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E. E. Cumming's Life

Nicholas Everett

cummings2.jpg (23020 bytes)Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to liberal, indulgent parents who from early on encouraged him to develop his creative gifts. While at Harvard, where his father had taught before becoming a Unitarian minister, he delivered a daring commencement address on modernist artistic innovations, thus announcing the direction his own work would take. In 1917, after working briefly for a mail-order publishing company, the only regular employment in his career, Cummings volunteered to serve in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance group in France. Here he and a friend were imprisoned (on false grounds) for three months in a French detention camp. The Enormous Room (1922), his witty and absorbing account of the experience, was also the first of his literary attacks on authoritarianism. Eimi (1933), a later travel journal, focused with much less successful results on the collectivized Soviet Union.

At the end of the First World War Cummings went to Paris to study art. On his return to New York in 1924 he found himself a celebrity, both for The Enormous Room and for Tulips and Chimneys (1923), his first collection of poetry (for which his old classmate John Dos Passos had finally found a publisher). Clearly influenced by Gertrude Stein's syntactical and Amy Lowell's imagistic experiments, Cummings's early poems had nevertheless discovered an original way of describing the chaotic immediacy of sensuous experience. The games they play with language (adverbs functioning as nouns, for instance) and lyric form combine with their deliberately simplistic view of the world (the individual and spontaneity versus collectivism and rational thought) to give them the gleeful and precocious tone which became, a hallmark of his work. Love poems, satirical squibs, and descriptive nature poems would always be his favoured forms.

A roving assignment from Vanity Fair in 1926 allowed Cummings to travel again and to establish his lifelong routine: painting in the afternoons and writing at night. In 1931 he published a collection of drawings and paintings, CIOPW (its title an acronym for the materials used: charcoal, ink, oil, pencil, watercolour), and over the next three decades had many individual shows in New York. He enjoyed a long and happy third marriage to the photographer Marion Morehouse, with whom he collaborated on Adventures in Value (1962), and in later life divided his time between their apartment in New York and his family's farm in New Hampshire. His many later books of poetry, from VV (1931) and No Thanks (1935) to Xaipe (1950) and 95 Poems (1958), took his formal experiments and his war on the scientific attitude to new extremes, but showed little substantial development.

Cummings's critical reputation has never matched his popularity. The left-wing critics of the 1930s were only the first to dismiss his work as sentimental and politically naïve. His supporters, however, find value not only in its verbal and visual inventiveness but also in its mystical and anarchistic beliefs. The two-volume Complete Poems, ed. George James Firmage (New York and London, 1981) is the standard edition of his poetry, and Dreams in a Mirror, by Richard S. Kennedy (New York, 1980) the standard biography. e. e. cummings: The Art of His Poetry, by Norman Friedman (Baltimore and London, 1960) is still among the best critical studies of his poetic techniques.

From The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-century Poetry in English. Ed. Ian Hamilton. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. Copyright © 1994 by Oxford University Press.

Richard S. Kennedy

Cummings, E. E., (14 Oct. 1894- 3 Sept. 1962), poet and painter, was born Edward Estlin Cummings in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the son of Edward Cummings, a Unitarian minister of the South Congregational Church in Boston, and Rebecca Haswell Clarke. Cummings's mother encouraged him from an early age to write verse and to keep a journal. He was educated at the Cambridge Latin School and at Harvard College, where in 1915 he received his A.B., graduating magna cum laude in Greek and English; he received his A.M. from Harvard in 1916. In his last year of college, he became intensely interested in the new movements in the arts through his association with John Dos Passos, S. Foster Damon, and Scofield Thayer and began to experiment with free verse and to develop as a self-taught cubist painter. The first book appearance of his poems was in Eight Harvard Poets (1917).

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Cummings volunteered for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, serving in France for five months before he and his friend William Slater Brown were arrested on suspicion of espionage because Brown's letters had expressed pacifist views. Cummings's experiences in the Depôt de Triage, a concentration camp at La Ferté-Macé, became the subject of his first autobiographical work, The Enormous Room (1922). Released from prison after four months, he was sent back to the United States, where he was drafted into the army. He served in the 73d Infantry Division at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, until November 1918.

After the war Cummings moved to New York, entering his cubist paintings in yearly exhibitions and attaining celebrity for the unusual poems he published in the Dial and other avant-garde magazines in the 1920s. In college he had followed the Imagist principles for poetry laid down by Ezra Pound: to use the rhythms of common speech rather than metrical regularity, to strive for compression and precision in language, to avoid worn-out poetic diction, and to make poetic statement by means of images. But by 1918 Cummings had created his own poetic style. Because he was a painter as well as a poet, he had developed a unique form of literary cubism: he broke up his material on the page to present it in a new, visually directed way. Some of his poems had to be seen in their printed arrangement before they could be completely understood. "The day of the spoken lyric is past," he proclaimed. "The poem which has at last taken its place does not sing itself; it builds itself, three dimensionally, gradually, subtly, in the consciousness of the experiencer."

In addition, Cummings expressed ideas through new grammatical usage: he employed verbs as nouns, and other locutions as new linguistic creations (for example, "wherelings, whenlings / daughters of ifbut offspring of hopefear / sons of unless and children of almost / never shall guess"). He indulged in free play with punctuation and capitalization. Lowercase letters were the rule; capitals were used only for special emphasis; punctuation marks were omitted for ambiguous statement; others were introduced for jarring effects. His use of the lowercase letter "i" not only became a well-known means of self-reference in his work, but also reflected a role that he created for himself: he was the underling, the unnoticed dreamer, the downtrodden one, the child in the man; yet by asserting his individuality in this way, he thrust himself forward and established a memorable persona.

