism." "The chapters about Ellington, Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter and (surprisingly) Van Heusen and the evolution of Frank Sinatra contain passages that read like slangy cultural scripture," further noted Holden.

Many critics praised Sheed's exploration of the personal and professional lives of many of these songwriters, such as his look into Gershwin's early triumphs and later his morbid despair after his first gala production of Porgy and Bess failed on Broadway, or when he relates the tale of Cole Porter's perseverance in the face of persistent pain following a horseback riding accident, to continue producing uplifting tunes. However, a Kirkus Reviews contributor cautioned that "although Sheed's passion for his subject is evident, errors in fact and chronology mar his work." Elysa Gardner in her review of the book for USA Today praised the book, saying that Sheed's enthusiasm for his subject is "as contagious as the songs he writes about so lovingly." "The Golden Age of American Song has been saluted and highfaluted in books and wept over repeatedly, but The House That George Built is a big rich stew of an homage that makes you want to listen to Gershwin and Berlin and Porter and Arlen all over again," lauded New York Times Book Review critic Garrison Keillor.

Transatlantic novelist, respected critic, memoirist, and gentle biographer, Sheed continues to enjoy a lengthy stay in the literary sphere. Sheed is quoted on his occupation in the Dictionary of Literary Biography: "Circumstances have obliged me to do a good deal of reviewing (the last refuge of the light essayist): books, plays, etc.," he noted. "I find this work painful, but it serves a couple of selfish purposes. It enables me to work out various aesthetic ideas, while unloading my little burden of didacticism in a safe place; and it gives me a certain thin-lipped benignity towards my own critics, when they turn the cannon round and aim it in my direction."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

BOOKS

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Gale (Detroit, MI), Volume 2, 1973, Volume 4, 1975, Volume 10, 1979.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 6: American Novelists since World War II, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.

Sheed, Wilfrid, Frank & Maisie: A Memoir with Parents, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1985.

Sheed, Wilfrid, My Life as a Fan: A Memoir, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.

Sheed, Wilfred, In Love with Daylight: A Memoir of Recovery, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1995.

PERIODICALS

California Literary Review, September 4, 2007, Julia Braun Kessler, review of The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of about Fifty.

Chicago Tribune Book World, February 7, 1982, Ronald Steel, review of Clare Boothe Luce.

Commonweal, May 8, 1970, David Lodge, review of Max Jamison; October 12, 1990, Paul Baumann, review of Essays in Disguise, p. 582.

Critic, summer, 1978, Laurence P. Smith, review of Transatlantic Blues.

Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2007, review of The House That George Built.

Library Journal, March 1, 1990, Vincent D. Balitas, review of Essays in Disguise, p. 94; May 15, 2007, Bruce R. Schueneman, review of The House That George Built, p. 93.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 19, 1987, Art Seidenbaum, review of The Boys of Winter.

National Observer, May 11, 1970, review of Max Jamison.

Newsweek, January 16, 1978, Walter Clemons, review of Transatlantic Blues.

New York, February 26, 1990, review of Essays in Disguise, p. 38.

New York Review of Books, April 6, 1995, Robert Stone, In Love with Daylight, pp. 4-5; August 16, 2007, "Wake up and Dream," p. 14.

New York Times, September 19, 1968, Charles Poore, review of Office Politics; October 15, 1985, John Gross, review of Frank & Maisie; July 28, 2007, Stephen Holden, "The Glory of Their Songbook," p. 7.

New York Times Book Review, December 21, 1978, Julian Moynahan, review of Transatlantic Blues; November 10, 1985, Robert Towers, review of Frank & Maisie, p. 12; August 2, 1987, Herbert Gold, review of The Boys of Winter; March 18, 1990, William Tenn, review of Essays in Disguise, p. 17; June 2, 1991, Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria, review of Baseball and Lesser Sports; March 5, 1995, Sherwin B. Nuland, review of In Love with Daylight; July 22, 2007, Garrison Keillor, "Here to Stay."

People, September 5, 1988, Ralph Novak, review of The Kennedy Legacy: A Generation Later, p. 34; May 8, 1995, Thomas Curwen, review of In Love with Daylight, p. 43.

Publishers Weekly, May 4, 1990, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of The Face of Baseball, p. 62; May 14, 2007, review of The House That George Built, p. 46.

Saturday Review, June 6, 1970, Robert Cromie, review of Max Jamison.

Sewanee Review, spring, 1990, George Core, review of Essays in Disguise.

Time, December 25, 1978, John Skow, The Good Word & Other Words; February 22, 1982, review of Clare Boothe Luce, p. 74; November 18, 1985, review of Frank & Maisie, p. 101; August 3, 1987, review of The Boys of Winter, p. 64.

USA Today, July 17, 2007, Elysa Gardner, review of The House That George Built, p. 4.

Washington Post Book World, July 1, 2007, Jonathan Yardley, review of The House That George Built, p. 15.

Weekend Edition Saturday, July 14, 2007, "A Sentimental Journey into the Golden Age of Song."

Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, summer, 1967, Richard Lehan, review of Office Politics.

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