Perrin was born on September 18, 1927 in New York City and grew up in Pelham Manor, New York His parents both worked as advertising copywriters at the J. Walter Thompson Agency. His mother, Blanche Chenery Perrin, was a career writer and the author of several novels. Perrin's mother was his inspiration to become a writer.
Perrin was educated at the Woodberry Forest School in Woodberry Forest, Virginia, and later at Williams College, where he majored in English Literature and graduating in 1949. He received a master's degree from Duke University in 1950, then served in the United States Army. During the Korean War he served as a forward observer in a field artillery unit and was awarded the Bronze Star.
During the 1950s, Perrin taught English Literature at the Woman's College of the University of North Carolina (1956–1959). Perrin further studied at Cambridge University, where he received an Master's of Literature degree in 1958.
Perrin joined the Dartmouth faculty in 1959 as an instructor in English, reaching the rank of full professor by 1970. He specialized in teaching modern poetry, particularly that of Robert Frost. He was a Fulbright professor at Warsaw University in Poland in 1970, and was twice a Guggenheim Fellow. He joined Dartmouth's Environmental Studies Program in 1984 as an Adjunct Professor, teaching courses on a range of subjects.
He wrote essays for many publications and was a regular contributor to the Washington Post for more than 20 years, covering a wide variety of subjects. His Washington Post essays later were published as A Reader's Delight (1988), one of his 12 books. Mr. Perrin's later Washington Post columns about forgotten works of children's literature were collected in the book A Child's Delight (1997).
His second book, Dr. Bowdler's Legacy: A History of Expurgated Books in England and America (1969), was nominated for the National Book Award. His sixth book was Giving up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543–1879.
In 1963 Perrin bought a farm in Thetford Center, Vermont, which served him as home and grist for six books, including First Person Rural: Essays of a Sometime Farmer (1978). Perrin often wrote essays about rural life in a similar fashion as Will Carleton did with his poems. \"He reveled in the rural life,\" said writer Reeve Lindbergh, whose sister Anne Spencer Lindbergh was Perrin's third wife. \"He was a fresh and unexpected, ethical, humane and charming voice for northern New England. Noel Perrin's second in his trilogy of essays on the practice and philosophy of country living, Second Person Rural (1980), provided a healthy ration of practical advice for the \"sometime\" farmer. Perrin discussed how to use a peavey, what to do with maple syrup (besides pouring it over waffles), and how to replace a rototiller with a garden animal. Although Perrin taught at Dartmouth College and knew the terms of the upland Yankee fable, his sophisticated wit re-fashioned it without allowing it to lose its laconic edge.
Perrin's interest in environmental matters, including alternative energy sources, led him to purchase an electric car in 1990. He recounted his adventures driving his converted Ford Escort from the builder in California home to Vermont in Solo: Life with an Electric Car (1992). One advantage of the car proved to be a rare reserved parking spot on campus — with its own electrical outlet. Perrin later put a solar panel array on his barn roof.
Perrin once wrote to a friend: "I currently spend half my time teaching at Dartmouth, half farming and half writing. That this adds up to three halves I am all too aware." Perrin, who suffered from Shy-Drager syndrome, died at his farmhouse on November 21, 2004.