Saturday, March 28, 2015

Memoirists: Wilfrid Sheed, Again

About a year ago, I wrote of my intention to find Wilfrid Sheed's Frank and Maisie: A Memoir with Parents. This past Wednesday I found a copy, "advance uncorrected proofs", at Idle Time Books, and it has occupied much of my time since.

Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward were the proprietors of Sheed & Ward, a Catholic publishing house that had a brief but remarkable career covering most of the half century after 1927. They were writers and lecturers--for pay at colleges and parishes, for free in Hyde Park, Pimlico, and Philadelphia with the Catholic Evidence Guild--and active in various Catholic social movements of the time. She was the daughter of William Ward, a friend of Newman's, and like Newman once in Anglican orders. He was an Australian, son of an alcoholic Marxist (and lapsed Presbyterian) and an Irish immigrant. Both had quick and powerful minds. I have not read any of Frank Sheed's books, but I believe that I have read Maisie Ward's biography of G.K. Chesterton.

The most interesting part of the book, on my first reading, was the sociology of American Catholicism in the 1930s and 1940s as it must have appeared to Frank Sheed: heavy on clericalism, with the laymen not encouraged to think about much beyond business and sports; laywomen indulgently allowed to think, because thinking counted only for so much. Bits of this are recognizable from some of J.F. Powers's stories (his two novels are about the 1950s and 1960s). It was something of an insular world, to be sure, but was it the desert that Sheed depicts?

A few of the stars and problem children of mid-century American Catholicism make cameos: Fulton Sheen (as author and employer), Claire Booth Luce, Allan Tate and Caroline Gordon, and Leonard Feeney, S.J. Sheen is most fleshed out, for Wilfrid Sheed worked for him. Tate and Gordon he has written about elsewhere, considering them in their roles as demanding critics.

Wilfrid Sheed could be counted on for good sentences; here he both comes through and shows where he got the knack, as in discussing the 1930s
Households varied in their degrees of pliancy, but very few Americans ever told a priest that he didn't know beans about politics or constitutional law, or, as Frank remarked after a sermon on marriage, "I was edified, Father, tha you seemed to know so little about it."
and from much later
Let me transpose a line of conversation from another session of the same period to catch his flavor. Guest: "What do you do in Australia when you're not throwing the boomerang?" Frank: "Oh, nothing, nothing at all. The boomerang ruins you for everyting else. [Pause] Of course--everything else ruins you for the boomerang." 
That the copy I bought is an uncorrected proof shows in a few details--footnotes mid-page and sometimes unfinished, a few delightful typos ("every conversation was a mind field").The designer chose a type for the title and the chapter headings that has a "d" with a crossed ascender, so looking like an Anglo-Saxon "eth", and in a book about Sheed and Ward, there are many "d"s in the chapter headings.


  1. Thank you for introducing me to a witty fellow countryman

    1. You are welcome. I didn't, I find, give fair time to the range of his mind, for he was up to much more than off-the-cuff wit. But maybe I'll round up one his books and write about that.