The Mackerel Plaza (1958)
I Hear America Swinging (1976)
Peter de Vries
Peter De Vries (1910–1993) was a brilliant American comic novelist who today is almost wholly forgotten. De Vries wrote more than twenty novels, but when he died, none was still in print. (Only two of the novels are in print today: The Blood of the Lamb  and Slouching Towards Kalamazoo .) Later we will come to why he went out of style. But as what goes around comes around and then may go around again, an argument can be mustered that De Vries’s time has indeed come again, that he is eminently deserving of rediscovery as a novelist who, notwithstanding his avowed atheism and the comic character of his books, had something worthwhile to say about religious issues.
Rediscovering De Vries may be especially worthwhile because his works help us come to terms with an important development: the undermining of the American religious consensus of fifty years ago, in which belief, however shallow, was virtually universal. The challenge to that bygone consensus is evident in the recent bestsellers by the triumvirate of the so-called New Atheists: Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Whatever one thinks of their books and the several spirited ripostes they have stimulated, it is hard to deny that American religion has become more interesting than it was half a century ago.
De Vries himself tried in his own way to spark this kind of debate at a time when just about everyone else insisted on avoiding it. He was ahead of his time, or, put another way, social reality has finally caught up with him.
De Vries reacted against the mid-20th-century consensus precisely because he realized that religion is of greater importance than the consensus suggested. In this respect he can be compared to two other novelists of his time who are better known today, and who, unlike him, wrote from an explicitly theistic perspective: Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy.
The consensus that O’Connor, Percy and De Vries each challenged was brilliantly dissected in Will Herberg’s influential 1955 volume, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. Herberg depicted an America in which religious belief was widespread but hollow—where, for example, more than 80 percent of Americans considered the Bible to be the “revealed word of God”, but 53 percent could not name even a single one of the four gospels. Furthermore, the same Americans who claimed that religion was very important to them also asserted that their religious views had no impact on their ideas about politics and business. In sum, Herberg said, American religion had “lost much of its authentic Christian (or Jewish) content.”
O’Connor and Percy were serious Catholics who shared Herberg’s critique that religion had decayed from active belief to mere identity marker. O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood (1952), describes the redemption of the preacher Hazel Motes, who starts out as the pastor of the “Church Without Christ” and declares that “nobody with a good car needs to be justified” by Jesus. O’Connor disdained the Catholicism of those who saw the Church “not [as] the body of Christ but [as] the poor man’s insurance system.” In Percy’s first and most autobiographical novel, The Moviegoer (1961), protagonist Binx Bolling takes aim at the findings of the survey data on which Herberg relied:
As everyone knows, the polls report that 98 percent of Americans believe in God and the remaining 2 percent are atheists—which leaves not a single percentage point for a seeker [like Bolling]. . . . Have 98 percent of Americans already found what I seek or are they so sunk in everydayness that not even the possibility of a search has occurred to them?
O’Connor and Percy came to—or grew into—serious Catholic belief as a result of personal journeys of intellectual exploration. In a sense De Vries moved in the opposite direction. His journey consisted of a movement away from the beliefs held by his devout Dutch Reformed immigrant parents, who forbade the cinema, dancing and playing cards. As De Vries put it, “We were the elect, and the elect are barred from everything, you know, except heaven.” Rejecting his parents’ views, De Vries became an intellectual sophisticate who was skeptical of religion. He spent much of his career at that bastion of urbane intellectual skepticism, the New Yorker. Nevertheless, De Vries’s experiences taught him the shaping power of religious belief, as well as the emotive skepticism that it sometimes engenders. He seems to have concluded that it was impossible for a thoughtful adult to lack interest in religion; it was something to be embraced or rejected, or actively grappled with, but not politely ignored. He put this foundational intuition to good use in several of his novels.
Thus the shallowness that troubled Herberg, O’Connor and Percy also troubled De Vries. He discerned shallowness in the views not only of orthodox Christians, however, but also in the views of liberal Christians and neo-pagan critics of Christianity. De Vries’s critique of these varied forms of shallowness emerges frequently in his work, not least in the three novels discussed here: The Blood of the Lamb (1961), The Mackerel Plaza (1958), and I Hear America Swinging (1976). These novels speak, respectively, to three important developments in the past half-century of American life: the increased prominence of explicitly atheist rejections of religion; the collapse of mainstream religious liberalism; and the rise of neo-pagan, post-Christian religions, notable for their irrationality. In addition to being good guides to the collapse of the mid-century religious consensus, the novels also provoke much laughter. As the prominent atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett rightly claims, De Vries was “probably the funniest writer on religion ever.”
