Thursday April 16th, 2009

Critical Revival

Essays in Disguise by Wilfrid Sheed
Knopf, 1990. Currently out of print.

Max Jamison by Wilfrid Sheed
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970. Currently out of print.

At 78, with his best work virtually unknown to readers of my generation, Wilfrid Sheed inarguably deserves a renaissance. I luckily discovered him last year when I came across an appreciative blog post by Allen Barra, who wrote, “No other critic approaches [Sheed’s] ability to synthesize the vast literature on a subject or to illuminate a writer’s oeuvre in a short starburst of words.” It’s those starbursts that led fellow critic Jonathan Yardley to call him “irresistibly quotable.” Barra’s tribute was almost entirely a list of “Sheedisms,” and I can’t blame him. It’s almost impossible to write about Sheed without simply offering a buffet of his epigrammatic genius:

[Edward] Albee can no longer wait to tell us what’s on his mind: his plays are coming perilously close to his interviews . . .

It seems [Robert Lowell] was strictly a line poet, string them as you will, so that his poems are like all-star teams that haven’t practiced together.

I have never seen (or joined in) such drinking as the Lit set could contrive in those days. So what would have seemed like a personal drinking problem elsewhere was lost in the crowd, and Berryman drifted into alcoholism without noticing. He and Schwartz had once talked with contempt of writers who drown their talent in booze, but both would now proceed to do so themselves, having badly misjudged the undertow.

Even when his approach is more slapstick, looking for just a quick laugh, he succeeds wildly:

For some thousand years, anyone who could rent a boat could occupy Sicily . . .

As with God in the late Middle Ages, all that there is to know about the Mafia seems to be known by now except whether it actually exists.

As in the paragraph about the “Lit set” above, the work collected in Essays in Disguise is redolent of its era without ever sacrificing insight for name-dropping. In a brilliant, eulogistic piece about Jean Stafford, he recalls the often troubled writer turning to him at five o’clock some morning, after a night of revelry around town, saying, “Let’s merely see each other every day for the rest of our lives.” The moment is more illustrative of Stafford than it is of Sheed’s membership in her crew.

The remembrance of Stafford is emblematic of the book’s wide-ranging concerns: friendship, poets, humorists, Hemingway, sin, the Catholic church, IQ measurement, fathers and cheapskates. (A leftover from the buffet: “People’s attitudes about money come in so many shapes that no amount of toilet training can explain it.”)

It’s getting ahead of things to say that Sheed has faded away, so I offer my apologies to him. (He published a book just two years ago, in fact: The House That George Built, about the Great American Songbook.) But by my count, he has published 16 books, of which only three remain in print — his most recent as well as two memoirs, one about his life as a baseball fan (a fandom I also count to his credit) and the other about his parents, who were prominent Catholic publishers in the UK, where Sheed was born. Most of his later work is autobiographical, including an account of his struggles with, in order, polio, depression and cancer. His collections of criticism, including Essays in Disguise, are out of print, as are all of his novels.

Sheed is the exceedingly rare critic who doubled as a first-rate writer of fiction. Three of his six novels were nominated for the National Book Award. My favorite of these is Max Jamison, a comic take on marriage, New York and ambition told from the perspective of a cantankerous theater critic in the 1960s.

Jamison is a grouchier and less ruminative character than Richard Ford’s Frank Bascombe, but he’s just as potent an example of male bewilderment. And among his resemblances to Sheed (who also reviewed theater) is his penchant for pith:

It was too early to get jealous, but not too early to gather material for jealousy.

Married people shouldn’t be allowed to drink together, not after the first two years.

For instance, if he cared for her, why had he slept so wolfishly with that campus queen? Critic, review thyself.

Like me, Sheed is part Irish on his father’s side, and his combination of thick outer crust and inner sensitivity is a familiar one. Sharp jabs alternate with admissions of delicacy, such as his distaste for violence in the movies (“I don’t like to watch people suffer if I can’t help them. I am told that the violence in The Godfather is quite elegant and suitably unreal. To hell with it.”)

The crust could partly explain why Sheed has drifted off the radar. Like a gifted athlete who doesn’t handle the media well (say, Steve Carlton, whose prime on the pitcher’s mound roughly corresponded with Sheed’s in the periodicals), his orneriness may not have left many people in the mood to burnish and keep his legend.

In 1974, Michael Novak wrote a letter to the New York Review of Books, addressing a review Sheed had written of several books, including one by Novak. The letter begins, “Now that he is in his decline, I wish Wilfrid Sheed would stop berating the rest of us for his own failures in autobiography . . .” It doesn’t get much friendlier from there. (“[Sheed’s] guesses about my own life are gratuitous as well as wrong.”) Addressing the area of the country where he was raised, and which he felt Sheed had misrepresented, Novak wrote, “The region is the Slavic quarterback capital of the world; Lujack, Unitas, Namath, and Blanda all grew up there.” The letter, in which Novak is clearly spoiling for a fight, ran to 452 words.

Sheed’s reply, in its entirety:

Joe Namath is a Hungarian.

Inveterate wise-asses like Sheed make great entertainment of their disgruntlement, but they don’t necessarily leave an abundance of good will in their wake. Whatever the reasons for the diminishment of his profile, they’re not good enough. Norman Mailer was a merry pugilist, after all, and it only amplified his eminence. Perhaps Sheed should have thrown more actual punches.

John Williams is the editor of The Second Pass.

Books mentioned in this review:

Essays In Disguise
Max Jamison