Writer Noel Perrin dies at 77

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(Host) Essayist and teacher Noel Perrin died over the weekend. For 30 years, Perrin wrote essays that crystallized the experience of living in a changing Vermont. His books captured an unsentimental and sometimes self-deprecating view of rural life.

VPR’s Steve Zind has this remembrance.

(Zind) Noel Perrin’s 85-acre farm in Thetford Center was his home and his muse. Perrin mended fences, maintained pasture, raised beef and sugared. As what he called a ‘sometime farmer’ Perrin maintained a sense of humor about his efforts.

Life on the farm inspired Perrin’s best known work: the four volumes of essays that began with “First Person Rural,” published in 1978.

(Tom Slayton) “They just captured the Vermont of the latter half century, I’d say.”

(Zind) Perrin’s work appeared in the New York Times and the Washington Post, but he was most regularly found in the pages of Vermont Life Magazine. Editor Tom Slayton says Perrin was a master essayist with a clear-eyed view of Vermont.

(Slayton) “He was not a sentimentalist. He was very accurate about pointing out that Vermont was changing. But he felt there was continuity in that change and that Vermont was still a quintessentially good place.”

(Zind) Perrin could write about the mystical qualities of trees as masterfully as he could describe the chilly realities of running out of fuel oil on a frigid day. His tastes and his subject weren’t limited to life in Vermont. He wrote about feudal Japan and he wrote about electric cars.

Perrin was born in 1927 in New York City. He served in the Korean War and attended Duke University and Cambridge University.

In 1959 Perrin joined the English Department at Dartmouth College. He served as department chair in the 1970s. That’s when William Cook came to teach at Dartmouth. Cook says that, as an African American, he was completely unprepared for life in rural and white New England. But Perrin, whose friends called him ‘Ned,’ immediately reached out to Cook.

(Cook) “Very early I was invited to dinner at Ned’s, which meant I was also helping gather maple syrup and boil the maple syrup. Then I understood why dinner was at such an early hour. He was a person who talks to you as another human being – who does not talk to you in the category of race, for that matter.”

(Zind) Perrin taught a senior seminar on Robert Frost at Dartmouth. Cook says while Perrin and Frost took different approaches to rural life, the two had much in common.

(Cook) “Frost was that person that Ned became. That literary person who was also a farmer. That literary person who was also interested in what Frost called, ‘country things.'”

(Zind) Perrin disclosed earlier this year that was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He died Sunday at the Thetford Center farm where he had lived for the past four decades. Noel Perrin was 77.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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