The Dubious Privilege of a Freelance Writer Is He’s Given the Freedom To Starve Anywhere

S. J. Perelman? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A major shift in the U.S. labor market has been occurring in recent years. The emerging system has been called the gig economy or the freelance economy. Self-employed temporary workers perform tasks for agreed-upon payments.

Freelancing has been common in some fields for many decades. The prominent humorist S. J. Perelman who wrote numerous pieces for “The New Yorker” magazine once linked his freedom from fixed employment with the unfortunate possibility of starvation. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1970 S. J. Perelman was planning to move from the U.S. to England. He looked forward to a new life in a land that maintained a “taste for eccentricity”. A reporter for “The Washington Post” spoke to him before his departure. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Perelman said he had a rush of mail all virtually saying the same thing: “I wish I had the guts to do what you’re doing. It doesn’t take guts. The dubious privilege of a freelance writer is he’s given the freedom to starve anywhere.

Perelman’s stay in England was not lengthy; he returned to the U.S. after a few years and died in 1979.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1987 “S. J. Perelman: A Critical Study” by Steven H. Gale included the quotation under examination together with a statement made by Perelman after his homecoming: 2

Before leaving the United States in 1970, Perelman claimed that “It doesn’t take guts [to leave]. The dubious privilege of a freelance writer is he’s given the freedom to starve anywhere.” The time away from home persuaded him otherwise. In an interview after having returned for his sojourn in the United Kingdom, Perelman says that he will never become an expatriate because “A writer needs the constant conflict, the rush of ideas that happens only in his native country.”

The second quotation above appeared in “The New York Times” in November 1974. 3

In 1990 “Writers on Writing” compiled by Jon Winokur included the quotation: 4

S. J. Perelman (1904-1979)
The dubious privilege of a freelance writer is he’s given the freedom to starve anywhere.

In October 2019 the renowned quotation compiler Mardy Grothe included in his email newsletter a short biographical sketch of Perelman together with a selected group of quotations which included this one. 5

In conclusion, S. J. Perelman deserves credit for this quotation based on the 1970 citation in “The Washington Post”.

Image Notes: Illustration of an old-fashioned workspace with typewriter from rawpixel at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe who mentioned this quotation in his October 13, 2019 email newsletter which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1970 October 18, The Washington Post, Section: Style, Perelman’s Rasping Wit Becomes an Anglo-File by Myra MacPherson, Start Page E1, Quote Page E4, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  2. 1987, S.J. Perelman: A Critical Study by Steven H. Gale, Series Number 15: Contributions To the Study of Popular Culture, Chapter 4: Themes and Techniques, Quote Page 188, Greenwood Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1974 November 3, New York Times, Section 2: Arts and Leisure, Perels of Wisdom Before an Opening by Stefan Kanfer, Start Page 1, Quote Page 5, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1990, Writers on Writing, Compiled by Jon Winokur, Topic: Money, Quote Page 163, Running Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified with scans)
  5. Email Newsletter: Dr. Mardy’s Quotes of the Week, Article title: This Week in History, Article author: Mardy Grothe, Date of newsletter: October 13-19, 2019, Newsletter description: A Weekly Celebration of Great Quotes in History and the History Behind the Quotes. (Email received by Garson O’Toole on October 13, 2019)