DON'T TREAD ON ME The Selected Letters of S.J. Perelman Edited by Prudence Crowther Viking. 372 pp. $19.95
As happens these days upon the deaths of all writers great and small, an industry has been created for the perpetuation and glorification of the life and work of Sidney Joseph Perelman, who died eight years ago at the age of 75. Perelman was an inordinately funny writer who might well have looked askance at the labored efforts that thus far have been manufactured in his behalf -- a biography, by Dorothy Herrmann,and now these letters, edited by his "close friend" Prudence Crowther -- but he was also a notable egotist, so perhaps he would have found ways to overlook the not-inconsiderable faults of these two books.
The problem with Herrmann's biography lies with its author; Herrmann brings a certain dogged sincerity to her task, but also a most unsuitable shortage of wit and a lack of literary discrimination. In "Don't Tread on Me," the problem is also the author's -- Perelman's, that is, not Crowther's. Wicked satirist and punster Perelman may well have been, but memorable correspondent he most certainly was not. Readers looking for Perelmanesque gems are advised to look elsewhere; the great man's wit did not exactly desert him when he wrote a letter, but neither did it take unduly interesting forms.
The miniature pieces Perelman wrote for The New Yorker and other magazines, for which he will be remembered long after his more lucrative work for Broadway and Hollywood has been forgotten, were laboriously, painstakingly crafted;his letters, by contrast, clearly were dashed off with no apparent thought that they would ever be published. The result is correspondence that has a certain amiable charm -- Perelman comes off as a better man in the letters than in Herrmann's biography -- but no consequence at all. Only on infrequent occasions do we get a hint of the master:
"I attended a publisher's party ... where the entire literary establishment turned up. Craning my ears, or neck rather, to overhear what Philip Roth was saying to Styron, I expected to pick up juicy bits left out of 'Portnoy's Complaint,' but all I heard was some complaint about overdue royalties. Oh, yes, and somewhat later, a threatening lady in black leather named Susan Sontag loomed over me, but I managed to escape with my virtue intact."
"I'm seated in an all-plastic motel overlooking another all-plastic motel which in turn overlooks the Gulf Stream ... It's roughly three in the afternoon, sun beating down in a fury, and no sound but the occasional flapping of the laundry on the line outside and the occasional flush of the toilet in the next cubicle as the obviously clandestine lovers who sneaked in an hour ago punctuate their ecstasies. Hurray for progress and a cheap, hygienic rassle."
"It is a sad commentary that this promising young fellow spends his time burrowing into Dostoievsky; fromthere it is only a step to Kafka, and before you can say knife, he will be lounging around one of these Greenwich Village bodegas a stone's throw from here, swilling red wine, plagiarizing Amy Lowell, and generally disqualifying himself for a useful, active bourgeois life. There is still time to avert the disaster; enroll him at V.M.I. or Manlius at once."
That last passage, like so much else in this collection, was written to a woman not his wife with whom Perelman carried on flirtation by correspondence. Whether any of these flirtations came to anything more than that is a family secret, but they gave Perelman obvious pleasure and produced many of his more interesting letters. On the whole, though,his correspondence is all too much like yours and mine: idly chatty, filled with family news of slight moment, written informally and hastily.
Thus the Perelman of the fanciful travel pieces is rarely present here; instead we have a tourist who commits such deathless observations as "Zanzibar is a very pleasant place, tiny crooked alleys, beautiful trees and foliage,and a very polyglot population ..." There is little serious (or for that matter comic) commentary on his work, apart from the usual suborning letters to publishers and an occasional remark about the difficulties of writing. Though you'd think that sparks would be struck in correspondence between Perelman and Ogden Nash, Perelman and James Thurber, Perelman and E.B. White, precious few of them were -- on Perelman's side, at least.
So the principal pleasure to be found in Perelman's correspondence is the same that every collection of letters offers: the chance to read someone else's mail. This pleasure is not to be dismissed lightly; just don't expect much more from "Don't Tread on Me."