PAL: Perspectives in American Literature - A Research and Reference Guide - An Ongoing Project

© Paul P. Reuben

Chapter 7: E. E. Cummings (1894-1962)

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Page Links: | Primary Works | Selected Bibliography 1980-Present | Study Questions | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |

| A Brief Biography |

Site Links: | Chap. 7: Index | Alphabetical List | Table Of Contents | Home Page | October 29, 2011

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The Academy of American Poets - EEC

A full-time artist, a novelist, a playwright, an "nonlecturer," E. E. Cummings was, most importantly, a poet. His poetry is known for its eccentric style, its unusual typography and spellings, and deliberate misuse of grammatical structure. He experimented with the "rhythm of the phrase" discovered by Walt Whitman and called the "variable foot" by poet William Carlos Williams. In many ways, Cummings is a traditional poet, especially in his love poems and his celebration of families, parents, children, values. His visual patterns of words are consistent with the movement toward "break up and restructuring" used as a revolt against realism in art and in writing.

Primary Works

The Enormous Room, 1922; Tulips and Chimneys, 1923; &, 1925; XLI Poems, 1925; 5, 1926; W [ViVa], 1931; Eimi, 1933; no thanks, 1935; Collected Poems, 1938; 50 Poems, 1940; 1 x 1, 1944; and XAIPE, 1950.

Pound/Cummings: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and E.E. Cummings. Ahearn, Barry (ed. and introd.). Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996.

XAIPE. Firmage, George J. (ed. and afterword). NY: Liveright, 1997.

ViVa. Firmage, George J. (ed. and afterword). NY: Liveright, 1997.

Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Cohen, Milton A. Poet and Painter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings's Early Work. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1987.

- - -. Beleaguered Poets and Leftist Critics: Stevens, Cummings, Frost, and Williams in the 1930s. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2010.

Farley, David G. Modernist Travel Writing: Intellectuals Abroad. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2010.

Friedman, Norman. (Re)Valuing Cummings: Further Essays on the Poet, 1962-1993. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1996.

Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of e. e. cummings. NY: Liveright Pub. Corp., 1980. PS3505.U334 Z7

- - -. E. E. Cummings Revisited. NY: Twayne, 1994.

Webster, Michael. Reading Visual Poetry after Futurism: Marinetti, Apollinaire, Schwitters, Cummings. NY: Peter Lang, 1995.

| Top |E. E. Cummings (1894-1962): A Brief Literary Biography
A Student Project by David Ruby

Most people haven't heard of Edward Estlin Cummings. Ask them about E.E. Cummings, however, and the stereotypes come flowing like a flood: the man whose poems make no sense; the poet whose poems were smeared all over the page; the poet who chopped up his poems and scattered the letters over the page; and, most importantly, the man who didn't capitalize his name. These first impressions are semi-true, yet they indicate a very superficial understanding of the man and his poetry.

Edward Estlin Cummings was born on October 14, 1894, in Cambridge Massachusetts, to Edward and Rebecca Haswell Clarke Cummings. The elder Edward was alternately an instructor at Harvard (subjects: English, sociology, and political economy), and a Unitarian minister. He grew up at 104 Irving Street in Cambridge, in a neighborhood known as the Shady Hill Community, an "academic enclave, dominated by Harvard professors and administrators." (Dumas 17) The Cummings family fit into this environment well, as the elder Edward, in addition to his intellectual position, was fascinated by all things modern. For instance, "the first telephone in Cambridge was installed in the Cummings house." (Dumas 17)

Young E.E. developed an talent for writing poetry early on, and "remembered that he always wrote poetry, and he also said that as far back as he could remember, he was writing and painting." (Dumas 20) He was, by all records, the subject of a happy childhood, "partly because his creative energies were stimulated and encouraged by everyone with whom he came into contact." (Dumas 20) This upbringing would manifest itself in a particularly strong sense of home, though later was ironically offset by a conscious rebellion against much of the ideological strata of it: the traditional values, the Puritan work ethic, and his father's love of technology, for instance.

