Noel Perrin

Eclectic writer of restless curiosity
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Edwin Noel Perrin, writer: born New York 18 September 1927; married 1960 Nancy Hunnicutt (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1971), 1975 Annemarie Price (marriage dissolved 1980), 1988 Anne Lindbergh (died 1993), fourth Sara Coburn; died Thetford Center, Vermont 20 November 2004.

Some writers have that skill and restless curiosity which mean they can turn their hands to anything without bringing charges of the charlatan upon their heads. Such a spirit was Noel Perrin.

He said, in 1961, that "there are at least three states of which I feel like a native. That's not counting Vermont, of which it is merely my ambition to feel like a native." His First Person Rural: essays of a sometime farmer (1978) and its three sequels chronicled his newfound life upon a Vermont farm and achieved great popularity.

Rural, he was urbane and, indeed, Manhattan, where he was born, sustained him. Across several decades, he was encouraged by The New Yorker's editor William Shawn. The result was work which embraced matters so diverse that it now seems but the shortest of leaps from discussion of the Japanese 17th-century resumption of using the sword in battle to an account, greatly amusing, of his discovery in 1950s Cambridge of a shoe-box cache of Henry James's letters.

He was born Edwin Noel Perrin in 1927, soon dropping the name Edwin which he shared with his father, an advertising executive. Schooling took him to Virginia, home state of his mother, a writer. One of his teachers, a former actor, had the strange notion of instilling grammar into his pupils by obliging them to act out his own plays, which contained roles for such characters as "Adverb" and "Noun". Perrin said this gave him "a permanently buskined view of the English language".

After a year's service in the artillery, he studied at Williams College in Massachusetts, from which he graduated in 1949, and, after another year's military service, part of it in Korea, he resumed academic pursuits. This led him, in the Fifties, from Duke University to Trinity Hall, Cambridge, for a year.

Such displacement brought out his observant wit - and enterprise. After one tutorial dispute over the sound made by the nightingale (Perrin said that T.S. Eliot's "jug jug" was hopeless, only to be "reminded" of Coleridge's use of it), he made bold to spend a long night on the track of them in the dell at Madingley. That this dell features in E.M. Forster's The Longest Journey is just the sort of detail that he would have relished, for the more of English literature that came within his purlieu, the more he sought out.

At this time, for magazines in England and America, he wrote fascinatingly on such matters as the way in which the version of Matthew Lewis's The Monk that had been in circulation for many years was the expurgation by Lewis's sister. He once noted that good listening is one of the attributes of "civilisation. It is also a cultivable art, like gourmet cooking or reading Ronald Firbank."

Perrin became aware that he was but one of many other young Americans set on studying the evolution of James's style in England. Luck had it that one of his Cambridge tutors referred him to another, who remarked, "I used to know James when I was a boy": his tone, recalled Perrin, was "either really offhanded or an excellent simulacrum of offhandedness". A miniature masterpiece of transatlantic manners, Perrin's account describes the way in which, little by little, glass of sherry by glass of sherry, he learnt that the Fellow's wife had a box of more than a hundred James letters but thought that such matters were of scant interest, indeed private, and, what's more, surely too recent to be worthy of scholarship. Come admittance to the shrine, wrote Perrin, "I pranced around in wild academic glee, full of Brussels sprouts and custard tart though I was." Perrin felt, James-like, that all the Fellow "really needed was a homely niece whom I should have had to marry in order to gain possession".

In 1959 Perrin began a long association with Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where he became a professor in 1970. It was typical of his easy-going nature, and openness to ideas, that he was not riled when a student criticised him for driving a gas-guzzler from his farm in Vermont to Dartmouth College. Instead, he began to look into the possibilities of an electric vehicle and, typically, came up with the engrossing matter about the machine's long history which fuels his Solo (1990).

One subject led to another over the years. His earlier study of The Monk prompted Dr Bowdler's Legacy (1969), about expurgated books in England and America, while the study of the sword in Japan, Giving Up the Gun (1979), had been anticipated by an essay on its dogs, for there, "in 1698, about 500 people were sent to prison for kicking dogs". If Perrin's widest American audience came with three books about the farming side of his life in Vermont, another overlapping one revels in A Reader's Delight (1988) about "a large category of books just short of classic status that are known only to a handful of lucky readers".

Perrin's eclectic tastes brought him a spot in The Washington Post, whose literary editors have long encouraged the pleasingly offbeat. Among the items he brought to a wider public were George Templeton Strong's diaries, Kenko's Essays in Idleness, Hiram Maxim, Bryher's Roman Wall, Emily Eden, Peter Beagle, Maureen Howard's exhilarating Bridgeport Bus and Daniel Varé; sometimes, as was the case with his championing Joseph Mitchell, this led to reissue of the books.

A decade later, again encouraged by the Post, he did something similar for children's books in the collection of essays A Child's Delight (1997). Along with Margery Sharp, Wanda Gág and Mary Stolz was Anne Lindbergh's Nick of Time, published in 1994. As Perrin revealed, he had read this story of time travel before Lindbergh, daughter of the aviator, became his wife on Boxing Day 1988: "a third chance for us both, and from the start so successful that we decided to regard our previous matrimonial ventures as training marriages". She and Perrin divided time between her Vermont farm and his, driving a tractor, mucking out pigs, helping with the tapping and brewing of maple syrup, at which Perrin was expert. "We manage to be together what I imagined would be ideal: just about four days a week. The marriage is so good I wouldn't mind if it were five. She says she wouldn't either." It lasted less than five years, however, for, aged little more than 50, Lindbergh died in 1993.

In Solo Perrin had described himself as "a natural optimist", and, although undoubtedly he was grief-stricken, his convivial nature made remarriage likely; he is survived by his fourth wife, Sara Coburn.

Christopher Hawtree

Comments