Authors: Peter De Vries

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

But Who Wakes the Bugler?, 1940

The Handsome Heart, 1943

Angels Can’t Do Better, 1944

The Tunnel of Love, 1954

Comfort Me with Apples, 1956

The Mackerel Plaza, 1958

The Tents of Wickedness, 1959

Through the Fields of Clover, 1961

The Blood of the Lamb, 1962

Reuben, Reuben, 1964

Let Me Count the Ways, 1965

The Vale of Laughter, 1967

The Cat’s Pajamas and Witch’s Milk, 1968

Mrs. Wallop, 1970

Into Your Tent I’ll Creep, 1971

Forever Panting, 1973

The Glory of the Hummingbird, 1974

I Hear America Swinging, 1976

Madder Music, 1977

Consenting Adults: Or, The Dutchess Will Be Furious, 1980

Sauce for the Goose, 1981

Slouching Towards Kalamazoo, 1983

The Prick of Noon, 1985

Peckham’s Marbles, 1986

Short Fiction:

No, But I Saw the Movie, 1952

Without a Stitch in Time: A Selection of the Best Humorous Short Pieces, 1972

Drama:

The Tunnel of Love: A Play, pb. 1957 (with Joseph Fields)

Spofford, pb. 1968

Biography

Peter De Vries (duh VREEZ) is the most serious of the comic writers (such as Robert Benchley, S. J. Perelman, and James Thurber) associated with The New Yorker. He was born in Chicago in 1910, the second child of Dutch immigrants, Joost and Henrietta Eldersveld De Vries. His parents were deeply religious Dutch Calvinists. De Vries attended a parochial school and in 1927 went to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he played basketball and edited the student newspaper. From 1931 to 1941 he worked at various jobs; he sold candy, worked on his father’s moving van, and was a radio actor. From 1941 to 1944 he was an editor of Poetry magazine. In that capacity he met Katinka Loeser, an associate editor of the magazine and a short-story writer. They married in 1943, and one year later, at the invitation of James Thurber, they moved to New York, where De Vries became the cartoon editor of The New Yorker.{$I[AN]9810001215}{$I[A]De Vries, Peter[DeVries, Peter]}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;De Vries, Peter[DeVries, Peter]}{$I[tim]1910;De Vries, Peter[DeVries, Peter]}

In 1948 De Vries moved with his growing family to Westport, Connecticut. He and his wife had two sons and two daughters, one of whom, Emily, died of leukemia at the age of eleven in 1960. This inspired the searing account of the death of a child in The Blood of the Lamb. DeVries also tried to exorcise the experience in the paired novellas The Cat’s Pajamas (which was made into a film entitled Pete ‘n Tillie, with Walter Matthau and Carol Burnett) and Witch’s Milk. Between 1952 and 1986 De Vries published approximately one book per year, but his finest period was between 1954, when he wrote The Tunnel of Love, and 1965, when he wrote Let Me Count the Ways.

De Vries may be identified with The New Yorker for many reasons. The New Yorker presents a hectoring liberal morality flanked by advertisements that offer a cornucopia of sybaritic delights. The novels of De Vries present a similar contradiction. His protagonists are usually torn between a strict Calvinism in which they cannot believe and an exurban Vanity Fair of which they disapprove. Most of the novels are narrated in the first person by someone who has an amused contempt for the Protestantism he has left behind in the Midwest and yet is appalled by the shallowness and hypocrisy he finds among the commuters who are his neighbors. De Vries’ defense is a humor attuned to the absurdity of their opinions and the ridiculousness of their fashions. This posture could be offensively elitist, but De Vries is always kind to the objects of his amusement. He called himself a comic writer, not a satirist.

The Tunnel of Love is a paradigm of the De Vriesian novel. It contrasts two exurban neighbors: Dick Pepper, an inhibited moralist, and Augie Poole, who sows his wild oats. Pepper feels guilty for not being able to overcome his decency, and Augie plays the rogue so he can have something about which he can feel guilty. De Vries also contrasts his women characters. Augie’s wife is a fertile Earth Mother, whereas Dick and his wife are attempting to adopt a baby. When Augie has a fling with the comely inspector from the adoption agency, there is a further contrast between the loose and the chaste woman. The crisis in the novel depends on Pepper’s anxiety that he may be adopting his own child.

This early novel may have the tightest plot of all De Vries’ works. In his other works he sacrifices a whole scene for a pun or a whole chapter for the introduction of an eccentric character. Usually the joke is worth the digression. Proper names are often Dickensian puns (Mrs. Wallop, the lecherous poet McGland), and there are mixed metaphors (“He ought to have his marbles examined”), malapropisms (“pseudo-masochist”), and mispronunciations (“prolly” for “probably” and “kwee” for “could we”). De Vries introduces his readers to Moot Point (a seaside retreat) and By a Dam Site (a vacation home in Indiana).

