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.
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...
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Peter De Vries was born in Chicago, Illinois, on February 27, 1910. His parents, Joost and Henrietta De Vries, emigrated from Holland and settled in a closely knit Dutch Calvinist community on Chicago’s South Side. De Vries’ father was an iceman and furniture mover who started with “a one-horse outfit that he gradually built to a sizeable warehouse business.” During De Vries’ boyhood, the family lived in a three-room apartment behind his father’s business office.
The De Vries family were members of the strict Dutch Reformed Church, and their domestic life was probably much like that described in the autobiographical The Blood of the Lamb: a large, contentious family with parents and in-laws forever arguing about some obscure point of theology or church doctrine. Apparently, such disagreements were commonplace in the Dutch Reformed Church, for in the novel The Mackerel Plaza, when someone boasts to the protagonist’s father that his denomination has not had a schism in the past one hundred years, the father replies, “Rotten wood you can’t split.” De Vries’ parents were also strict about forbidding any form of worldliness: Card playing and watching motion pictures were forbidden, and Bible reading and theological discussions were encouraged. During his adolescence, De Vries rebelled against these strictures, but he later expressed fond memories of the Dutch-language services and hymns of his childhood.
Young De Vries attended the Chicago Christian High School of the Dutch...
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