Critical Mass

From the Archives: Allen Barra on Wilfrid Sheed

By Jane Ciabattari

Allen Barra shares his admiration of Wilfrid Sheed, who died on Wednesday at 80, in this “In Retrospect” series essay on Sheed's “Essays in Disguise,” an NBCC finalist in criticism. Sheed is on his mind, well, almost constantly.

THERE ARE ONLY TWO KINDS OF CRITICS I know of: those who don’t admit that they’ve stolen from Wilfrid Sheed and those who do. With this confession, I now enter the second rank.

Here are just two lines that I have recycled over the years in different forms. The first is from his book on Muhammad Ali: “Ali put on a performance that wouldn’t have fooled a French film critic.” And this, his opening line from a review of A. Alvarez’s The Savage God: “Books about suicide make lousy gifts.” I’m certain that several people reading this are nodding; They have their own stash of great Sheed lines which they reshaped for use during their college paper or early alternative press days.

“Reviews are not only frail,” Sheed wrote in the introduction to Essays in Disguise, “they’re ephemeral, and they are scarcely breathing by the time they make it into books. So I’ve tried to pick pieces that would stand on their own.” It’s hard to judge whether or not he did a good job of picking because nearly every piece of criticism Sheed has ever written seems to stand on its own, about as frail as a two volume edition from the Everyman Library which, by the way, Random House has been more than a tad slow in putting together when it comes to Sheed.

If I had been a NBCC member in 1990, I might not have voted for Essays in Disguise, if only because if I had been a member of any critics group in 1972 I would have already voted for The Morning After, and in 1978 for The Good Word and Other Words. The three volumes taken together admirably fulfill the critics’ credo Sheed wrote for himself in Essays in Disguise: “the real business of criticism is to do justice to the best work of one’s time so that nothing gets lost.” And practically nothing has. Here are some of my favorite Sheedisms from the three.

Hemingway: “Such words are obviously to make you see more clearly, and perhaps they do, except that you keep seeing the same thing or types of thing. It’s like being trapped in an endless exhibit of primitive paintings. Why, one wonders again and again, did so gifted a man chain himself to so narrow a method?” (Essays in Disguise)

Garry Wills: “But if by liberal one simply means this, a sower of confusion, Garry Wills himself qualifies imminently … And in the end, he seems to hold out hopes for the radical witness of the Berrigans – just the kind of authentic-sounding panacea liberals went for every time. It is almost as if having just diagnosed the complaint, he has gone and succumbed to it.” (Essays in Disguise)

Homer: “Nothing brings a writer back to life like a good fight about him. To wit: simply as a poet, I believe that Homer is to Virgil as Edgar Guest is to Wordsworth. If anyone needs a good shaking, it’s Homer, but I doubt he’s had one in centuries.” (Essays in Disguise)

P.J. Wodehouse: “Hacks never enter literature in the middle; they can only come in as geniuses … In the characteristic hack-transfiguration rite the reviewer himself seems stumped what to say after he said ‘genius.’ Colin MacInnes argued that Wodehouse had created a whole world of his own, but it really seems more of an old world with a fresh coat of words.” (The Good Word and Other Words)

Graham Greene:  “I believe he muddied his own definition by dividing his fiction into those categories. The entertainments such as 'The Confidential Agent' and 'Ministry of Fear' are really much better novels than the novels are.

And “Greene’s secret has always been to concoct an atmosphere in which only a Greene character can breathe; in fact. His characters are made of atmosphere, as a star is made of gas.” (The Good Word and Other Words)

Norman Mailer: “’Do not understand me too quickly,’ he says. Good grief, little danger of that.” (Essays in Disguise)

George Orwell: “The necessary element of perversity in Orwell’s work was that he wrote best about the things he hated. When he tried to write lyrically, it came out stilted and anonymous …” (The Good Word and Other Words)

Cyril Connolly: “Connolly wasn’t really Irish – except on both sides. He played down his Irishness in later years, a vice the English encourage. But his role in English letters is particularly Irish, or at least Celtic: his pure dedication to Art, his rambunctious melancholia, his rhythm of indulgence and remorse come from outside the Anglo-Saxon conglomerate … his reflex or self-dramatization was overpowering to the end. He still wrote endlessly about how little he wrote.” (The Good Word and Other Words)

