Sunday, May 1, 2022

Cloudland Revisited: Rock-a-Bye, Viscount, in the Treetop

S. J. Perelman (1904–1979)
From S. J. Perelman: Writings

Detail of the illustration by American artist Fred J. Arting (fl. 1910–1922) for the jacket of the first edition of Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes (1914).
“I first read The Sheik, by E. M. Hull, during the winter of 1922–23, standing up behind the counter of a curious cigar store of which I was the night clerk, though I preferred the loftier designation of relief manager,” wrote S. J. Perelman, recalling the year he was a sophomore at Brown University. “I wanted anonymity and a quiet nook for study and speculation. I got enough of all these to last a lifetime, and, by discreet pilfering, sufficient cigarettes to impair the wind of the entire student body.”

Published in 1919, Hull’s adventure-romance features an aristocratic English woman who, while traveling through the Algerian desert, is abducted by a “sheik” (played by Rudolph Valentino in the 1921 film that made him famous). By the end of the book, the sheik is revealed to be the son of an English earl who, out of hatred for his father, has remained in Algeria; eventually Lady Diana falls in love with her kidnapper. Twenty-five years had passed since Perelman first read the book and “heavy with nostalgia,” he decided to revisit the novel. “If my examination of The Sheik did nothing else,” he wrote in “Into Your Tent I’ll Creep,” his reappraisal published in The New Yorker, “it confirmed a suspicion I have been harboring for over two decades; namely, that the relief manager of a small cigar store in Providence about 1922 showed the most dubious literary taste of anyone I ever knew.”

Thus was born the idea for the “Cloudland Revisited” series: fond yet often scathing and hilarious reappraisals of books and movies he had enjoyed in his youth. Between October 1948 and October 1953, Perelman wrote twenty-two reviews of books and silent films that had been popular during the first quarter of the twentieth century, including such cringeworthy fare as Gertrude Atherton’s sensationalist fantasy Black Oxen, Sax Rohmer’s supervillain blockbuster The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu, the “underwater” silent film adaptation of Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, and the D. W. Griffith melodrama Way Down East, starring Lillian Gish. One of his best and funniest reassessments—which we present in full below as our Story of the Week selection—is his midcentury take on Edgar Rice Burrough’s 1914 novel Tarzan of the Apes.

In public statements and private correspondence, S. J. Perelman—known as Sid to his friends—often compared his writing career to drudgery, to a job like any other. “I sit in a hot little room and string together words like beads” he told a New York audience in 1957. “It’s a flabby, genteel existence, and I don’t think it’s the ideal way to make a living, but I’m too fragile to drive a brewery truck and I’m too nervous to steal. . . . Nonetheless, I cling to it doggedly.” During an interview in 1962, he admitted half-jokingly, “I loathe writing. On the other hand, I'm a great believer in money.” His biographer Dorothy Herrmann calls out the deceptiveness of these statements, since “few commercial writers wrote as meticulously and exquisitely as he did. Sid cared deeply about the craft of writing, often spending an entire day on one sentence.” He did confess, grudgingly, that the Cloudland pieces were a pleasure to write: “In so far as any writing can be said to be enjoyable—I categorically deny that it can—I find this new stuff of some slight absorbing interest while working on it.” The series provided another source of satisfaction, as he admitted to an interviewer in 1967, “I was constantly amazed and gratified by the memories of readers who communicated with me after the pieces came out—the sharp images they retained of those movies and their youths; it just needed a catalytic agent to awaken them.”

In 1957, the year he won an Academy Award for the screenplay of Around the World in Eighty Days, Perelman was asked, “‘Have you ever considered a serious book?” and he responded by revealing just how earnest he was about the writing he pretended to loathe:
It may surprise you to hear me say—and I’ll thank you not to confuse me with masters of the paradox like Oscar Wilde and G. K. Chesterton—that I regard my comic writing as serious. For the past thirty-four years, I have been approached almost hourly by damp people with foreheads like Rocky Ford melons who urge me to knock off my frivolous career and get started on that novel I’m burning to write. I have no earthly intention of doing any such thing. I don’t believe in the importance of scale; to me the muralist is no more important than the miniature painter. In this very large country, where size is all and where Thomas Wolfe outranks Robert Benchley, I am content to stitch away at my embroidery hoop. I think the form I work can have its own distinction, and I would like to surpass what I have done in it.
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Notes: Barney Oldfield was a pioneering automobile racer whose name became synonymous with speed. In Greek mythology, Mount Pelion was thought to be home to the centaurs. Two giants attempted to pile it on top of Mount Ossa in an attempt to reach Mount Olympus and destroy the gods; in other words, to “pile Pelion upon Ossa” implies a great deal of futile labor. Foxy Grandpa was an early-twentieth-century comic strip created by cartoonist Carl E. Schultze; its eponymous character is constantly pranked by his grandsons, but he always manages to out-trick them. Willie Baxter is the callow teenage protagonist of Booth Tarkington’s bestselling 1916 novel Seventeen. The Newgate Calendar was originally a mid-eighteenth-century monthly bulletin of executions at London’s Newgate Prison. The title was quickly appropriated by the publishing world for chapbooks about the exploits of notorious criminals. Later bound into volumes, with the subtitle “The Malefactors’ Bloody Register,” they were among the most popular books of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. “Don’t strain your milk” was a slang expression for “Don’t overexert yourself”; a 1935 Jack Conroy novel depicts mill workers telling a new employee, “Take it slow and easy; if you start in fast you can’t last. Don’t strain your milk.” Johnny Weissmuller, winner of five Olympic gold medals for swimming in the 1920s, became famous for portraying the title character in the Tarzan movies of the 1930s and 1940s.

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