Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Carl Van Vechten, music critic, essayist, novelist, and photographer, was one of the primary figures in the American literary renaissance of the 1920’s, both as an artist and as a personality. Clever, gregarious, sophisticated, and a talented party-giver, Van Vechten numbered among his friends almost all of the important literary and cultural personages of his time. His apartments in Paris and New York became centers of cultural activity.

Out of this milieu, especially from his early years in Paris, Van Vechten wrote PETER WHIFFLE, HIS LIFE AND WORKS, a novel set in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The novel’s unique appeal lies in its balance between the realistic descriptions and social observations of the artistic life in Paris, New York, and Florence, and the exotic, fantastic, humorously developed “biography” of Peter.

The realistic anchor comes from Van Vechten’s decision to place himself, as a character, at the novel’s center. As the narrator and confidant of Peter, he presents the cultural environment of the period with feeling and precision. Van Vechten conveys a sense of personal involvement as he accurately describes local customs and inhabitants, social mores and peculiarities, as well as real places and events with careful attention to concrete details and physical actuality. He chronicles the social gatherings and artistic happenings of the time, using actual names in some cases, thinly disguised...

(The entire section is 431 words.)