PERSONS OF NOTE and achievement, who wish to keep the record straight, would do well, first, to write their own memoirs and, second, to appoint official biographers. Critic and novelist Wilfrid Sheed's entertaining and absorbing book about his extraordinary parents, Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward Sheed, is only the latest in what is fast becoming a literary sub-group -- "the memoir with parents." Inevitably the child in the writer stands between the reader and the parents. The view is valid. It is interesting. But it is never whole.
"The subject," writes Sheed, "is not so much what my parents were doing as how it felt around the house." And what were Frank and Maisie doing? What followed their marriage -- on the face of it an unlikely union between an Australian of working-class origins and socialist leanings (albeit a lawyer and a classicist), and a daughter of an English literary family with roots in the country gentry -- was a movement, the Catholic Revival. Frank and Maisie were brought together by their blazing faith and desire to share it. They met in London where both were street speakers for the Catholic Evidence Guild. They spent their lives trying to give to others what excited and nourished them.
Together they were an amazing team. They lectured. They founded the publishing house of Sheed and Ward with branches in London and New York. They promoted theology, philosophy, scriptural study, lay responsibility, social action and hard thinking about the practical application of the gospel. They wrote books -- he, theology and philosophy for the lay reader; she, fat volumes of biography. They were ceaselessly on the move, collecting hordes of friends and followers.
ASSESSING ALL this, Wilfrid Sheed writes that the movement was perhaps "just an apocalypse in a small pond. The Catholic Revival, of which Frank and Maisie provided, in Churchill's phrase, 'The Roar,' . . . lasted not much more than a generation, and scholars with pointed sticks are still picking among the aftermath. The least that can be said for it, in a sardonic sort of way, is that it enabled American Catholics to follow the Second Vatican Council intelligently . . . , the most is a longer story."
That seems unduly deprecating -- the half- proud, half-embarrassed statement of a son who is not quite sure how he feels about the life his parents lived. But he gives us the evidence on which to conclude that Frank and Maisie did more than any others to unite the thinking Catholics of three continents and to provide the fuel for change which transformed the church in America from a ghetto- like religious refuge with a defensive posture and equally defensive politics to the outward- looking "People of God" it sees itself as today -- a force to reckon with in the national debates over nuclear arms, world hunger and poverty. That the result is perhaps not what the Sheeds envisioned does not lessen the debt. (And neither Frank nor Maisie would be surprised at the current efforts of conservative churchmen to stuff the genie back in the bottle. They had contended with the mentality of "Father Says" from the beginning.)
Wilfrid Sheed writes about how all that "felt around the house" with an unrelenting if rather desperate cheerfulness. The house was something of a caravan. The Sheeds lived in various places, some rented, some lent, some owned, in England and America. When both the peripatetic parents were home the house, wherever it was, rang with song and argument, enthusiasms, and the voices of guests. Frank Sheed was its life, according to his son, and Maisie was its "center of peace."
Frank and Maisie "were equally at home, and not at home, everywhere" but there are indications that it was not so for the rest of the household. Where exactly was home? Min, the Australian grandmother, was unhappy in England, and loved America. Wilfrid clung to the idea of Australian roots but chose to become an American. Rosemary, his older sister, stayed English.
"I have painted him to now as a light- hearted man, because that's how he painted himself," writes Wilfrid Sheed of Frank toward the end of the book. He might say the same of his own self-depiction. His account of how it was "around the house" is light- hearted, story-filled, and descriptive but he does not really tell us how it felt. There are dark hints: of resentment at competing with so many others for Frank's attention, of an isolation so profound that a boy's struggle with suicidal impulse could go unnoticed by those closest to him, of unnatural stoicism when he was crippled by polio, of distance from Maisie until the later years. But perhaps Wilfrid Sheed is right. For a writer who does not doubt his parents' love and goodwill such things are better dealt with in fiction.