Peter De Vries

On this date in 1910, satirical novelist Peter De Vries was born in Chicago to Dutch immigrant parents who were devout Christian Reformed Church members. He attended elementary and secondary church schools. His father envisioned his son’s future as a clergyman and convinced him to enroll at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., where he instead studied English and played basketball.

After graduation he returned to Chicago and sold candy on a vending-machine route, worked for a small newspaper, acted on the radio and in 1938 joined Poetry magazine, first as an associate editor, then as co-editor. He met his soon-to-be wife, Katinka Loeser, in 1943 when she won an award from the magazine. They would have four children.

That was also the year he joined the New Yorker, working with James Thurber, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman and Dorothy Parker. De Vries’ specialty was writing cartoon captions. He was so adept at linking verbal pith to illustrations that many New Yorker cartoons started in reverse, with images commissioned to match his captions. His 1954 novel The Tunnel of Love, later a Broadway play and a movie starring Doris Day, featured a character with talents similar to De Vries’.

De Vries wrote prolifically: short stories, reviews, poetry, essays, plays, novellas and 23 novels. “De Vries was one of the United States’ funniest writers, but never remotely the most successful. He was extraordinarily inventive, a superb maker of plots, but he wrote in an era when linguistic virtuosity and verbal comedy were increasingly undervalued.” (The Independent, Oct. 3, 1993)

To philosopher Daniel Dennett, he was “probably the funniest writer on religion ever.” Novelist Kingsley Amis wrote in 1956 that De Vries was “the funniest serious writer to be found either side of the Atlantic.” Calvin College professor James Bratt called De Vries “a secular Jeremiah, a renegade CRC [Christian Reformed Church] missionary to the smart set.”

He’d grown up forbidden to watch movies, dance or play cards. As De Vries put it, “We were the elect, and the elect are barred from everything, you know, except heaven.” (The American Interest magazine, March 1, 2010) Journalist Jonathan Hiskes, who also grew up in Chicago in the Reformed Church, writing in the journal Image, Issue 83: “Almost nobody spoke of De Vries when I was growing up. If anyone even mentioned him, they dismissed him as ‘that atheist writer.’ ”

Hiskes added: “Where Calvinists are reverent in matters of religion and silent in matters of sex, De Vries was the opposite.” Don Wanderhop, De Vries’ protagonist in The Blood of the Lamb (1961), tells a girlfriend: “Sometimes I think this leg is the most beautiful thing in the world, and sometimes the other. I suppose the truth lies somewhere in between.” He introduces another character with “She was about twenty-five, and naked except for a green skirt and sweater, heavy brown tweed coat, shoes, stockings …”

The Blood of the Lamb is autobiographical and is his darkest, most poignant novel. It ends with the death of Wanderhop’s young daughter. De Vries published it a year after his daughter Emily died of leukemia at age 10. In its climactic scene, Wanderhop rages at a god who lets children suffer and die: “How I hate this world. … I would like to dismantle the universe star by star, like a treeful of rotten fruit.”

De Vries was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1983, the year Slouching Towards Kalamazoo was published. He died at age 83 in Norwalk, Conn., and was buried alongside his wife and daughter in Westport, Conn. His tombstone says, “Dying is hard, but comedy is harder.” D. 1993

Freedom From Religion Foundation