Remembering Wilfrid Sheed, A Master Of Wit Wilfrid Sheed, the satirical British essayist known for bringing his trademark wit to a wide range of novels, reviews and nonfiction books, died this week. He was 80. Fresh Air remembers the writer with excerpts from a 1988 interview.
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Remembering Wilfrid Sheed, A Master Of Wit

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Remembering Wilfrid Sheed, A Master Of Wit

Remembering Wilfrid Sheed, A Master Of Wit

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In another loss to the literary world this week, writer and critic Wilfrid Sheed died Wednesday in Massachusetts at the age of 80. Sheed's gentle wit infused his novels, reviews, memoirs and nonfiction over a writing career that spanned a half-a-century.

Sheed grew up around writers and intellectuals. He was born in London to parents who'd founded the Catholic publishing house Sheed & Ward. The family emigrated to the U.S., where Sheed was an enthusiastic athlete until he contracted polio at age 14. He also struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction.

Sheed's work ranged from essays and reviews in the New Yorker and other publications, to novels and memoirs, to nonfiction, including a biography of Claire Boothe Luce and his last book, "A History of American Popular Music," published in 2007. Terry spoke to Wilfred Sheed in 1988.


Now, you are both a novelist and critic. So you have lived and worked in two different, often conflicting worlds. You write that as an author, receiving a bad review is like being spit on by a complete stranger in Times Square. Has that feeling ever held you back from writing a bad review?

WILFRID SHEED: It finally held me back from writing any reviews at all. I do very, very few these days, at least of living people, because, well, just to be crass about it, I don't need any more enemies.

As a novelist, you really don't need any more than the course of life is going to send you.


SHEED: But also, yes, on humane grounds, I think that you lose the killer instinct as you go along. I think that criticism can be a blood sport, really to be indulged by the young. As you get old, you imagine that perhaps the person is ill, or, you know, you imagine all the situations that have happened to yourself at one time or another, and you really can't go on giving it: You know how much it hurts.

GROSS: You don't think that criticism plays a higher function than just panning a new book or dishing the writer?

SHEED: Yes, I suppose when I talk about panning, and I really never did enjoy it, people seem to assume that this is the part of the work that critics really enjoy the most, and I suppose, you know, one can indulge oneself, and there are probably more rich hostile words in the language than nice ones.

But I have really enjoyed writing favorable reviews, and actually, I think criticism itself goes ways beyond praise and blame. Criticism, as opposed to reviewing, is that you assume that the reader is familiar with the work of art or will make himself so, and then you can talk.

This is the talk of people who have gone beyond the question of whether it's good or bad and now just want to talk about the thing itself, and that kind of criticism I would still like to do.

GROSS: Well, you were very athletic when you were growing up, and you didn't much like books. That changed, I think, when you got polio when you were, I believe 14 years old. Were you surprised when you were ill to find that you actually enjoyed reading?

SHEED: No, I had done a little furtive reading before that.


GROSS: Furtive, huh?

SHEED: Yes. It was the difference between...

GROSS: You were hiding it from friends or parents?

SHEED: Oh, from friends. No, for parents I would strut it. But the sort of friends I knew were not readers themselves, and they, if you can be macho at the age of 10, that's what we were, by golly, and you weren't going to read more than the other fellow, although, of course, there were certain approved texts. Comic books were perfectly all right.

GROSS: Did polio have any lasting physical effects on you?

SHEED: Yes. I still have a limp, and I was a sort of borderline case. I was still able to swing a gulf club, although not walk the length of a golf course, things of that sort.

So I got a bit of everything. I had an absolutely wicked serve at pingpong and just enough, once again, as Warm Springs had finessed the trauma of the thing and being able to take part in things and finesse the rest. So I can't say that at any stage that this was a terrible, shattering experience.

GROSS: You first came to America when you were nine. You returned to England to go to prep school, then returned back to the United States. When did you stop feeling like a foreigner in America?

SHEED: That took a long time. I suppose, actually, when I had children, and my children weren't foreigners, then I knew that I couldn't very well be myself.

Also, of course, people stopped noticing an English accent, and then it really takes...

GROSS: Well, you don't have a very strong one.

SHEED: Actually, I have a stronger one electronically than I have in real life, I believe, because my son first heard me on radio when he was very small and said: Well, you're English, which had never occurred to him before.


GROSS: When you were young and had just come to America from England, was it considered effete to have a British accent?

SHEED: With the guys I ran with, yes, it was definitely effete. These were - tended to be Irish Catholics. And I've had to make my peace with them, and I was not only stuck with a plummy Cockney accent but also a ridiculous first name.

GROSS: Oh, Wilfrid. Did you try to shorten it to Fred or Willy?

SHEED: I managed to impose Bill on as many people as I could, but then my parents would come around and say: Oh, Wilfrid, and then I'd be - I'd have to start all over again.

GROSS: Did you try for a Brooklyn or a New York accent when you were young?

SHEED: Well, I wanted an American one. I thought - I, myself, thought English sounded very silly. I know many people would go out of their way to speak with an English accent. Well, I went out of my way not to. It was really a safety device. It was a life-saving one as far as I was concerned.

GROSS: What about your writing? Do you think of your writing as having more of an American or of an English accent?

SHEED: Well, I'd gone back to England and was out of sorts about the whole thing, and then I read "The Thurber Carnival," and I thought: That's what I want to write like. And so I would credit Thurber with making me want to write American rather than English.

But then, naturally, the other stuff comes in the back door, and I will find I'm using English locutions and an English vocabulary. But it's on an American spine, or at least I trust so.

DAVIES: Writer Wilfrid Sheed, speaking with Terry Gross in 1988. Sheed died Wednesday. He was 80.

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