The Real Peterman: Poetics and Persona

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“Language allows itself to be dragged along by its double, and joins the best to the worst for a phantom of rationality whose formula is ‘Everyone must believe in it.’ Such is the message of what unites us.” –J.J. Bouttes, Le destructeur d’intensités (The Destroyer of Intensities)

Last week I received an “Owner’s Manual”–Number 112, to be precise–in the mail. It’s the Holiday 2013 edition of a catalog from The J. Peterman Company, a business I did not know was real before holding the catalog in my hands. “The Owner’s Manual” begins with a Philosophy signed by J. Peterman himself. Abridged here: “People want things that are hard to find. Things that have romance, but a factual romance, about them…Clearly, people want things that make their lives the way they wish they were.”

I’d heard of J. Peterman before. In middle school, I watched Seinfeld, in reruns and new episodes, to its finale, because knowing about the show seemed one of those things that made my life as I wished it, full of hijinks and one-liners, something to talk about always on my lips. But I didn’t really want to live in that sarcastic world–I’m far too sensitive. I couldn’t be Elaine, but I did admire her dance moves, her boasting of domain, and that she was a writer, employed by the excessive Jacopo Peterman, world traveler and sartorial savant. Particularly fond of the “Mysterious Orient” and its fabled opium dens, Seinfeld’s Peterman is a problematic sort of world traveler–a ruthless hunter of treasure–but a funny one. On the show, John O’Hurley played J. Peterman with lush-eyebrowed, gray-pompadoured zest, crooning about his journeys in search of Mongolian horsehair vests and decorative policemen’s whistles. What a character! I never considered that he might be real.

The Owner’s Manual I received last week, however, reads exactly how O’Hurley’s character sounded on the show. The catalog is typeset in a literary Cambria font, and most items are described by way of narrative, in prose works of 500 or so purplish words. A scene is given, often in first person, with exoticized references made to travel, an enchanting wife, a feat of daring, or a Kentucky farmhouse retreat. The Peterman voice also dabbles in the trappings of verse: breaking lines like a poet and making curious use of enjambments. The shorter pieces read almost as Buddhist koans. Take for example, the following copy for a woman’s leather belt:

“Come on, don’t./Let it move./A bit lower on the hip. A bit below the belly button./With a skirt, jeans, or even better, a new fall blouse./Curious eyes will notice.”

(For the record, I do not attest to the literary merit of these works. But there’s a distinctive pleasure to this voice, no?)

Take another few moments to enjoy Jacopo Peterman’s first Seinfeld appearance.  Now you’ve surely got the mythic tone in your ear.

The bold promise of a plushy red vest (called “Joie de Vivre”) urged me to seek more information about the real J. Peterman:

“He who wears this burgundy velvet vest/possesses an energy that cannot be adequately/ described in words./Photography, yes, for sure. /And when you study it/this photograph of/your holiday soirée months later, you’ll realize it/wasn’t the vest that made him./He made the vest. The energy he created/ that night was not about pretty versus ugly. Fat/versus thin. Young versus old. Haves versus/ have nots. It was about ebullience./Booming laughs (vaguely Falstaffian). Original/ compliments. Curious questions about ideas/(not people and places). Things he believed./Things he was scared of./Life the way it should be lived.”

John Henry Peterman, founder of The J. Peterman Company, is as real as can be. As a four-foot-eleven high school athlete, he gave up his dreams of major league baseball and drifted into commerce, selling pineapples, dog food, and then discovering his business home in travel. He founded the company in 1987, selling as his first item a cowboy’s duster he found on a trip to Wyoming.

I visited The J.Peterman Company’s website, which is quaintly anachronistic. In terms of content, Peterman’s worldview seems of the age of Dutch spice merchants. Available for sale on the website, in addition to the “uncommonly good stuff” also offered by the catalog, are serialized books of original Peterman fiction, called Field Report. Field Report No.  2 gives the following synopsis:

“Over Land and Sea, J. Peterman and colleagues 
race through the mysterious Malaysian Peninsula
 and the timeless Irrawaddy River to reunite a very 
valuable coin collection.”

The Mysterious Orient, indeed! As for technological age, Peterman’s website also seems a throwback, though I’d date its cluttered, beige background circa 1998. The catalog site links to a community site, “Peterman’s Eye, A Community of Curious Travelers,” where Peterman, or his avatar, hosts an amateur photography contest, and tales of “travel and adventure” are shared by readers. One can even book a trip anywhere in the world.

Central to the myth of Peterman is a mythology of world travel. As the story goes, Peterman founded his company on goods he traveled the world to select by hand. The theme of anachronism plays out here too. Peterman refers to countries by their colonial names–Thailand is Siam, and Myanmar, Burma. On Peterman’s Eye, the figure of J. Peterman emerges as ever the treasure-hunter, seeking Indiana Jones style romance, an essentialist. “Travel is about story,” the website reads. “Adventure. Heroes. Villains. Secrets. People in between. And most importantly treasure, whatever that means for that trip.” No polite nods to postcolonial theory here, on this quest for El Dorado. “Travel is about education. Small local hotels. Off-the-beaten- path restaurants and shopping. Bespoke routes. Real contact information. Real people. Real places.”