The Blood of the Lamb is De Vries’s most uncharacteristically dark and serious novel. It is also the most autobiographical of the lot. De Vries suffered for a time from tuberculosis, from which he recovered in a church-run sanatorium; had an older sister who died when she was nineteen; had a father, a garbageman, who became mentally ill and died in a church-run sanatorium; and had a daughter who died of leukemia at age ten. Don Wanderhope, the narrator and protagonist of The Blood of the Lamb, was raised like De Vries in a Dutch Calvinist household. And his tragic experiences mirror those of De Vries—though in his case it is an older brother, not an older sister, who dies as an adolescent. For good measure, Don falls in love with a girl at the tuberculosis sanatorium shortly before she dies, and his wife commits suicide (before his daughter contracts leukemia). All things considered, it isn’t hard to understand why Don’s hopes—and his religious faith—fade.
De Vries begins the novel with Don’s claim that in the aftermath of his young daughter’s death he is “no longer assailed by doubts [about the validity of religion], being rather lashed by certainties” that there is no God, at least not a God to whom it makes sense to pray. Although Don’s life is obviously tragic in ways that (thankfully) set it apart from ordinary lives, one need not have led such a life to reach similar conclusions. With Don’s rejection of religion, De Vries represents the many American intellectuals who have also rejected it: Religious orthodoxy is not easily believable, the motives of believers are often suspect, and religion seems to ask us to worship a cruel or indifferent God. In short, religion faces both intellectual and moral problems not easily surmounted, except by the preternaturally unreflective.
De Vries points to the intellectual problem at the start of the book: Orthodox religion cannot be reconciled with science, not just because the latter disproves the former, but because the orthodox refuse to acknowledge the truth in front of them. We see Don’s uncle, a Calvinist clergyman, write a sermon based on the first verse of Genesis; it is to be “a treatise on the exact age of the earth”, which the clergyman computes to be 6,000 years, “as deduced from chronologies of the Old and New Testaments and other reliable sources.” The paperweight holding down the finished sermon contains “a piece of fossil from the Paleozoic era, five hundred million years old.”
De Vries alludes to the second problem, motivation, through Don’s account of how his father, who often wavered between religious belief and skepticism, made his “historic decision for Christ” once Don contracted tuberculosis. Why this choice? Because a tuberculosis sanatorium affiliated with the Dutch Reformed Church charged church members in good standing “the fabulously low rate of six dollars a month” (whereas non-members paid more than three times as much). O’Connor’s aphorism applies well to De Vries’s character: He returned to the fold almost literally for need of an insurance policy rather than because of a sincere acceptance of Christ.
But the most important problem, as De Vries recognizes, is the moral one raised by the age-old question of the suffering of the innocent. Before the death of Don’s tubercular girlfriend (foreshadowing the still more heart-wrenching death of his daughter), he declares that asking God to
cure you—or me, or anybody—implies a personal being who arbitrarily does us this dirt. The prayer then is a plea [for God] to have a heart. To knock it off. I find the thought repulsive. I prefer thinking we’re the victims of chance to dignifying any such force with the name of Providence.
In place of traditional religion the novel offers the following humanist manifesto, spoken by Don:
Man must learn to live without those consolations called religions, which his own intelligence must by now have told him belong to the childhood of the race. Philosophy can really give us nothing permanent to believe either; it is too rich in answers, each canceling out the rest. The quest for Meaning is foredoomed. Human life ‘means’ nothing. But that is not to say that it is not worth living. What does a Debussy Arabesque ‘mean,’ or a rainbow or a rose? A man delights in all of these, knowing himself to be no more—a wisp of music and a haze of dreams dissolving against the sun. Man has only his own two feet to stand on, his own human trinity to see him through: Reason, Courage, and Grace. And the first plus the second equals the third.
The Blood of the Lamb is thus manifestly an atheistic book, but there is nothing smug or, worse, casual, about its atheism. De Vries did not deny that there could be serious, thoughtful religious believers like O’Connor and Percy. The novel acknowledges such believers and even presents counterarguments on behalf of religion to complement its assault on it. Two of the book’s doctors are theists. One of them claims to believe in God, “and in man, which is a hell of a lot harder.” The other offers that “you believe what you must in order to stave off the conviction that it’s all a tale told by an idiot.” This doctor resents being asked to sum up his beliefs,
as people do who have thought a great deal about them. The superficial and the slipshod have ready answers, but those looking this complex life straight in the eye acquire a wealth of perception so composed of delicately balanced contradictions that they dread, or resent, the call to couch any part of it in a bland generalization.