Cummings' education consisted in enrollment in several public primary schools, and he attended the Cambridge High and Latin School, "where the most important thing Cummings learned was Greek, being prepared for Harvard," (Dumas 22) the expected educational terminus for him. He did not disappoint, entering in 1911. The first appearance of a published E. E. Cummings was in the Harvard Monthly, 1912, although he also contributed to the rival university publication, The Harvard Advocate. Cummings graduated magna cum laude in 1915, and presented a somewhat controversial valedictorian's speech on "The New Art." Prior to his graduating, however, it is noteworthy to mention that Cummings struck out on his own (moving to a room in Thayer Hall), and discovered a personal affinity for the burlesque and partying. (These themes were to be exercised in his later poetry.) He followed his degree by earning an M.A. at Harvard, in English and Classical Studies, and in 1917, appeared in Eight Harvard Poets, where eight of his poems were published. 1917 proved to be a busy and monumental year for the 23-year-old, as he made his first visit to New York, monumental, but also volunteered to join the Norton Harjes Ambulance Corps to take part in World War I.

His impetus in doing so was ostensibly to avoid actual service in the U.S. Army, and his duty kept him away from trouble… on the front lines, at least. His autobiography, The Enormous Room, was prompted by his bad experience in France, where he was imprisoned for alleged disloyalty to France. Eventually, "he spent almost three months in a French prison, really a concentration camp." (Dumas 29) He was released at the behest of his father and others on New Year's day, 1918, returned to New York City, and was ironically drafted into the U.S. Army, where he was trained as an infantry soldier, until the Armistice. The sum of these experiences was a "reshaping of his values…The poems which were to come from Cummings were going to be in part an opposition to an increasingly authoritarian society." (Dumas 30)

Returning to post-war New York, where he was to stay for the next two years, he worked on the manuscript for The Enormous Room, painted, was published again (this time in the revitalized and re-located Harvard Dial's first new issue, January 1920), worked, and played. In 1921, he returned to Paris, traveled in Italy and France sporadically, concentrated on the study of art, and returned to Greenwich Village, to take permanent residence in an apartment at 4 Patchin Place, in 1923. (In 1922, while he was in Europe, The Enormous Room was published. Its strong anti-war sentiment was met with some criticism.)

The ensuing years saw E.E. Cummings concentrating on honing his poetic craft. His first full volume of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys, was published in 1923, and was noteworthy in its variety of early typographical, punctuational, and (non)capitalizational experimentation.

He was also a regular contributor to The Dial, where, until its second demise in 1929, "thirty-seven of his poems, several critical articles, parts of the play Him, and numerous drawings and paintings" (Dumas 33) were published. Cummings' symbiosis with The Dial is well known. "He was regarded by the editors as their arch-discovery," (Dumas 33) and in 1926, he was awarded their Dial Award for 1925, and often voiced his respect for the journal.

The 1920's were a busy decade for Cummings. He married twice (Elaine Orr, 1924; Anne Barton, 1927; both relationships ending in divorce), Lost his beloved father in an automobile accident in 1925, and gained a daughter, Nancy, from his first marriage "establish[ing] a close relationship only after she was a young woman." (Dumas 35) Cummings also secured his second (and last) "real" job (his first was a three-month stint, after college, as a letter answerer at a New York mail-order firm) as an essayist for Vanity Fair magazine He apparently contributed sporadically until 1927, the same year his play, Him, was published.

The 1930's really showed Cummings at his artistic best and widest. It began in 1930 with Anthropos: The Future of Art, a one-act play, and a book known now as No Title, a collection of nonsensical children's fairy tales which originally was released with no title. In 1931, he made a visit to Russia, "which was to form the subject matter of his second full-length prose work, Eimi." (Dumas 36) His artwork was gaining attention, and he had his first show of his paintings in New York. Also appearing in bookstores was CIOPW, "a collection of works done in charcoal, ink, oil, pencil, and watercolor," (Dumas 36) and W [ViVa], another volume of poetry. In 1932, Cummings passed another milestone, marrying actress/model/photographer Marion Morehouse, with whom he was to share the rest of his life. 1933 saw Cummings receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, travel again to Europe, and Eimi's publishing. In 1935, his talents stretched further to provide a ballet, Tom, and the enigmatically 14-times rejected volume of poetry, No Thanks. In 1936, another volume of poetry, 1/20, was published in Great Britain. His reputation was quite strong by this point, but financially, he seemed to be suffering the same hardships that those everywhere were plagued with. This seems evident in the tone of much of his work, and his staunch anti-Marxist stance in Eimi and elsewhere was in opposition to the progressive intellectual sentiment of the day. In 1937, he traveled to Paris again, and in 1938, Collected Poems was published, compiling much of his previously-collected works, and adding a few new poems in one volume. This was followed shortly by 50 Poems in 1940, the same year Cummings received an award from the Academy of American Poets.