On the radio last week, I listened to a brief interview with the world record holder for “most traveled man,” Mike Spencer Bown, and was immediately reminded of J. Peterman’s pronouncements on the world’s curiosities:

BOWN: I just use all the local guides, so there’s all these locals. And if you’re a good judge of character, you can see who’s friendly. So, yeah, you just talk to them and you figure out what they suggest and just one thing happens after another. I guess I call it freestyle traveling because you don’t really go off a guidebook. You just arrive and see what happens.

Freestyle travel: sounds to me like a philosophical analogue to Peterson’s Eye of curiosity, in Peterson-esque “get the good stuff” opportunism. In the interview, the record holder describes some recent hijinks: impersonating a UN Officer in order to enter the Congo and befriend M-23 rebels, backpacking through Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of conflict, honing an “ability to assess whether people are good or whether they have some sort of ulterior motive.” I laughed hardest at that last boast. Is he psychic? Not everyone can take up space in the way that an able-bodied Western man can. And is every local–whether “good” or “bad”– really awaiting an opportunity to behave as a personal travel guide for enterprising Western men on the road?

Lore, lure, loot. Discover and plunder–it’s an old story, in history, in travel, in shopping.  The treasures of the natives, taken home as souvenirs. Looking for the real, finding it. Others have noted the skeezy undertones of all this joyful plundering.

But back to the goofy pleasures of Peterman’s ghostwritten texts–for all that, what a world, what a material-fantasy.

In the institutional-pajama-like “Riviera Pant,” is a promise of affluence, social know-how, and taste:

Riviera Pant

I never understood what he had to get even about. He was famously handsome and wealthy. Knew Picasso, Cole Porter.

It was he and his wife, Sara, who showed F. Scott Fitzgerald exactly how the American rich behave in Europe. That was in the early 1920s, when they invented expat summer on the French Riviera. They made suntans fashionable, wearing of berets, striped fisherman’s shirts, and espadrilles… and distinctive cotton drawstring pants like these.

In this garish caftan, the romance and treasure of the west:

Real de Catorce Caftan

“It makes me feel alive, JP.”

I glimpse Luisa’s smile as we speed along the cobblestone lane just off San Tiburcio. Orange hues of this sierra dusk fills the windshield.

“You make this one, too?” I motion to her Old Mexico caftan.

She ignores me. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. “If we find silver, gold, diamonds or dirt—it has never mattered to me.”

“I know.” I laugh a bit, rolling down the window, fresh dry mountain air blowing into us. I can’t decide. Do I like her because of the caftan or the caftan because of her? Maybe it’s simply the way I think about life when I’m around her.

And in a nightgown (Peterman is exceptionally fond of nightgowns) of the previously unromantic hue “celery,” is a promise of hot sex in a moldy British estate:

Celery-colored nightgown

Barcaldine Castle in the West Highlands.

You’ve purposely chosen separate sleeping chambers and not because the romance has dwindled. Quite the contrary. See, you two have this thing…

Suffice to say it involves blindfolds, secret passageways, and a nightgown just like this.

Yours is next to the fireplace, behind the armoire.

Of course, escapism in advertising is nothing new. Don’t all companies attempt to sell a lifestyle by way of material goods? J. Peterman promises the genuine article, the authentic “good stuff,” just like everyone else. (Personally, I never knew how much I needed a celery-colored nightgown until Peterman whispered in my ear from the page. Unfortunately, the gown exceeds my budget.) With each description, I became more curious about the real Peterman, who seems to be everywhere (Looking for the real gaucho in Argentina! Seducing Zelda Fitzgerald! On Seinfeld!) and nowhere (copywritten, performed, constructed)  at once.  What’s most fascinating to me about J. Peterman are the places where the man and myth intersect.

John Henry Peterman had the creators of Jacopo Peterman to thank for the rising success of his company in the mid-1990s. Revenue increased dramatically once J. Peterman appeared on Seinfeld, and John Henry Peterman set about building 15 brick and mortar stores around the country. But, alas, Peterman became too bold with his investments. Would it be unkind to say that hubris took the reins? Perhaps it’s no coincidence that The J. Peterman Company website glows with the patina of the auspicious year 1998, for it was that very year that John Henry Peterman filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. “It’s very difficult for entrepreneurs to face reality,” John Henry Peterman reflected later, “or they wouldn’t be entrepreneurs. They’re used to living in a surreal world — of hope and dreams.”  The J. Peterman Company was purchased at auction in 1999 by the Paul Harris Stores, which, unfortunately for John Henry Peterman, went bankrupt in 2001.