In addition, The Blood of the Lamb even contains a brief utilitarian argument on behalf of religion. Even for Don it may be an open question as to whether human beings can really be humane in the absence of some sort of divine model. The only alternative to being at “the foot of the Cross”, he concedes, may be to face “the muzzle of a pistol.”
The Mackerel Plaza is a much lighter and funnier book than The Blood of the Lamb. The latter ends as a tragedy should, with a death, but the former ends as a comedy should, with a marriage—more precisely, an impending marriage. The Blood of the Lamb ends with Wanderhope distressed because God did not answer a prayer; The Mackerel Plaza ends with Mackerel distressed because God apparently did answer one.
In Mackerel De Vries depicts a liberal Protestant clergyman, the pastor of People’s Liberal church in Avalon, a fictional Connecticut suburb. Like De Vries (and Wanderhope), Mackerel is the son of immigrant Dutch Calvinist parents; he becomes a clergyman to keep a promise that he made to his mother on her deathbed, even though his religious views diametrically oppose the orthodox certainties of his parents. Thus the young Mackerel, dismayed at the schismatic tendencies of Dutch Calvinists, asks his father: “Instead of all this bickering over nonessentials, why can’t people emphasize the central truth on which all Christians can unite?” To which his father responds, “Stop talking like a crackpot.” (A De Vries line found in many of his books has an older Calvinist defending schisms on this ground: “Rotten wood, you can’t split.”)
Although such exchanges poke fun at the dogmatism of orthodox believers, De Vries was an equal-opportunity satirist who also made fun of liberal religion. Indeed, De Vries’s critique of liberal religion is even sharper than his critique of orthodoxy. The religious views of Don Wanderhope’s uneducated immigrant parents and uncle were an easy target, which virtually none of De Vries’s readers would have taken seriously. By contrast, many of his readers shared or at least took seriously the liberal religious views he satirized in The Mackerel Plaza.
In that book De Vries depicts liberal religion as intellectually incoherent. Like many who have rejected the orthodox beliefs in which they were raised, De Vries may well have concluded that only orthodox religion can be taken seriously, if one can manage it. He presents liberal religion as falling between the stools of traditional belief and atheism. It is laughable in its attempts to accommodate the modern, secular world without abandoning its origins in myth and mysticism. It is “diet” religion, superficially justifiable but utterly unfulfilling. And, most unexpectedly, it manages to replicate the dogmatism of religious orthodoxy—but does so on behalf of beliefs hardly worth the exertion.
Thus the very architecture of Mackerel’s church reveals the inanity of the faith it represents. It is “the first split-level church in America”, whose upper level consists of “one huge all-purpose interior, divisible into different-sized components by means of sliding walls and convertible into an auditorium for putting on plays, a gymnasium for athletics, and a ballroom for dances.” That description, of course, says nothing about somehow facilitating the human attempt to approach or encounter God. And that is because Mackerel’s church does not seriously aim to facilitate such encounters. Almost as an afterthought the description concludes with Mackerel noting that
there is a small worship area at one end. This has a platform cantilevered on both sides, with a free-form pulpit designed by Noguchi. It consists of a slab of marble set on four legs of four delicately differing fruitwoods, to symbolize the four Gospels, and their failure to harmonize.
Summing up, Mackerel adds, “People’s Liberal is a church designed to meet the needs of today, and to serve the whole man. This includes the worship of a God free of outmoded theological definitions and palatable to a mind come of age in the era of Relativity.” According to Mackerel, who is not at all trying to be funny, “The final proof of God’s omnipotence [is] that he need not exist in order to save us.”
Elsewhere De Vries points to the ridiculous character of the church’s liturgical music. The “new liberalized hymnal” makes use of tunes like “Funiculi-funicula” and “Has anybody here seen Kelly, K-e-double l-y.”
But in this book, too, De Vries’s critique is not only intellectual but also moral. Mackerel comes across as a well-meaning and witty man who is nevertheless intolerant of other viewpoints. The most important statement about him is made by his late wife’s sister, whom he is to marry at the story’s end. His sister-in-law finds him “quite a Calvinist” because of Mackerel’s “intolerance with other points of view, Dutch Calvinist stubbornness with people who don’t agree with you.”
Indeed, throughout the book De Vries shows Mackerel to be notably intolerant of anything that smacks of orthodoxy. The book begins with him attempting to have the local zoning board take down a billboard proclaiming that “Jesus Saves”:
Jesus doesn’t save any of these people, because all they want to do is boost their paltry souls into heaven, while completely shirking the obligation to evolve. What we see around us these days is not a revival at all but a kind of backsliding.
