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S.J. Perelman

October 17, 2012

Today is the anniversary of the death of S.J. Perelman, who’s in my top 5 of favorite writers. He died in 1979.

Perelman wrote primarily for The New Yorker but his work appeared in other magazines, particularly his travel pieces, which appeared in Holiday and Travel and Leisure. His command of English was profound and peppered with Yiddish (when I read him I yearn for corned beef on rye bread with caraway seeds), his humor self-deprecating. And he was a wicked satirist.

Perelman was also plagued by depression and melencholia for most of his life, suffering bouts that left him unable write sometimes for an entire year. That his body of work was astoundingly prodigious is a remarkable testament to his professionalism as a writer. Whenever I’m down, which is often, I dip into one of the biographies I have and read about his struggles. His life encourages me to go on.

He was a perfectionist, rarely completing more than one page of copy a day. It’s said that he once spent an entire day on a single sentence until he got it right. And when you read the sentences he wrote, you’re blown away by skill and craftmanship–after you’ve stopped laughing.

Perelman despised being known as a humorist, however. He regarded himself as a writer who wrote about people, travel, movies, books, advertisements, society and daily life in an interesting manner. He  never aspired to write anything longer than his New Yorker or travel pieces, saying he was a “miniaturist” and content to “stitch away at my embroidery hoop” creating short pieces that could be happily devoured in one seating.

Acres and Pains, Westrward Ha!, Chicken Inspector No. 23 and The Rising Gorge are among my favorites. So is Crazy Like a Fox. Hell, all of them are. In his piece titled “Listen to the Mockingbird” he introduced me to the words “quahogs,” “shagreen” and “nainsnook.” I had no idea those words existed.

As a young writer I marveled at his command of the language, and despaired at it, thinking: I could never write like that. As another of my favorites, Jerzy Kosinski, said when describing his own work: “We cannot all be Tolstoy.”

We cannot all write like Perelman, but we can eat like him. Tonight for dinner I’ll have a whiskey sour on the rocks, followed by a glazed Virginia ham steak with sweet potatoes and corn niblets, and two salt stengels. That was his favorite meal at Walsh’s Chop House in New York.

Click here to see Perelman interviewed in 1974.

 

 

 

 

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