Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph) 1904–1979
A contributor to The New Yorker for almost fifty years, Perelman was one of America's best-loved humorists. In addition to his satirical occasional pieces on almost every aspect of contemporary society, he wrote several Hollywood screenplays—most notably Monkey Business and Around the World in Eighty Days. Perelman was awarded a special National Book Award in 1978 for his contribution to American letters. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
I doubt if there is a reader anywhere prepared to read 650 consecutive pages of Perelman at a sitting [as found in The Most of S. J. Perelman and Eastward Ha!]; Perelman's brew is far too heavily seasoned to swallow at a single meal, but an essay a night for three months and the trick is done.
There is a sense in which he is the most negative writer of his era. When I first read A Farewell to Omsk, nearly thirty years ago, and laughed over the passage describing a Russian who 'dislodged a piece of horseradish from his tie and shied it at a passing Nihilist', it escaped me at the time that the Nihilist was Perelman himself, a lampoonist who all his life has clutched gratefully at any wisps of literary horseradish that might come his way, with a view to analysing it in the minutest detail. Advertisements, Show-Biz handouts, ghosted memoirs, the captions to photographs, reported speeches, nothing is too inconsequential for his attention. Were there no bad writing in the world, there would have been no Perelman with his odd gift for disclosing the nature of its rankness. Sometimes, indeed, the target is so idiotic that no satirist's hand is required at all…. Perelman's best targets are those with a kind of daft integrity of their own, Fu Manchu, Tarzan, Cecil B. de Mille, Elinor Glyn, Valentino, where he can work safe in the assumption that his reader is perfectly well acquainted with the unconscious humour of the...
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Of the three authors who form the trinity of American humour—Benchley and Thurber being the other two—Perelman is the most complete. His range is wider, and no one gets a piece off the ground with greater panache and keeps it going….
Thinking about Perelman instead of just laughing at him is tough work. There is a true irreverence in his early years [as evidenced in The Most of S. J. Perelman] which is wildly funny and closer to Private Eye at its best than the New Yorker or Punch, where his extremely pale imitators hang out. But, whatever the period, Perelman's trick of employing the most juste is beyond compare.
If there is a fault it is in that the mot is so juste as to leave those of us who are a touch sluggish with our word power feeling a little left out of the party. But the fault is in us. After all, if you can't use words like 'adumbrate', 'sockdolager' and 'Weimaraner' to extract a smile from your readers, what can you do?…
His latest book, Eastward Ha!, is full of sharp observations. It is a slim volume but the humour is so condensed that the slimness is an advantage.
Most of the men I admire have habits I dislike. In Perelman it is an over-fondness for Hollywood. Too often, he drops in some forgotten star, and, however apposite, the effect is to deaden the tone. To get through a single chapter of Perelman at his most obscure, I need dictionaries in several tongues, a book of quotations, a companion to literature and a complete guide to the silver screen. But I can live with it.
Barry Fantoni, "Perelman Power," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of Barry Fantoni), Vol. 100, No. 2569, July 20, 1978, p. 94.
In his own country, Perelman was latterly in danger of being cast as little more than a talented eye-witness, wittily recalling the supposed greats of Broadway, Hollywood and the New Yorker. And this was no doubt one of the reasons why we in Britain saw so much of him during the Seventies….
The very violence with which Perelman's prose lurches from the Bowery into the Rare Books Room of the British Museum and back again implies in itself that there is a conscious and moderate way to treat language, and a correspondingly civilised way to treat those who use it. Any humorist who loses this kind of moral equilibrium may be briefly zany, but thereafter he'll be unreadable.
Perelman was never that, but he remains too wordy for some tastes. The New Yorker has never been too hard on garrulity, and plenty of its writers have run stringily to seed there: but the real danger in Perelman's case is that the sheer variety of references and momentarily-assumed tones will batter the reader into exhaustion. It is no accident (as they say in the Rare Books Room) that S.J.P. is better-known for his beginnings than his endings—everybody's fresher then, and ready to enjoy the ricochet of association, the bounce of nomenclature…. (p. 646)
The more you look at Perelman's collected works … the more you realise that there's a complete social commentary on the United States embedded in it: more securely embedded, indeed, than ever it was in works of conscious compilation like Mencken's Americana. Because Perelman's prose must surely be the richest treasury of available levels of discourse, what analysts of style like to call 'registers', that has yet been assembled. And his greatest achievement in organising it, I rather think, was in resisting the very natural tendency … to puncture every single pretension, to reveal a grubby stain under every picture on the wall....
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I discovered [Perelman] when I was in high school. I came across certain pieces that he had written and I immediately was stunned by them. I thought they were just the best and the funniest things that I had ever read, and not at all heavy-handed, which most humour writers are…. Perelman … is just as light as a soufflé. What happens to you when you read Perelman and you're a young writer is fatal because his style seeps into you. He's got such a pronounced, overwhelming comic style that it's very hard not to be influenced by him. (p. 667)
Woody Allen, "Perelman's Revenge or the Gifts of Providence, Rhode Island," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of Woody Allen), Vol. 102, No. 2637, November 15, 1979, pp. 667-69.
There is a certain uniformity in the Perelman pieces—in the craftsmanship, in the construction. They invariably start off with a highly challenging introduction, a ludicrous statement or something that is made in the very first sentence, that so intrigues the reader that you have to follow through to find out just how this nonsense could possibly end up. It's my conviction that Perelman must labour very hard on his introductions because they must be difficult to do, but they're superb and in many cases flawless. I really don't believe that an editor could improve in any way on a Perelman introduction. (p. 668)
Caskie Stinnett, "Perelman's Revenge or the Gift of Providence, Rhode Island," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of Caskie Stinnett), Vol. 102, No. 2637, November 15, 1979, pp. 667-69.
A very easy move of a certain kind of middle-brow criticism for the past 40 years has been to call anything you don't understand surrealist, and I dare say there are people who would call [Perelman] surreal. I don't think so in the least. I think that his metamorphic vision, that is his ability to take some idiotic phrase, some idiotic situation and suddenly let it happen in the full garishness of its ramification, does all come in one sense from the 'Circe' episode of Ulysses. I think that this is a very important text for him, and that one of the things that he did was to make that element of instant externalisation, instant metamorphosis, available to a great deal of post-World War Two American fiction. I...
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