(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Carl Van Vechten saw Peter Whiffle for the first time in Paris, in the spring. They were both young. Carl was naive and unworldly; Peter was sophisticated and knowing. Theirs was a strange friendship. Often they did not see each other for several years; but Carl knew that he was one of the few people whom Peter called his friend. They had spent many enjoyable hours in Paris that spring and together had seen all the famous places of which they had read. Peter wanted to write, and at that point in his life he thought that subject was unimportant, that style and form were the only important things. In fact, it was his plan to write a book containing nothing but lists of Things. When he wrote, he used colored papers to express his moods.

After that spring in Paris, six years passed before Carl saw Peter again. Carl was back in New York at the time, and while walking in the Bowery one night, he met Peter. He hardly recognized his friend when he saw Peter in rags, unshaven and unkempt. Carl learned that the rags were only another phase of Peter’s life, for Peter was a rich man. After he had learned Peter’s history, Carl began to understand him better.

Peter Whiffle, the son of a banker, was born and reared in Toledo, Ohio. From infancy, Peter found it almost impossible to make decisions. Whether to do this or that was a problem that he could seldom solve, and so, preferring inactivity to decision, he usually did nothing. There was, however, one thing about which he knew, his own mind. He hated work in any form. When Peter could no longer stand his work in his father’s bank, he left home and went to New York. There he often slept in the park and went for days without food. He took a few odd jobs in order not to starve. He lived in this fashion until his mother’s brother died and left him a fortune. On the night he learned of his inheritance, he decided to become a writer. A few days later, he left for Paris.

When they met in New York, Carl learned from Peter that, although he was still a wealthy man, he had joined a group of Socialists and with them was plotting an American revolution against capitalism. He was full of plans to barricade the rich in their homes and starve them to death, or bomb them, or hang them. Carl was not much disturbed, for he recognized this idea as another stage in Peter’s life. When Carl asked Peter about his book, he learned that Peter now believed subject, rather than style or form, was all-important. He was planning to write about the revolution, to have as his heroine a girl with a clubfoot, a harelip, and a hunched back. The book would be bloody and dirty, for that was the way life was.

When Carl took Peter to see Edith Dale, a woman of wealth, Peter and Edith became friends. At Edith’s house, Peter met Mahalah Wiggins, a young girl whom he found interesting; but he could not make up his...

(The entire section is 1174 words.)