In his first novel, Peter Whiffle, Carl Van Vechten’s hero expounds on the art of criticism, Van Vechten’s vocation in the decade before he wrote fiction. Recalling Remy de Gourmont, Peter Whiffle asserts, “Criticism is perhaps the most suggestive of literary forms; it is a perpetual confession; believing to analyze the works of others, the critic unveils and exposes himself to the public.” So, he continues, one learns more about the critic than about the object of his (or her) observations. “Criticism should open channels of thought and not close them; it should stimulate the soul and not revolt it. And criticism can only be wholesome and sane and spiritually stimulating when it is contradictory.” Van Vechten, above all, believed that life itself was contradictory, that appearances often deceived, that absurdity ruled more often than logic. Nevertheless, he exulted in strong, creative, exciting personalities, and believed that such strength could overcome the inherent absurdity of life. If there were no truth, no unalterable facts, there could at least be style, anecdote, spirit—those qualities that Whiffle said readers looked for in “the old critics”—and there also could be enthusiasm and joy.
Given Van Vechten’s notions about literary criticism, it is no wonder that he gravitated toward fiction, where characters might easily express contradictory ideas and where the writer’s style, spirit, and personality are expected to pervade the text. In his novels, Van Vechten emerges as an observant and perceptive critic of his own society and his particular time. His novels, as Donald Pizer notes, “Chronicle either in authorial asides or miniature essays the taste and interests of the decade from the conventional to the avant garde.” His friends and acquaintances often made appearances, sometimes under pseudonyms, and current music, books, and paintings are evoked vividly.
Aiming to analyze his world, Van Vechten also reveals his own particular point of view: that of the tolerant but wiser and older participant (he was nearly forty-two years old when he published his first novel), one who looks with bemused sympathy on the antics around him. He accepts—as his characters often do not—that the world is absurd; he is not shocked or dismayed by the suffering, unhappiness, and anguish beneath the glittering life of cosmopolitan high society because he knows that life offers joy and satisfaction, if only one knows where to look. He is aware of the conflict between the sensitive artist and a world that would deny him, but he believes that strength of personality and self-assertion can overcome many obstacles. In his acceptance of absurdity and his belief in the capacity of the artist to survive emotionally and psychologically, he stands apart from some of the younger writers of his time: Sherwood Anderson, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. Though he shares many of their artistic problems, he does not share their anger, and this ability to delight and be delighted distinguishes Van Vechten’s fiction.
Peter Whiffle, in this novel about writing a novel, is a would-be writer, searching for self and inspiration in a troubling world. He encounters Van Vechten, who reappears in the novel to meet Peter at several stages of his artistic development; Peter confides his theories of life and art to the patient older man, and reveals the confusions faced by the artist as a young man. At first, Peter announces that he plans to write a book, and Van Vechten asks him what it will be about. Peter replies, That is what it is to be about, about three hundred pages, three hundred pages of colour and style and lists, lists of objects, all jumbled artfully. There isn’t a moral, or an idea, or a plot, or even a character. There’s to be no propaganda or preaching, or violence, or emotion, or even humour.
Art, Peter says, is necessarily abstract—never concrete; art is the pattern that emerges from artful juxtaposition. Some sixty pages later, Peter has discarded these notions and come to another conclusion: art “has nothing to do with style or form or manner.The matter is what counts.No style, no form, just subject.”
Obsessed now with political and social revolution, Peter decides that he must opt for realism over expressionism; Theodore Dreiser—and not, for example, Georg Kaiser—must be his model. Again, some sixty pages later, Peter is thoroughly confused: “Never did I feel less sure of the meaning of art than I do here,” he confesses. He has immersed himself in the world of literature, music, and painting, only to discover that no theory or formula will explain art. Finally, he decides that the personality of the artist and his ability to convey his impressions might yield a masterpiece of art. “I think a great book might be written if everything the hero thought and felt and observed could be put into it,” he says, adding, These ideas, impressions, objects, should all be set down. Nothing should be omitted, nothing! One might write a whole book of two hundred thousand words about the events of an hour. And what a book! What a book!
That book will never be written by Peter Whiffle, however, nor would it be written by Van Vechten. Peter observes that one might be able to create a work of art from one’s life,...
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