Evelyn Waugh: “Waugh admires the aristocrats he can’t reach, a mythical people as simply and unmannered as his prose, a class that is really to god for him, even if he has to invent it, as he did in 'Brideshead Revisited.'” (The Good Word and Other Words)

Ezra Pound: “Of Ezra Pound, as of Bobby Fischer, all that decently can be said is that his colleagues admire him. There is no special reason for anyone else to.” (The Good Word and Other Words)

Edward Albee: “Albee can no longer wait to tell us what’s on his mind: his plays are coming perilously close to his interviews …” (The Morning After)

Gore Vidal: “Several essays indulge this kind of low-pressure pamphleteering for high-pressure causes. The favorite note is one of personal indifference … This lofty cynicism keeps him from sounding stuffy or earnest. It is a pure convention.” (The Morning After)

And those are all from essays on specific writers.  Here’s a Sheed sampler on other topics:

Catholicism: “It used to be a pious commonplace to say that one would remain a Catholic if one were the last one on earth. But it doesn’t work that way. The set of beliefs might remain intact, but the cult would be gone. The Mass is a communal feast, and one can not dine alone … If you don’t believe, then I don’t either.”  (Essays in Disguise)

Organized crime: “As with God in the last Middle Ages, all that there is to know about the Mafia seems to be known by now except whether it actually exists.” (Essays in Disguise)

Tea: “English tea is okay for the first cup, but then all bets are off.” (Essays in Disguise)

Frank Sinatra: “ … his taste was so impeccable that he became over the years a sort of one-man bureau of standards … ‘The Man Who Saved The Standards’ would not be the worst epitaph a man could have.”

And “If you follow Sinatra from record to record, you may notes how he sings each song as if it had never been sung before – even by him.” (Essays in Disguise)

Fiction: “Fiction is an extension of criticism by other means.” (Essays in Disguise)

Cultural conservatism: “Cultural conservatism is becoming an older writer: anything else is cosmetics anyway. If he whores after the new thing, he will only get it wrong and wind up praising the latest charlatans, the floozies of the New. His business is keeping his own tradition alive and extending it into its own future: an old writer can grow indefinitely, what he cannot do is keep up.” (Essays in Disguise)

Baseball:  “Another thing that stoked my love affair was the statistics. I like a game that has plenty of statistics, the more inconsequential the better, and I began soaking up baseball records like a sea sponge before I even knew what they meant. I liked the way you could read around baseball, without ever getting to the game at all.” (The Morning After)

Sports in America:  “… if you had to limit yourself to one aspect of American life, the showdowns between pitcher and hitter, quarterback and defense, hustler and fish, would tell you more about politics, manners, style in the country than any one other thing. Sports constitute a code, a language of the emotions, and a tourist who skips the stadiums will not recoup his losses at Lincoln Center and Grant’s Tomb.” (The Morning After)

Bonnie and Clyde: “To get angry at the violence in Bonnie and Clyde is, in contrast, to misdirect one’s quota of spleen badly. In that admirable movie, pain is shown in two aspects: the unreal pain that a child deals out when he says, ‘Bang, Bang, you’re dead,’ and the reality when he has hurt himself. When Bonnie and Clyde shoot people, it's all in fun. Just like an old gangster movie; when they are hit themselves, reality floods in on them.” (The Morning After)

(I read that shortly after reading A.O. Scott’s piece in the New York Times on the fortieth anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde, in which Scott defends Bosley Crowthers’s 1967 opinion that the film is filled with gratuitous violence. Just another instance of Sheed always staying of the critical establishment.)

No other American critic––and certainly no other American-English-Australian-Irish critic––of my generation has had such catholic (small c intended) tastes and range as Wilfrid Sheed. 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.

“The ideal reviewer,” Sheed once wrote, “writes no books at all, lives outside New York but doesn’t resent New York, has no credentials – because every credential is a trap. He simply – well, how to put it? – has an interest in books.”

Wilfrid Sheed is my ideal critic. I have written books, though none that would conflict with interests in the circles Shed refers to, I live in New Jersey and certainly don’t resent New York, and I have no credentials, though I have a passionate interest in books, one that Wilfrid Sheed helped instill in me. If I am not his ideal reviewer, I hope I have at least done him justice.

Allen Barra was a finalist for the 2005 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.