S.J. Perelman's letters - more about the man for fans

Don't Tread on Me, The Selected Letters of S.J. Perelman, edited by Prudence Crowther. New York: Viking. 372 pp. $19.95. If you're a fledgling Perelman fan, you'd do well to read a good deal of the work itself before delving into the man himself. His writing is made to stand alone. But after a time you'll want to know more.

This collection of letters joins Dorothy Herrmann's biography of last year in defining, a little sloppily, one of America's more complex writers. I don't use the word ``humorist,'' because he preferred ``writer.''

And from the biography and the letters, we learn three things that might be unexpected.

First - that a man who could reduce his readers to weeping fits of laughter could be so miserable in his own life.

Second - that a man whose writing comes at you with such silky precision and kaleidoscopic complexity of language could have such desperate battles with the typewriter and be unsatisfied with much of his own work.

And third - that someone whose talents were towering, nearly peerless in his genre, could have such prosaic problems with editors and publishers.

The collection is edited, and the selection made, with Perelman's more or less approval. Perhaps we aren't seeing the entire personality here, but he's entitled to some privacy.

When I first began reading Perelman, when I thought him the most devastatingly, hysterically (etc.) funny writer, when I judged all mankind on the single issue of their appreciation of Perelman, I thought it must be great fun to be such a person. It did very little for me to be disabused of that idea. So if he's kept some things from me, that's just fine.

Jeff Danziger is the Monitor's editorial cartoonist.

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