Parody, satire, and verbal wit characterize S. J. Perelman’s (February 1, 1904 – October 17, 1979) works. Most of them are very short and tend to begin as conversational essays that develop into narrative or mock dramatic episodes and sometimes return to essay. Perelman called them feuilletons (little leaves), “comic essays of a particular type.” They seem formally related to the earliest American forms of short story, Benjamin Franklin’s bagatelles and early American humor. Norris Yates best summarizes the worldview reflected in Perelman’s work: Perelman values normal life, “integrity, sincerity, skepticism, taste, a respect for competence, a striving after the golden mean, and a longing for better communication and understanding among men.” Yates sees Perelman’s typical persona (the “I” of the pieces) as a Little Man resisting the forces of American cultural life that would “invade and corrupt his personality and impel him toward neuroses,” the forces which seem determined to destroy the values Perelman holds. According to Yates, these forces manifest themselves for Perelman most decisively in “the mass media, which are, on the whole, the offspring of technology’s unconsecrated marriage with Big Business.”
Perelman’s “autobiographical” work reveals his version of the Little Man. A favorite type of The New Yorker humorists, the Little Man is a caricature of a typical middleclass, early twentieth century American male, usually represented as helpless before the complexities of technological society, cowed by its crass commercialism, dominated by desperate, unfulfilled women, sustaining himself on heroic fantasies of a bygone or imaginary era. James Thurber’s Walter Mitty has become the classic presentation of this character type. Perelman’s personae seem related to the type, but vary in several significant ways.
Acres and Pains
In Acres and Pains, the major collection of his adventures on his farm, he makes his persona into a city dweller who has naïvely tried to realize a romantic agrarian dream on his country estate but who has come to see the error of his ways. Perelman uses this reversal of the rube in the city to debunk a sentimental picture of country life by exaggerating his trials. Many episodes show good country people betraying the ideal with which they are associated. Contractors, antique dealers, and barn painters rob him of purse and peace. “Perelman” differs from the Little Man type in that, although he may at any time fall victim to another illusion, he knows and admits that country life is no romance. In these sketches, he also differs from the Little Man type in his relationship to wife and family. He is not dominated by a frustrated woman. He and his wife are usually mutual victims of pastoral illusion, although often she suffers more than he.
This “Perelman” is most like the typical Little Man when he deals with machines. For example, when his water pump goes berserk during a dinner party, he handles the problem with successful incompetence: “By exerting a slight leverage, I succeeded in prying off the gasket or outer jacket of the pump, exactly as you would a baked potato. . . . This gave me room to poke around the innards with a sharp stick. I cleaned the pump thoroughly . . . and, as a final precaution, opened the windows to allow the water to drain down the slope.” The major difference between this persona and Walter Mitty is that the former is competent; he escapes neurosis and resists with some success his crazy world. By splitting the narrator into a present sophisticate (a mask that often slips) and a former fool, he tends to shift the butt of humor away from the present narrator and toward the man who believes in romantic ideals and toward the people who so completely fail to live up to any admirable ideals. The latter are typified by the contractor who digs “Perelman’s” pool in a bad place although he knows the best place for it. Asked why he offered his advice when the pool was dynamited rather than before it was begun, he virtuously replies. “It don’t pay to poke your nose in other people’s business.” Implied in these tall tales of mock pastoral life are criticisms of the values which oppose those Yates lists: dishonesty, hypocrisy, greed, naïveté, incompetence, overenthusiasm, deliberately created confusion, and lying.
Looking over the full range of Perelman’s first-person sketches, one sees significant variation in the presentation of the persona. In Acres and Pains, the narrator is much more concrete than in many other sketches in which the “I” is virtually an empty mind waiting to take shape under the power of some absurd mass-media language. Perelman is acutely sensitive to this language as a kind of oppression. Many of his sketches explore “sub-dialects” of American English in order to expose and ridicule the values that underlie them. “Tomorrow—Fairly Cloudy” is a typical example of the author’s probing of a sample of American language.
In “Tomorrow—Fairly Cloudy,” Perelman notices a new advertisement for a toothpaste which promises its users rescue from humdrum ordinary life and elevation into romance and success. In his introduction, Perelman emphasizes the absurdity of taking such ads seriously, describes the ad in detail, then introduces a dramatic scenario by observing that this ad heralds the coming demise of a desperate industry: “So all the old tactics have finally broken down—wheedling, abuse, snobbery and terror. I look forward to the last great era in advertising, a period packed with gloom, defeatism, and frustration.” In the following spectacle, the children bubble excited “adese” while father despairs over his drab life:
Bobby—Oh, Moms, I’m so glad you and Dads decided to install a Genfeedco automatic oil burner and air conditioner with the new self-ventilating screen flaps plus finger control! It is noiseless, cuts down heating bills, and makes the air we breathe richer in vita-ray particles. . . .
Mr. Bradley (tonelessly)—Well, I suppose anything is better than a heap of slag at this end of the cellar.
Soon the Fletchers arrive to sneer at their towels and to make the Bradleys aware of all the products they do not have. The sketch ends in apocalypse as their inferior plumbing gives way, and they all drown in their combination cellar and playroom. It remains unclear throughout whether this episode forecasts the forms of future advertising or its effects on the public.
Perelman exposes the absurdity of this language of conspicuous consumption by imagining its literal acceptance. In the world this language implies, happiness is possessing the right gadgets. If sales are to continue, it must be impossible for most people ever to have all the right things, and so impossible ever to be happy. The Bradleys have the right oil burner, but their towels disintegrate in two days, and they failed to use Sumwenco Super-Annealed Brass Pipe. This last omission costs them their lives. Not only their happiness but also their very survival depend on their ability to possess the right new product.
