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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.

Sheed was born in London to parents who had founded the notable Catholic publishing house Sheed & Ward. His family soon emigrated to the U. S., where Sheed was an enthusiastic athlete until he contracted polio at age 14 — his novel The People Will Always Be Kind is based on his experience with the illness.

Sheed was also known for his elegant reviews, which were published in Esquire Magazine in the 1960s. But after becoming an author himself, Sheed says, he changed his mind about critiquing someone else's work.

"As a novelist, you really don't need any more enemies than the course of life is going to send you," he told Terry Gross in a 1988 Fresh Air interview. "On humane grounds, I think that you lose the killer instinct as you go along. I think 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 imagine all the situations that have happened to yourself at one time or another, and you really can't go on giving [criticism] because you know how much it hurts."

In addition to novels and essays, Sheed also wrote biographies, including Claire Boothe Luce and Muhammad Ali: A Portrait in Words and Photographs. His last book, a history of American popular music, was published in 2007.

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