De Vries loved paradoxes, so this presentation of backsliding as a return to—rather than a departure from—religious orthodoxy is characteristic. Likewise, fanatic in his opposition to orthodoxy, Mackerel seems to believe that humane behavior cannot be countenanced if it is based on a belief in God. Thus he calls on “a woman bent on visiting hospitals and organizing hymn sings among the patients” in order to discourage her.
De Vries also lampoons liberal religion by pointing—presciently, in 1958—to what would soon become mainline Protestantism’s knee-jerk hostility to America’s political and economic leadership. Mackerel expects Avalon’s politicians and businessmen to launch a vicious campaign against him for questioning a civic project meant to commemorate his late wife, a social activist; the memorial in question is Mackerel Plaza, a public park and shopping center. In fact, the politicians and businessmen go out of their way to attempt to accommodate Mackerel. He, in turn, blames them for failing to fulfill their predestined role as defenders of the power structure—observing, for example, that the mayor is “a numskull without any sense of his role as a diehard reactionary.” Unlike Mackerel, the politicians and businessmen are reasonable. De Vries has Mackerel envision a hard-nosed right-wing power structure (in suburban Connecticut, of all places), but the power structure is timid and eager to the point of outright fawning to placate its critics on the Left.
The book ends happily, with the community gaining relief from a severe drought. The drought ends after—though of course not necessarily because—all of the local churches join in a day of prayer. De Vries has Mackerel respond once again like an ideologue. Instead of being happy that the drought has ended, he is miserable:
It’s not that I resent finding there is a God after all who answers prayers. . . . That kind of personal God, whose nonexistence was the mast to which I nailed my flag, and said Let’s get on from there. It’s not just having to face up to that possibility (as an alternative to pure fluke), it’s that my position is no longer tenable. If this is his answer, I’m just not his sort. Because who were at those prayer meetings? All the bores, dullards and bigots in town—not a person of civilized sensibility was there. If that’s the lot he gives aid and comfort to, so be it. But I cannot worship him.
If Don Wanderhope can be compared to a modern-day Job, angry with God for the disasters He visits upon him, Andrew Mackerel can be compared to a modern-day Jonah, angry with God for showing mercy to a mass of people unworthy of it. The comparison is not flattering to Mackerel.
The novel’s conclusion subtly criticizes religious orthodoxy, as well (De Vries’s depictions are never one-dimensional). We anticipate that Mackerel will achieve happiness at the book’s end after he marries his deceased wife’s sister. It’s therefore noteworthy that such a marriage would have been forbidden as incestuous by traditional Christian denominations, the Dutch Reformed Church emphatically included.
The Mackerel Plaza was published in 1958, during the heyday of American liberal Protestantism. To judge from De Vries’s satire, the subsequent decline of mainline liberal denominations—if not the concomitant rise of evangelical and fundamentalist denominations—cannot have greatly surprised him. Thus the book is arguably prophetic as well as satiric.
De Vries was a skillful parodist, and I Hear America Swinging takes its title from the Walt Whitman parody that introduces it:
I hear America swinging,
The carpenter with his wife or the mason’s wife, or even the mason,
The mason’s daughter in love with the boy next door, who is in love with the boy next door to him, . . .
All free in the great freedom that is to come, that is already here, . . .
Every man taking unto himself a wife, no matter whose,
Every woman taking unto herself a husband, no matter whose, . . .
None caring who does what to whom so long as it is done free and swinging,
All free, unbound and boundless in the new freedom, none stinting himself or another
In the new freedom that is surely to come, is already here,
The great Freedom, the great Coming.
As the above poem suggests, the liberalization of sexual mores is the chief subject of I Hear America Swinging. It is not just marriage to a deceased wife’s sister, but anything (as Cole Porter—and, we will see, De Vries himself—put it) that now goes. The book, chronicling the adventures and misadventures of Bill Bumpers, a marriage counselor in Iowa, is undeniably farcical, but it also treats a serious theme: the rise of a new American paganism.
The paganism in question is a product of the collapse of the mid-century consensus that Herberg described. De Vries takes aim at the new interest in post-Christian religions characterized by irrationality. Contrary to what De Vries might have hoped, the self-defeating problems of orthodox and liberal Christianity did not result in the widespread acceptance of a humane, intellectually defensible secular humanism. What emerged instead was on the one hand comic but on the other profoundly worrisome. As De Vries sees it, post-Christian paganism propounds beliefs that are not only as implausible and laughable as Christian beliefs; they also encourage practices that are dehumanizing and were therefore traditionally proscribed by Christianity.
