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Noel Perrin, 77; Scholar Best Known for Essays on Rural Life

Times Staff Writer

Noel Perrin, the scholar, teacher, book critic and essayist best known for his graceful musings on the harsh toil and simple joys that make up the life of a New England farmer, has died. He was 77.

Perrin, who was also a longtime professor at Dartmouth College, died Nov. 21 at his farm in Thetford Center, Vt. He had been battling Shy-Drager syndrome, a degenerative disorder of the nervous system that he called “a remarkably unpleasant version of Parkinson’s disease.”

Eclectic in his interests and in his writing, Perrin wrote for the New Yorker magazine and the Washington Post Book Review and was the author of scholarly works on censorship, “Dr. Bowdler’s Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America,” and gun control, “Giving up the Gun: Japan’s Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879.” He also wrote “A Child’s Delight,” a collection of essays about several minor classics of children’s literature that were either overlooked or out of print.

But it was his essays about rural life in New England, which for the New York-born Perrin was an acquired taste, and his years there as a part-time farmer that gained the widest following.

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The essays -- written in a style that was compared favorably to E.B. White -- were initially published in Country Journal and Vermont Life. They were later collected in “First Person Rural: Essays of a Sometime Farmer” and three other books with similar titles. They were praised for their droll wit and ability to avoid the idealization of the farm life seen in less successful efforts by others.

“When he writes about rural existence, he sees all the flies in the idyllic ointment ... [and the] interesting thing is, Noel Perrin has never become indifferent to the pleasures of the city,” author and critic Doris Grumbach observed some years ago in Saturday Review magazine.

Perrin is “most provocative when advancing the cause of low-tech. With splendid wit, he makes a case for farming badly -- or at least not most efficiently,” Robert Glasgow wrote in the Los Angeles Times review of “Third Person Rural: Further Essays by a Sometime Farmer.”

“Low technology is more than a sentimental pleasure -- though God knows it’s that,” Perrin wrote. “The more things there can be like sugaring, where simple and easily understood techniques can compete in the marketplace with automation, the more sense of ourselves as valuable and needed beings we will be able to keep. And that’s a sense that every human being and even every chicken ought to have.”

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Born Edwin Noel Perrin on Sept. 18, 1927, in New York City, he grew up in Pelham Manor, N.Y., and was known as Ned his whole life. His parents were advertising copy writers for the J. Walter Thompson Agency. His mother also wrote novels and children’s books.

Perrin earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Williams College in Massachusetts and a master’s degree from Duke University before joining the Army during the Korean War. He was awarded a Bronze Star for bravery for his service as a forward observer in an artillery unit.

After his discharge in 1952, he taught English literature at what is now the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He also studied at Cambridge University, where he earned a master of letters degree.

Perrin joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1959 as an instructor in English and became a full professor in 1970. He served as chairman of the English Department from 1972 to 1975.

His specialty was modern American literature; he taught poetry and was considered an expert on the works of Robert Frost. He joined Dartmouth’s Environmental Studies Program in 1984 and taught a range of courses, including nature writing, environmental journalism and electric cars.

Chided once by a student for driving a gas-guzzling truck while lecturing on energy conservation, Perrin bought an early electric car from a firm in Northern California. His less than successful efforts to drive it home to Vermont led to the book “Solo: Life With an Electric Car.” But he remained a firm advocate of electricity for generating power, had solar panels installed on the barns of his 85-acre farm and commuted to Dartmouth in a series of electric cars.

Perrin once noted that he was “so deeply into rurality that my own [suburban] childhood conditioning has almost been overcome.”

He is survived by his fourth wife, Sara Coburn; two daughters from his first marriage; four stepchildren; a granddaughter and a sister. His first two marriages ended in divorce. His third marriage was to Anne Spencer Lindbergh, a daughter of aviator Charles A. Lindbergh and author Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She died in 1993.

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Contributions in his name may be made to the Environmental Defense Fund, 1875 Connecticut Ave., NW. Washington, D.C. 20009, or at www.edf.org.


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