Let Me Count the Ways illustrates De Vries’ use of two narrators. The first half is narrated by Stan Waltz, a Polish furniture mover, and the second half by his son Tom, an English professor. Stan is an agnostic, his wife a born-again Christian. He chides her with the inconsistencies of the Bible, and she presents him with a “Bible Belt” (a belt inscribed with scriptural passages). He is appalled to be married to someone who never heard of H. L. Mencken and who orders a book on personal hygiene. Yet Stan Waltz’s grip on the world is not always firm. He submits an Elizabeth Barrett Browning sonnet to a poetry contest as though it were his own. In Tom Waltz’s narration there is more comic action than witty language. For example, he leaves a funeral intending not to go to the cemetery but discovers that he is leading the cortege, unsuccessfully racing to lose the hearse behind him.

The De Vries’ late daughter, Emily, is the inspiration for the most somber novel, The Blood of the Lamb. The early part of the work appears to be veiled autobiography. Don Wanderhope is reared in that enclave of Dutch Calvinists well known to De Vries’ readers. Theological disputes sharpen the hero’s isolation in a secular world without leaving him with conviction. His admiration for an older brother who gives their mother faked consolation on his deathbed only confuses the issue for Wanderhope. He attends a college that resembles Calvin College, is married, and moves to Connecticut. Here the story deviates from De Vries’ own. With Wanderhope’s wife dead, the protagonist must carry the burden of false hopes and grief alone when his daughter contracts leukemia. On Wanderhope’s final visit he brings a birthday cake, but his daughter is dead. He gazes at her body, saying that she looks “as though she had been clubbed to death.” After several drinks, he retrieves the cake and throws it at the effigy of the crucified Christ outside a church. Later he comes to believe that “man must learn to live without those consolations called religious. . . . Man has only his own two feet to stand on, his own human trinity to see him through: Reason, Courage, and Grace. And the first plus the second equals the third.”

De Vries’ comedy generally becomes darker after The Blood of the Lamb. A child also dies in Witch’s Milk, and in The Cat’s Pajamas the hero, locked out of his house, tries to get in through the dog’s door, becomes stuck, and freezes to death. Yet the surface of the comedy becomes richer and more allusive and includes extended passages of comic verbal imagination. In Reuben, Reuben there are fine parodies of Dylan Thomas, and in Consenting Adults a street preacher mixes biblical admonishment with New Age slang. De Vries’ prose is always supple, and in Peckham’s Marbles he even employs a Wodehousean crispness. Yet it is De Vries’ tortured seriousness that gives his comedy a depth that is lacking in the comedy of many others.

BibliographyBoston, Richard. An Anatomy of Laughter. London: Collins, 1974. Considers DeVries among the best humorists of his generation.Bowden, Edwin T. Peter De Vries. Boston: Twayne, 1983. A concise critical biography that provides a useful overview of De Vries’ life and works. After an introductory biographical chapter, Bowden discusses each of the major novels. The text is supplemented by a chronology, notes, and a selected bibliography of primary and secondary works.Campion, Dan. Peter De Vries and Surrealism. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1995. Provides chapters on De Vries’ literary life, his encounter with surrealism in the 1930’s, his novel But Who Wakes the Bugler?, and his use of humor. Includes very detailed notes and bibliography.David, Douglas M. “An Interview with Peter De Vries.” College English 28 (April, 1967): 524-530. A lively interview in which the author raises some interesting questions about De Vries’ style of humor. De Vries discusses his use of suburban settings, his character types, and his humorous attitude toward sexuality.Davies, Robertson. A Voice from the Attic. Rev. ed. New York: Penguin, 1990. Lauds De Vries’ ear for language and defends his relaxed use of first-person narrators.Higgins, William R. “Peter De Vries.” In American Novelists Since World War II. Vol. 6 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1980. A standard author entry that provides a useful profile of De Vries’ life and works. It includes a list of primary and secondary sources.Hunt, Georg W. “Of Many Things.” America, October 23, 1993. An obituary that also discusses several DeVries novels.Jellema, Roderick. Peter De Vries: A Critical Essay. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1966. This monograph in the Contemporary Writers in Christian Perspective series includes a critical study of De Vries’ first eight novels. This study points to the religious issues that are often overlooked in discussions of De Vries as a humorist.Kort, Wesley A. Shriven Selves. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974. Sees De Vries as someone comfortable neither in the community of faith nor outside it.Sale, Richard B. “An Interview in New York with Peter De Vries.” Studies in the Novel 1 (1969): 364-369. This interview touches on De Vries’ writing habits and includes questions about the type of humor in his novels and his view of the world. De Vries discusses the question of whether he is a black humorist.Yagoda, Ben. “Being Seriously Funny.” The New York Times Magazine, June 12, 1983, 42-44. A feature article that presents a portrait of De Vries and an overview of his literary career. Yagoda’s article offers a good introduction to the writer and his work.
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