The novelist and critic Wilfrid Sheed, who died last month at eighty, served as drama critic and literary editor of Commonweal from 1964 to ’69, and continued to contribute occasionally to the magazine after that. His criticism and essays are collected in a series of books, including The Morning After and Essays in Disguise. Among his better-known novels are Max Jamison, People Will Always Be Kind, and Transatlantic Blues. He also wrote Frank and Maisie, A Memoir with Parents, a remembrance of his father and mother, who were the founders of the Sheed & Ward publishing house. Sheed’s mother was G. K. Chesterton’s biographer, and Chesterton was his godfather. A selection of Wilfrid Sheed’s writing for Commonweal is available at commonwealmagazine.org/sheed.
The day I first arrived at Commonweal’s offices in 1964, Richard Gilman, who had served as drama reviewer and book editor, was clearing out a book-strewn cubicle for his successor, Wilfrid Sheed. I was twenty-two and, to be honest, Wilfrid terrified me.
He was affable, unpretentious, and apparently content with the reality that, because both of us worked a part-time schedule, I often used the same cubicle. And he was generous. One summer my wife Peggy and I, with infant daughter in tow, were headed to London and then to Brittany to study French (you could really do that on $5 a day). America still being a soccer-free zone, we were naively unaware that every hotel room in London would be unavailable due to something called the World Cup. Hearing of this idiocy, Wilfrid swiftly arranged for us to get a key to a spare room with a bed in Sheed & Ward’s offices.
He terrified me nonetheless. He was so damn fast with a quip, a comic observation, a baseball allusion, the apt line from W. C. Fields or Groucho Marx. He had that gift for repartee that British schoolboys of a certain class get with their cricket bats. Nothing had prepared me for it, not my Midwestern education, not reading Frank Sheed on theology or Maisie Ward on Chesterton, not reading Commonweal from age thirteen, especially not reading Commonweal from age thirteen.
It did not particularly help to learn that this satiric mind was going to publish a novel called Office Politics about a small magazine. “Don’t worry, Peter,” Wilfrid assured me with a grin as we returned one day from lunch, “I’ve made your character fat.”
I am not sure whether Wilfrid was more irked or bored by the debate over whether he was a novelist who wrote essays and criticism or an essayist and critic who wrote novels. In his introduction to The Good Word & Other Words, he mocks it in typical style: “Wilfrid Sheed the critic and Wilfrid Sheed the novelist have been played off against each other for so long that I had myself come to believe they were two different people, whose ups and downs I followed with fitful interest. Until, that is, I began collecting the pieces for this book, which showed me how surprisingly much I had in common.”
Where he himself stood on the matter was once made clear to me when we were discussing how agonizing it was to write and how pleasant it was to have written. That only goes for nonfiction, he added. Writing fiction, he said, was “like daydreaming.”
Wilfrid’s own choice notwithstanding, I am firmly of the other camp. I enjoyed his novels, but opening even Office Politics now, I am amazed at what I have long forgotten. By contrast, many a review or essay have repeatedly come to mind over the years.
“He wrote some good sentences” was what Wilfrid wanted inscribed on his headstone. Right. The sentence was his dance floor and playing field, with feints and asides, smart comparisons folded in seamlessly, twists and sometimes mental associations stopping just short of stream of consciousness, or for contrast brief and brash assertions. He would keep up this pace through a paragraph, a review, an essay. He never stopped to catch his breath, or let readers catch theirs. This is why I think that his sprints stick in the mind better than his long-distance running.
My one great adventure with Wilfrid taught me how the critical essayist and novelist collaborated. In 1966 and ’67, the CIA’s secret funding of everything from the National Students Association to the distinguished monthly Encounter was exposed. In May ’67 Thomas Braden, a mastermind of this funding, wrote a defiant defense of it, even claiming that the CIA had placed an “agent” as an editor of Encounter. Encounter was an Anglo-American journal; Wilfrid was an Anglo-American writer. So who better, the editors of Esquire reasoned, to write an article that would narrate this embarrassing episode and pry out exactly who the “agent” was. Wilfrid invited me along as a co-author, to do “the legwork,” he said, with a nod to the polio of his youth and the braces that hampered his movement.
I did do legwork, running to libraries, in that pre-Google era, to pore over back issues of Encounter and check other facts. Holmes and Watson we were not, but Wilfrid covered the ragged spots in our investigative reporting with doilies of prose; and he fingered Melvin Lasky as our “agent.” Subsequent histories have confirmed Wilfrid’s conclusion, but Esquire begged off publishing the article on the grounds that it could get them sued under British libel laws.
We received a healthy kill fee, but I received better: not only a crash course in the ideological blindness of intellectuals who prided themselves on being anti-ideological but the fun of watching Sheed the novelist at work as Sheed the critic and essayist. As we interviewed the likes of Dwight Macdonald, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., William F. Buckley Jr., and others, and tried to catch up with Braden, Irving Kristol, and Lasky, I kept looking for the smoking gun in some inconsistent statement, while Wilfrid shrewdly looked for the smoking gun in their character. I was gathering evidence for thick-headed jurors; he was writing for fine-tuned readers.
I was not present for my favorite Wilfrid story. It occurred on the Grant Park side of Michigan Avenue during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, where Wilfrid had gone as a Eugene McCarthy supporter. My sister, a recent University of Chicago graduate, was working for one of the protesters’ first-aid crews. Amid tear gas, nightstick-wielding police, and troops with gas masks, she found herself standing next to Wilfrid. She recognized him, possibly from his book photos and perhaps from the distinctive posture of a man with leg braces and a cane.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. Wilfrid looked at my sister, almost eight months pregnant, and replied, “And what are you doing here?” I imagine that he let loose a chuckle at one more comic moment in an incongruous world.
Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and former chief religion correspondent for the New York Times, is co-director of Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture.
My wife Sidney and I first met Wilfrid Sheed—Bill to his friends—in 1960, at the Thomas More Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That store specialized in Catholic books and was a gathering point for that small coterie of young people who thought of themselves as Catholic intellectuals. Bill had just published his first novel, A Middle Class Education, and was obviously on the road to a striking career. But what most impressed us was that he was the son of Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, two transcendent figures in the Catholic intellectual world we were just entering, right up there with Jacques Maritain, Christopher Dawson, and Etienne Gilson. Even more alluring was Bill’s Oxford education. I was proud to be a graduate student at Harvard then, but Oxford was the real thing. His ironic, witty, and self-deprecating—but still confident—personal and writing style was just what we expected of Oxbridge graduates.
When I came to New York to be a Commonweal editor, and Bill later became our book-review editor, we became colleagues and friends. During those years, his parents’ publishing house, Sheed & Ward, brought out my first book, Christianity Divided, and published as well Sidney’s first book, The Illusion of Eve, with Bill as her editor. Peter Steinfels and John Leo were also new additions to the staff in the early 1960s. We were prototypical young turks, different not only in age but in cultural background from the editors already there: John Cogley, James Finn, Edward Skillin, and Jim O’Gara.
The great revelation of those years for me was the contrast, social and intellectual, between the New York world of editors and writers I came to know and the academic scene I had just left. New Yorkers seemed to me livelier, better read, and far more venturesome than those I knew at Harvard in the philosophy department. Two part-time teaching stints at Brown and the University of Pennsylvania during my Commonweal years (1961–68) were enough to persuade me that I did not want to spend my life in a university.
Bill Sheed personified the difference between those two worlds. He was a prolific writer, moving back and forth between fiction and nonfiction, taking on all kinds of issues, political and cultural, and always writing with a playful wit, sometimes light, sometimes harsh. All the while he had a lively social life, moving easily in a nonstop, convivial, and too often heavy-drinking milieu, going well outside of the more narrowly Catholic world of Commonweal. While I can’t recall exactly, I suspect he was one of those who chided me for trying to finish my doctoral dissertation. Wasn’t I already making a name for myself with books and articles? What did I need a PhD for? I was tempted to give up the effort, but Sidney—who had helped to keep me going for the long march toward the degree—threatened me with murder or worse if I stopped. She was right, and I could never have helped found the Hastings Center in 1969 without it.
Yet my fondest memory of Bill was a certain kind of sociological perspective we shared on the milieu of the Catholic intellectual (as exemplified in the older generation of Commonweal editors we worked with) and indeed on Catholics in general. They were, we decided, inveterately laid-back, not too ambitious or hard-working, and consummately “Christian Gentlemen,” as a reminiscent November 5, 2004, article by Bill in Commonweal was titled. Jim Finn, one of those editors, was described by Bill as full of cheerful serenity and “placid pugnacity,” ready to argue interminably yet always in a gentlemanly way. But our primary exemplar was Senator Eugene McCarthy, a longtime friend of the magazine and a perfect kind of “Commonweal Catholic.” He wanted to be president but remained gentle and reserved and, as many complained, was just too lazy and relaxed to be a serious candidate. For some reason I cannot now explain, we did not see John F. Kennedy, the poster-boy Catholic of that era, as the exemplar we might have focused on. Probably that omission was because few Catholics had fathers like Joseph Kennedy, because Kennedy’s Catholicism was of a more conventional kind, and because the naked political ambitions of that family, together with the wealth and the sexual license of some of them, were far removed from the world of Commonweal Catholics.
I was, I might add, the ringleader of an effort to persuade Jim O’Gara, the editor of the magazine, to raise its sights and become more ambitious. The O’Gara generation, it seemed to us, was all too comfortable standing at the top of the Catholic publishing pyramid. It was not daring or energetic enough to aspire to the national eminence of such journals as the Nation or the New Republic. Commentary, under the editorship of Norman Podhoretz, had managed in the 1960s to stay close to its Jewish roots but also to become influential on a larger stage. But then Podhoretz and his colleagues did not work hard to be gentlemanly, nor was the arena they entered the least bit laid-back. I did not get far with that effort to lead a rebellion, and maybe that is just as well.
Bill’s article “Christian Gentlemen” recounts that episode, presenting himself as a kind of bemused and curious bystander. “In contrast,” he wrote, “Callahan seemed to have no such cruising speed, but was more a man of extremes, of large enthusiasms and exasperations that might if acted upon, have given our whole enterprise a nervous breakdown.” That assessment may have been right but I should note that, in his multifaceted and exceedingly productive career, Bill kept one foot in the Catholic world and one foot out, making his name in both, which is more or less what I hoped Commonweal would try to do.
I eventually left Commonweal, deciding I wanted to be neither a magazine editor nor a college professor. I moved into the newly emerging field of bioethics, working in a research institution. I mention this for a particular reason. I did not see Bill much in recent years, but when I did I could only marvel at the medical miseries he lived through in his life, a perfect case study of all the blessings and curses of modern medicine. He was saved from death from polio at age fourteen, which left him with leg braces, only to be one of those survivors who became burdened as he grew old with late-onset effects of the disease. He also survived some drug and alcohol problems during his middle years, topped for sheer nastiness by tongue cancer. When I last saw him he was bent halfway over a walker, his face a twisted wreck. Even so, he was lively and engaged and seemed free of self-pity. He died in a nursing home. It was a sad finale for someone who had done so much, and with such verve. It was also full testimony to the capacity of some of our fellow creatures to endure the worst and yet live the best.
Daniel Callahan is president emeritus of the Hastings Center and a former executive editor of Commonweal.