Occasionally, in the Holiday 2013 iteration of Peterman’s romance with “uncommonly good stuff,” the copywriter (a man named Don in at the Lexington, KY headquarters was all I could gather) seems to wink from the page, an anachronism here, there, a shift in register from the overdone romantic to the self-aware absurd. In a description of the kind of nightgown a D.H. Lawrence heroine might wear, this: “You’ll give him five more minutes and then text him./How long does it take to find a bottle of Louis Roederer Cristal Brut 2002, and a crudités platter with a dip made from a fat-free mixture of yogurt and cottage cheese?” An excellent question, and one that shatters the illusion that the wearer might be awaiting an assignation in a moldy English estate in 1912.

The Owner Manual’s description of a Portuguese-made gray tweed blazer and vest, a first-person piece, seems a nod to J. Peterman’s real-life business difficulties: “I walk into Per Se wearing this blazer and vest./I know they want an answer. Stresses are high. Stakes are higher./Time frame ended yesterday. I’m just off a flight from Istanbul./Restaurant is empty, just twelve impeccably dressed executives in dark custom suits (all very tall) from the other/side, and their chef of course. Did they really buy out this/restaurant for the entire night?/”Hello, Mr. Peterman.”/In battle, no matter the kind or place, you have to/make decisions on incomplete date. Fog is expected./Prepare/ Be who you are, not who they want you to/be. Wear something that helps you communicate/I unbutton my blazer and shake his hand./”Gentlemen, I am going to pass on your/gracious offer.”

Here we have enjambment (Did they really buy out this/restaurant), the speaker’s confessional anxieties about his own height [(all very tall)], and the reaffirmation of the promise of The J. Peterman Company’s Philosophy: if one “Wear[s] something that helps you communicate,” then their lives might be the way they wish them to be.

When The J. Peterman Company nearly folded for the second time in 2001, it was John O’Hurley, his Seinfeld double, that John Henry Peterman called for help. O’Hurley was being driven around Central Park in his limo when he took the call. “You betcha!” O’Hurley said without pause, in his smooth, Jacopo Peterman baritone, according to John Henry Peterman. The money was given, mirror to referent, and the company was, though nearly destroyed, eventually resurrected.

Over the course of his time on Seinfeld, the minor character of Peterman, perhaps because of his onscreen magnetism, moves from subplot to central action. When Jacopo Peterman decides a book must be written about his life, Elaine is assigned the task. She arrives at Peterman’s apartment with a tape recorder and a notebook, visibly confused by the lack of decor. This apartment does not look like Peterman sounds, like the world of sensual silks and linens the catalog evokes. She has expected something else, a storehouse of Peterman’s travels, an apartment that evokes both an opium den and a bungalow in Nice. The walls are bare. The decor is middlebrow, pedestrian. Peterman rifles through a shoebox containing coupons and flips T.V. channels, his tube-socked feet splayed on a nicked coffee table. Of his life, Peterman has nothing to say. On the forthcoming chapter of his romantic exploits, Peterman instructs Elaine, “Feel free to throw yourself into the mix.” The man does not match the myth, and so Elaine convinces her friend Cosmo Kramer, who has lived a colorful life, to contribute his tales to Peterman’s biography. Kramer’s tales are incomprehensible, and Elaine revises them into tidier fictions. Peterman gives no credit, and hardly any cash, to Kramer.

Kramer exacts revenge on Peterman by contriving a New York City bus tour, “The Real Peterman bus tour.” He offers his passengers pizza bagels and a peek at Kramer’s own daily haunts: the dump, Newman’s postal route. “Not very romantic!” a robust, ruffled woman in sunglasses cries out from the back of the bus. Her words are no small charge against the verité of the Peterman enterprise. She wants “the good stuff,” the un-dissimulated, the real, if you will. Jason Alexander’s George Costanza character summarizes:  “J Peterman is real, his bio is not. Now you, Kramer are real. But your life is Peterman’s.” Baudrillard might say the same.

Turns out that the real Peterman, John Henry, not Jacopo, has written a version of himself into that self-mythologizing literary form, the memoir. Who knows if he had an Elaine, or a Kramer, to assist in the tale-spinning. The book can be bought for a cent on another world-plundering colonial empire of material commerce, Both the Peterman of the catalog, and Seinfelds fictionalized Peterman might be read in the swashbuckling, maximalist title: Peterman Rides Again: Adventures with the Real “J. PETERMAN” Continue Through Life & the Catalog Business. On the book’s cover, Peterman cuts a curious figure: he’s a paunchy uncle-type, an Easterner in boyish Western dress-up, wearing a tan both sincere and leathery. He’s neither Seinfeld’s version nor is he exactly the mild, diminutive suburbanite by The New York Times. This man has seen some adventures, imagined many more.

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