Entered as Second-Class Matter” • Perelman’s many sketches of this type culminate perhaps in “Entered as Second-Class Matter,” which is apparently a montage of fragments lifted (and, one hopes, sometimes fabricated) from magazine fiction and advertising. The resulting silliness may be intended as a portrait of the mass feminine mind as perceived by American magazines, 1930-1944. It ends:
We have scoured the fiction market to set before you Three Million Tiny Sweat Glands Functioning in that vibrant panorama of tomorrow so that Your Sensitive Bowel Muscles Can react to the almost inevitable realization that only by enrichment and guidance plus a soothing depilatory can America face its problems confidently, unafraid, well-groomed mouth-happy, breaking hair off at the roots without undue stench. Okay, Miss America!
In such pieces, Perelman’s values are clearly those Yates names. Especially important in these works is the humorous attempt to clear away the garbage of American language culture through ridicule. This aim is central to the series “Cloudland Revisited,” in which he reexamines the popular literature of his youth. Perelman varies this formula with attacks on absurd fashion and the language of fashion, one of the best of which is “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer.”
Perelman is deservedly most admired for his faculty of verbal wit. In several of his more conventional stories which seem less restrained by satiric ends, his playfulness dazzles. Among the best of these are “The Idol’s Eye,” “Seedlings of Desire,” and “The Love Decoy.” Based on the sensational plots of teen-romance, “The Love Decoy” is narrated by a coed who seeks revenge on an instructor who once failed to make a pass and who later humiliated her before her classmates by accusing her of “galvanizing around nights.” Her plan is to lure him to her room after hours, then expose him as a corrupter of undergraduates. This plan backfires in a non sequitur when a lecherous dean arrives to assault her. The reader expects the plot to complicate, but instead it is transformed when the dean is unmasked as Jim the Penman who framed the girl’s father and sent him to the pen. Other identities are revealed, and the reader arrives at the end of a detective thriller. Although there is parody here of sentimental language and plot, the story seems more intent on fun than ridicule. It contains a number of Perelman’s most celebrated witticisms. For example:
He caught my armin a vice-like grip and drewmeto him, but with a blow I sent him groveling. In ten minutes he was back with a basket of appetizing fresh picked grovels. We squeezed them and drank the piquant juice thirstily.
At the center of this wit is the double entendre. Multiple meanings of words suggest the multiple contexts in which they may apply. Perelman juxtaposes these contexts, makes rapid shifts between them, and sometimes uses a suggestion to imagine a new context. The effects are sometimes surreal. The double meaning of “sent” suggests a transformation from a blow to the groin to an activity such as berrying. “Groveling” gathers an imaginary context which generates a new noun, “grovels.” Although this reading seems most plausible, in another reading there are no transformations, and gathering grovels becomes a euphemistic way to describe the amorous instructor’s reaction to her literal attack or to her unusually expressed affection.
Perelman creates this slipperiness of meaning and encourages it to reverberate in this passage and in the language and structure of the whole work. One result is a heightened alertness in the reader to the ambiguity of language and the elusiveness of meaning, a first but important step on the way to the sort of respect for language Perelman implies in his many critiques of its abuses. This concern connects Perelman most closely with James Joyce, whom he considered the greatest modern comic writer, with a number of his contemporaries, including William Faulkner and James Thurber. Although Perelman has not the stature of these great writers, he shares with them a consciousness of the peculiar problems of modern life and a belief that how one uses language is important to recognizing and dealing with those problems. Among The New Yorker humorists with whom S. J. Perelman is associated, he is probably one of the lesser lights, showing neither the versatility, the variety, nor the universality of Dorothy Parker or of Thurber. Although critical estimates of his achievement vary, there is general agreement that his best work, done mostly before 1950, shows a marvelous gift for verbal wit.
Plays: The Night Before Christmas, pr. 1941 (with Laura Perelman); One Touch of Venus, pr. 1943 (with Ogden Nash); The Beauty Part, pr. 1961.
Miscellaneous: That Old Gang o’ Mine: The Early and Essential S. J. Perelman, 1984 (Richard Marschall, editor).
Nonfiction: The Last Laugh, 1981; Don’t Tread on Me: Selected Letters of S. J. Perelman, 1987; Conversations with S. J. Perelman, 1995 (Tom Teicholz, editor).
Screenplays: Monkey Business, 1931; Horse Feathers, 1932; Around theWorld in Eighty Days, 1956.
Adams, Michael. “A Critical Introduction to The Best of S. J. Perelman by Sidney Namlerep.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 2. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Epstein, Joseph. “Sid, You Made the Prose Too Thin.” Commentary 84 (September, 1987): 53-60.Fowler, Douglas. S. J. Perelman. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
Gale, Steven. S. J. Perelman: A Critical Study. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
____________. S. J. Perelman: An Annotated Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1985.Gale, Steven H., ed. S. J. Perelman: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1992.
Herrmann, Dorothy. S. J. Perelman: A Life. New York: Putnam, 1986.
Katona, Cynthia Lee. “The Love Decoy.” In Masterplots II: Short Story Series, edited by Charles E. May. Rev. ed. Vol. 5. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Perelman, S. J. Conversations with S. J. Perelman. Edited by TomTeicholz. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.
Plimpton, George, ed. Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Second Series. New York: Viking Press, 1963.
Yates, Norris Wilson. “The Sane Psychoses of S. J. Perelman.” In The American Humorist: Conscience of the Twentieth Century. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1964.