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. …