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Noel Perrin, Dartmouth Professor And Rural Essayist, Dies at 77

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 26, 2004; Page B06

Noel Perrin, a Dartmouth College professor and a writer who directed his graceful prose toward subjects as varied as feudal Japanese history, life in rural New England and his adventures with an electric car, died Nov. 21 at his farmhouse in Thetford Center, Vt. He was 77 and had Shy-Drager syndrome, a rare degenerative disorder of the nervous system.

Mr. Perrin taught American literature at Dartmouth for nearly 40 years and was an authority on modern poetry, particularly that of his fellow New England farmer, Robert Frost. Later in his career, he taught environmental studies and put his beliefs into practice by driving an electrically powered car.

Noel Perrin, author of 12 books, wrote about environmentalism, feudal Japan and rural life in New England. (Joseph Mehling -- Dartmouth College)

He wrote essays for many publications and was a regular contributor to The Washington Post for more than 20 years. Mr. Perrin's "Rediscoveries" column, written for The Post's Book World in the 1980s, demonstrated his versatility, writerly flair and well-furnished mind. Each month, he ranged across the history of literature to write an essay about a neglected literary treasure, whether a novel, a poem, a collection of essays, a travel book or memoir. Several books were brought back into print by the enthusiasm and persuasiveness of his writing.

His Post essays later were published as "A Reader's Delight," one of his 12 books. Mr. Perrin's later Post columns about forgotten works of children's literature were collected in the book "A Child's Delight."

With his cosmopolitan critical sensibility, his supple, unmannered prose and his love of rural life, Mr. Perrin was something of a combination of Edmund Wilson and E.B. White.

"We used to say that he had the best plain prose style in America," said Robert Wilson, editor of the American Scholar and a former editor at Book World, "and I don't think we were wrong."

Mr. Perrin wrote a history of literary censorship, "Dr. Bowdler's Legacy" (1969), which was nominated for a National Book Award. In 1979, he published "Giving Up the Gun," a study of how Japanese society renounced the use of firearms for hundreds of years.

Despite his scholarly writing and long teaching career, Mr. Perrin might have been better known for his work as an environmentalist and his gentle essays about life on his 85-acre Vermont farm, where he had lived since 1963. He wrote a book about making maple syrup from his own trees and later -- in a series of four books, beginning with "First Person Rural" in 1978 -- described his affection for country life, from cutting firewood to building stone walls to simply gazing out the window at the ever-changing landscape.

"His love for every inch of that farm grew into a deep sense of responsibility for the Earth at large," Wilson said.

In an essay from "Last Person Rural" (1991), Mr. Perrin told of lying in wait in his barn to catch whoever kept turning on the radio at night. He discovered that the culprit was an 800-pound steer.

"He reveled in the rural life," said writer Reeve Lindbergh, whose sister Anne was married to Mr. Perrin. "He was a fresh and unexpected, ethical, humane and charming voice for northern New England."

Edwin Noel Perrin, known to his friends as Ned, was born in New York City on Sept. 18, 1927. His parents worked in advertising, and his mother wrote several novels.

He was educated at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia and at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., from which he graduated in 1949. He received a master's degree in English from Duke University in 1950. During the Korean War, he served as a forward observer in an Army field artillery unit and was awarded the Bronze Star.

In the 1950s, he taught at the Woman's College of the University North Carolina (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). In 1958, he received a master of letters degree from Cambridge University in England.

Mr. Perrin joined the English faculty at Dartmouth in 1959 and was department chairman from 1972 to 1975. He was a Fulbright professor in Poland in 1970 and received two Guggenheim Fellowships. In 1984, he began to teach in Dartmouth's environmental studies program, which he continued until recently.

Mr. Perrin's marriages to Nancy Hunnicutt and Annemarie Hoffmeister ended in divorce. His third wife, Anne Spencer Lindbergh, died in 1993.

Survivors include his wife, Sara Coburn of Thetford Center; two daughters from his first marriage, Margaret "Amy" Haque-Joy of Lebanon, N.H., and Elisabeth Perrin of Seattle; four stepchildren, Manon Price of West Lebanon, N.H., Kirsten Nachmanoff of Arlington, Connie Feydy of Barnet, Vt., and Marek Sapieyevski of New York; a sister, Burnley T. Perrin of Washington; and a granddaughter.

In 1990, Mr. Perrin wrote an essay for The Post about his struggles to find a working electric car. After finding a company in California that converted gasoline-powered automobiles to electric cars, he decided to buy one and drive it back to Vermont. He set out on his journey with an abundance of hope, only to discover that his converted Ford Escort didn't have enough juice to climb California's Donner Pass.

He recounted his misadventures in "Solo: Life With an Electric Car" (1992), ending up with the last laugh. After running an extension cord through a window into a classroom building at Dartmouth, Mr. Perrin was given a reserved parking space -- a coveted possession on campus -- with his own electrical outlet.

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