At the start of the book, De Vries presents Bumpers as the author of a doctoral dissertation that has been rejected by his university’s social sciences department but accepted by its English department. Its original title, in its social-sciences incarnation, is “Causes of Divorce in Southeastern Rural Iowa.” But when revised for the English department, its title is “The Apple of Discord.” As De Vries explains, the title refers to “the golden apple thrown by the goddess of discord to the assembled deities, which was in the end claimed by Aphrodite and put to the disastrous events we know all too well, culminating in the events at Troy.”
Thus does De Vries hint at a similarity between contemporary Iowa and the pagan world depicted by Homer. (To underline the similarity, Bumpers’s thesis is set in Troy, Iowa.) Later in the book De Vries has another character point to contemporary American paganism, remarking that it’s now “Decline and Fall time, kiddies. The show’s over. Music up and out. Fade to Nero fiddling on the roof.”
The pagan beliefs that De Vries lampoons are implausible and laughable, largely because they are nothing but the negation of Christian beliefs. If the Christian God is no longer worthy of worship, the devil must be worshiped instead. Thus Artie Pringle, one of the novel’s sophisticated characters, mentions that he has “a lecture on diabolism to catch.” Later De Vries shows us Pringle—accompanied by Bumpers, who is motivated by “a natural curiosity”—attending a black mass. The priest officiating at the mass addresses this prayer to the “Prince of Darkness”:
Thou givest us all the carnal joys and multifold blisses against which we are adjured by Christianity—that false religion! Only Thee do we serve, that we may through Thy hellish intervention and most diabolical collaboration drink to the dregs—this Cup!
Bumpers, the novel’s narrator, comments that at this point the priest “held aloft a chalice symbolic, in this case presumably, of the pagan ‘cup that cheers.’” The scene ends with the communicants professing their fidelity to Satan the father almighty, Lucifer, “and lust everlasting. Amen.” An aphorism often attributed to G.K. Chesterton—“When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything”—nicely encapsulates De Vries’s setting of the scene.
If the black mass depicts the theory underlying the new paganism, the two orgies attended by Bumpers (egged on by Pringle once again) illustrate paganism’s workings in practice. The orgy scenes are comic but profoundly unerotic, and deeply disturbing. They are dehumanizing in part because they do not expand but instead contract human choice; in effect, they make it impossible to refuse a would-be sexual partner. As a minor female character notes, “You talk away about a permissive society, but it isn’t permissive at all. A girl isn’t allowed to do these things, she’s expected to. So it isn’t permissiveness, it’s just the reverse—compulsory.” Here De Vries unmasks “the great Freedom” that is hailed in the book’s introductory Whitman parody, revealing it instead to be the great compulsion. Bumpers himself explains this, after a fashion, speaking to the girl he marries at book’s end: “The trouble with orgies is that if there happens to be someone there you really like, it puts you in an awkward position.”
De Vries’s critique culminates in his observation that orgiastic copulation eliminates the possibility of sexual intimacy. Orgies are unsatisfying because they rule out deep emotional bonds between two partners, which is, when you get right down to it, a very orthodox religious principle, at least among the Abrahamic faiths. As Bumpers says to his bride to be, “You know that anything goes at an orgy. Anything. With anybody. . . . But anything does go—except for one thing. There’s one thing you simply don’t do at an orgy.” And that is “hold hands.”
De Vries probably took little joy in all that he oversaw in his life and purveyed in his novels. He could not accept orthodoxy, but neither could he tolerate counterfeits of it. Even worse, he could not take any pleasure from the impulse to move beyond religion, because the behavioral consequences of doing so disgusted him. He was a proponent of rational, secular humanism, but outside his own head, and perhaps the offices of the New Yorker, he was hard put to find much of it. He sublimated his angst into a caustic but comic literature that in many ways anticipated the transformation of American religion we see today.
The reason that De Vries has not been honored in his own country may now become clear. De Vries tried to draw attention to a serious set of questions using humor as a vehicle to upset a shallow but consensual hypocrisy. He went out of print, while O’Connor and Percy did not, because the consensus broke down in such a way that no one thought the consequence funny, or the subject one to be made fun of. De Vries would not have applauded increased Christian fundamentalism, or the burgeoning of post-Christian irrationality. Perhaps he would have been somewhat pleased at the decline of the liberal religion he parodied so well. But I think he would surely have taken heart in the fact that Americans are once more taking the dilemmas posed by and about religion seriously. That’s sort of funny, isn’t it?