Wilfrid Sheed, 1930-2011

Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 19 2011 9:34 PM

Wilfrid Sheed, 1930-2011

A reminiscence by Slate senior writer Timothy Noah :

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Wilfrid Sheed, who died on Jan. 19, possessed the most captivating writing style of any journalist writing in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and that includes Mailer, Wolfe, Talese, and various other dandies of the New Journalism . Sheed's principal journalistic form was criticism, which makes him sound tweedy—he was, in fact, at least half-English, having been shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic throughout his World War II-era childhood—but Sheed's expertise extended beyond literature to politics, baseball, the Catholic Church (his godfather was G.K. Chesterton), and assorted other realms. Sheed also wrote wonderfully sour comic fiction, and at least two of his novels ( Max Jamison and People Will Always Be Kind ) will stand the test of time.

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I met Sheed in 1999, when something I wrote in Slate struck him as so thoroughly idiotic that he e-mailed a splenetic letter to the editor. (We published Sheed's letter, but I can't find it now; it must have slipped into the ether four or five redesigns back.) A lively correspondence ensued, and eventually I persuaded the great man to write a few pieces for Slate —a Key West Diary , a review of James Thurber's letters , and an appreciation of Bob Hope , who, Sheed explained to the younger generation, had actually— many decades earlier—been funny. (When I say I "met" Sheed I mean we corresponded by e-mail for awhile, via his wife and amanuensis Miriam Ungerer*—Sheed wrote only in longhand—and talked a few times on the phone; the one time I suggested a face-to-face meeting he begged off, citing his physical deterioration, which by then was considerable.)

Sheed's best stuff is hidden in out-of-print books and dusty magazines and microfiche from the pre-Internet era. I recommend in particular The Morning After, an anthology from the 1960s that contains a side-splittingly funny pan of Norman Podhoretz's Making It , a youthful memoir whose resemblance to a strip-tease Sheed elaborates at impressive length. Another great collection, The Good Word, contains a more or less perfect essay evaluating the Watergate scandal as a work of literature. Sheed marvels at (among other things) the Chaucerian comedy of a Senate investigative committee whose members' determination to remain ignorant of President Richard Nixon's guilt proved no match for pro-Nixon witnesses perversely bent on documenting it.

The best of Sheed's criticism that's available online can be found at the Web site for the New York Review of Books . "As with God in the late Middle Ages," Sheed began one roundup of Mafia books ,

all that there is to know about the Mafia seems to be known by now except whether it actually exists. Among recent exegetes, Professor Joseph Albini finds the evidence so conflicting that no single Mafia can be deduced. Like a street-corner rationalist looking for contradictions in the Bible, Albini believes that when two accounts differ they must both be wrong, and that separate names (Cosa Nostra, the Outfit, etc.) must necessarily stand for different things.

Nicholas Gage finds the fragmented testimony of such canaries as Valachi and Nicola Gentile sufficient to prove the opposite—with a secret society bound to silence, it's about all the evidence you're going to get. Gay Talese, who writes like a man on a tapped phone with a gun in his ear, suggests that there may indeed be such a thing but that the American branch consists by now of tired businessmen on the way down. Mario Puzo, as a novelist, has no professional opinion to offer, but knows a good myth when he sees one.

Sheed's review of a posthumous James Agee collection offers a succinct description of that author's literary cult:

James Agee was so much the American idea of a writer—wild, lunging, unfulfilled; boozy, self-destructive, sufficiently Southern; a refined model from the Thomas Wolfe prototype—that we still keep sniffing around his literary remains for the one work that would clinch it, the missing sonnet.

And Sheed's review of Ian Hamilton's biography of J.D. Salinger, which was wrecked by Salinger's refusal to cooperate, is the final word on literary failure:

Sad things can happen when an author chooses the wrong subject: first the author suffers, then the reader, and finally the publisher, all together in a tiny whirlpool of pain. Ian Hamilton's book, In Search of J.D. Salinger , seems to have set in dolorous motion all of the above. The author's misunderstandings begin on page one, and his groans only a page or so later. And at the end Mr. Hamilton is still wearing his bitterness rather awkwardly on his sleeve, his publisher has become, as Hamilton puts it, "preoccupied," and the reader doesn't know which way to look.

Will journalism ever again be this much fun to read? I have my doubts.

* Correction, Jan. 20, 2011 : Originally this item inadvertently dropped the last four letters of Ungerer's name.

Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor, and is also the vice president for content at Figment.