Wilfrid Sheed: Anglo-American novelist, essayist and critic

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The Independent Online

Everything Wilfrid Sheed wrote, whether fiction or biography, memoir or criticism, came imbued with grace, wit, and a deeply ironic humour that reflected his Anglo-American background. His American openness meant that his interests covered a wide spectrum, and left him free to use, and play with, his English restraint, which was buttressed by some strong Catholic guilt. Once, interviewing himself for Esquire magazine, Sheed asked himself "are you English or American?" and replied "on the whole, yes."

Wilfrid John Joseph Sheed was born on 27 December 1930 in London, where his father, Frank, an Australian lawyer of Irish ancestry, had become a Roman Catholic revivalist and met Maisie Ward, from a leading Anglo-Catholic family. Together they started a Catholic publishing house, Sheed & Ward – whose authors included P G Wodehouse, Wilfrid's godfather – and whose headquarters was in New York.

As publishers and evangelists, the family fortunes were volatile, and from a young age Sheed adopted the view of a perpetual outsider. He was sent to school at Downside, Somerset, but in 1940, when he was 10, the family moved to America. He was captivated by American life, and baseball, but at 14 he contracted polio, and walked with a limp for the rest of his life. After spending years recovering, in the early 1950s Sheed returned to England to study at Lincoln College, Oxford, then moved to New York to work as an editor, book and film critic on the liberal Catholic magazine Jubilee, founded by Edward Rice.

Sheed's first novel, A Middle Class Education (1961), like most of his fiction, drew heavily on his own life, in this case his time at Oxford. Among his other self-reflecting novels were The Hack (1963), Office Politics (1966), about a magazine much like Jubilee, Max Jamison (1970), about a beleaguered critic, People Will Always Be Kind (1973), whose main character is a politician stricken by polio, and Transatlantic Blues (1978), whose TV-personality protagonist has Anglo-Catholic parents and is torn between dislike of both England and the US. His characters often face the same kind of Catholic moral dilemmas as Graham Greene's, but Sheed's approach to them, with Wodehousian humour leavening a Waugh-like wit, undercuts the existential agony.

In 1964 he moved to the prestigious Catholic weekly Commonweal, as theatre critic and book reviewer, and continued reviewing movies, for Esquire. His first collection of criticism, The Morning After, appeared in 1971, and for the next four years he wrote a column for The New York Times Book Review, collected in The Good Word and Other Words (1978). He also contributed frequently to The New York Review of Books. As evidenced in his third collection, Essays in Disguise (1990), Sheed's criticism may be his best writing. Allen Barra, another polymath, said, "no other critic approaches his ability to synthesize the vast literature on a subject or to illuminate a writer's oeuvre in a short starburst of words." Among Sheed's many quotable starbursts was his dismissal of Time magazine founder Henry Luce, from his excellent 1982 biography of Clare Booth Luce. "He played with facts like a cat with a ball of wool, doing everything but digest them."

An affectionate memoir of his parents, Frank and Maisie (1985), was followed by a novel, The Boys of Winter (1987), which takes its title from The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn's memoir of the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. Sheed's novel blends literary back-stabbing in the Hamptons with a writers' summer softball league. He followed that with two books about baseball, Baseball and Lesser Sports (1991) and the memoir My Life As a Fan (1993), which reflect the grace of America's national pastime in ways an outsider might be best equipped to see. His next memoir was the searingly honest In Love with Daylight: a Memoir of Recovery (1995), which dealt with his polio, his alcohol and prescription-drug addictions, and a battle with tongue cancer. "Affliction can land where it likes," he wrote, neatly injecting English stoicism into an American "survivor's" story.

Sheed had shared a Grammy award in 1987 for his contributions to the liner notes for The Voice, a collection of Frank Sinatra's Columbia records between 1942-53. Despite his ailments he worked continuously, in longhand, on his final book, The House That George Built, about Gershwin and the jazz-age composers of Tin Pan Alley, which was published to rave reviews in 2008.

Sheed died of complications from a bacterial infection, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, where he had recently moved. He is survived by his second wife, Miriam Ungerer Sheed, a son and two daughters from his first marriage to Maria Bullit Darlington, which ended in divorce, and two step-daughters. The family said Sheed's last wish was to have his gravestone engraved with the words: "He wrote some good sentences."

Michael Carlson

Wilfrid Sheed, novelist and essayist: born London 27 December 1930; married first 1957 Maria Bullit Darlington (divorced 1967; one son, two daughters), second 1972 Miriam Ungerer; died Great Barrington, Massachusetts 19 January 2011.