The years of World War II were relatively quiet for Cummings. "There was a show of oils and watercolors at the American British Art Gallery in New York in 1944, and a show of oils, watercolors, and sketches in Rochester in 1945." (Dumas 40) In 1944, another volume of poetry, 1 x 1, was published, and in 1945, Cummings contributed an introduction to a collection of his favorite comic strip, Krazy Kat. Cummings' life had its ups and downs in the late-1940's, as his play, Santa Claus (A Morality), was published, as was a special issue of The Harvard Wake, dedicated to Cummings, with a retrospective look at his style of writing by other writers, such as William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Theodore Spencer, and John Dos Passos. In 1947, his mother died. In 1949, he had another show of his art at the American British Art Gallery.

In the 1950's, Cummings eased into an informal role as Modernist Poet Brahmin. In 1950, Cummings produced Xaipe, yet another volume of poetry. It met with the mixed reception expected of both Cummings' poetry and modern art. He also was awarded a Fellowship of the Academy of American Poets, and as was his habit, used his Fellowship funds for European travel. Another Guggenheim Fellowship was awarded in 1951, and in 1952, he followed in the footsteps of his father by becoming (albeit temporarily, as Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry for the academic year 1952-1953) a Harvard instructor. He proved exceptionally popular as a lecturer, and taught not only from his volume of personal experience and his cannon of poetry, but also from the classics of literary history, read in the original. The transcript of his lecture series was published in 1953 as i:six Nonlectures. In 1954, the massive and comprehensive Poems 1923-1954 was published, receiving in 1955 a citation by the National Book Awards. In 1956, he traveled again throughout Southern Europe. In 1957, "he received the prestigious Bollingen Prize in Poetry and also the Boston Arts Festival Poetry Award," (Dumas 46) and in 1958, he published 95 Poems and A Miscellany, By now, Cummings was showing the effects of age, and struggled with arthritis, and required an ungainly back brace. Eventually, on September 3, 1962, he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Various works in which he had a hand were published posthumously. In late 1962, Adventures in Value, Marion Morehouse's photographic book, with text by Cummings was published. In 1963, another collection, 73 Poems, appeared. In 1965, Fairy Tales, a children's book, was published, and in 1969, Selected Letters of E.E. Cummings. In 1972, another all-inclusive collection, Complete Poems: 1913-1962, was put together and published.

Edward Estlin Cummings was a Renaissance Man in the classic New England tradition. His opinions, habits, and the themes of his work have all been noted to compare favorably with other certain New England literary figures, and especially Ralph Waldo Emerson. Despite his status as a Modernist, an internationally-minded, world-traveled free thinker, he could not step away from the New England literary tradition, and thus offers an updated, refreshed rendition of it:

"Beneath the surface of trickery and apparent formlessness, his poetry is curiously conventional. He was a love poet in the romantic tradition; he celebrated families, parents, children, fun, and the old-fashioned virtues. He admired youth, spring, and all things natural. He hated automatic patriotism and intellectualism, the rationality that, he believed, stifles man's ability to feel deeply. He fiercely condemned the inhumanity of science and technology. He found modern conveniences contemptible. Above all, he loved poetry." (McMichael 1201-1202)

Works Cited:

Dumas, Bethany K. E.E. Cummings: A Remembrance of Miracles. London: Vision, 1974.

McMichael, George, ed. Anthology of American Literature, 4th ed. Vol. 2. New York: MacMillan, 1985.

Study Questions

1. Cummings's works are an amalgam of lyricism, humor, satire, unabashed sex. Document their appearance in his poems.

2. If the Cambridge ladies have comfortable minds and Christ and Longfellow are both dead, what does this satire reveal about Cummings himself? Of what are the ladies oblivious, and why are their souls unbeautiful? Is the poem a sonnet?

3. In "my sweet old etcetera" is "sister isabel" knitting socks any different from the Cambridge ladies knitting for the Poles? What is the function of the repeated "etcetera"? And the final "Etcetera"?

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 7: E. E. Cummings." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. URL:http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap7/cummings.html (provide page date or date of your login).
 

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