His first manuscript book of poems, "Tulips & Chimneys," was a gathering of work in traditional verse forms as well as in his newest unconventional forms of expressiveness. It included lush lyrics from his Harvard years, tender love poems, erotic epigrams, sonnets (some crammed with literary allusion, others merely attempting to depict ordinary scenes of life--on city streets, in cafés, in rooming houses), celebrations of the beauties of the natural world, and harsh satires directed at politicians, generals, professors, the clergy, and national leaders. The publishing world was not yet ready for some of Cummings's poems about drunks, prostitutes, Salvation Army workers, gangsters, or bums. Thus, the original version of Cummings's manuscript did not survive the forbidding selectivity of editors, and it eventually emerged as three books: Tulips and Chimneys (1923), XLI Poems (1925), and (privately printed) & (1925).

In 1924 Cummings married Elaine Orr, the former wife of his mentor, Scofield Thayer, editor of The Dial; they had one child, Nancy, born while Elaine was still married to Thayer. Elaine divorced Cummings within the year, to marry an Irish banker and politician, taking Nancy with her to Ireland and blocking Cummings from seeing his child. His second marriage, to Anne Barton in 1929, also ended in divorce, in 1932. These marital disasters affected Cummings's personality so much that by the 1930s he had changed from a vivacious young celebrant of life to a cynical, hard-hitting critic of American culture. These attitudes are increasingly evident in his volumes of poems Is 5 (1926), ViVa (1931), and No Thanks (1935).

Cummings's travels in Europe and extended stays in Paris in the 1920s brought him in touch with the Dada and Surrealist movements in the arts, influences that appear in his increasing experiment with language and ventures into irrational modes of expression in his poems. "The Symbol of all Art is the Prism," he declared. "The goal is destructive. To break up the white light of objective realism into the secret glories it contains." In a play, Him (1927), Cummings attempted to include the unconscious thoughts of its two principal characters, Him, a playwright, and Me, his girlfriend. The plunge into the unconscious was represented by a series of vaudeville skits and circus acts, so that Cummings's jokes and verbal nonsense made for a highly entertaining but not very coherent work.

His six-week visit to Soviet Russia in 1931 led him to compose Eimi (1933), an autobiographical narrative based on his travel diary. He recorded his train travel, three weeks in Moscow, and two weeks in Kiev and Odessa in highly idiosyncratic prose as the travels of an American, Comrade Kem-min-kz. His disappointment with and hostility to the Communist world is organized into a structure based on Dante's descent into the Inferno. Comrade K eventually passes through the Purgatorio (Turkey) and at length reaches the Paradiso (Paris). The result, despite the difficulties it poses for a reader, is Cummings's most powerful achievement, concluding with a transcendental experience, a mystical union of the narrator, the artist, with the creative force in the universe.

Cummings's third wife, the fashion model Marion Morehouse, lived with him as his common-law wife from 1934 until the end of his life. A change of tone in his next three volumes of verse, 50 Poems (1940), 1 X 1 (1944), and Xaipe (1950), reflects not only the happiness that this relationship brought, but also the fact that Cummings was spending more time at his summer home in Madison, New Hampshire, "Joy Farm," absorbing the natural landscape and the benevolence of the rural seasons. These books express more clearly the individualistic philosophy of life that Cummings had developed out of his dedication to art and his casting off the restraints of society. What emerges is his affirmation of life in all its essential forms, but especially in whatever is natural, unpretentious, and unique. His philosophy entailed a rejection of social forces that hinder the expression of individualism, especially whatever encourages group behavior, conformity, imitation, or artificiality. It valued whatever is instinctively human and promoted feeling and imagination; it rejoiced in romantic and sexual love; and it thrust aside the products, both material and spiritual, of an overly organized, emotionally anesthetized, technologically quantified civilization. His painting changed too: he became representational in technique as he turned to still lifes, portraits, nude figures, and landscapes.

In 1946 Cummings was able to bring about a reunion with his daughter, Nancy, who was now living in the United States and married to Willard Roosevelt, a grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). While painting her portrait, he revealed to her astonishment that he was her father, and as a consequence a fresh relationship between father, daughter, and grandchildren emerged. The mere reentry of Nancy into Cummings's world gave rise to his most successful play, Santa Claus (1946), a Christmas fantasy that represents his belief in the joys of love and giving and his rejection of the materialism and false expectation that he associated with "Science." In the end, Santa Claus without his mask is revealed to be a young man, who is then reunited with an adoring woman and a child whom he had lost.

In the 1950s Cummings undertook an additional career as a reader of his poetry to audiences in New York and on college campuses, becoming, after Robert Frost, the most popular performer on the academic circuit. This venture led ultimately to his holding the Charles Eliot Norton lectureship at Harvard during 1952-1953. His lectures and readings at Harvard became the autobiographical work i: six nonlectures (1953), which recounts aspects of his early life and his development as a poet.

In these last years, honors came to Cummings in many forms: a Guggenheim fellowship in 1951; a collected edition of his poetical works, Poems, 1923-1954 (1954), which earned a special citation from the National Book Award Committee in 1955; appointment as the festival poet for the Boston Arts Festival in 1957; the Bollingen Prize in 1958; and a two-year grant of $15,000 from the Ford Foundation in 1959.

A serene volume of verse, 95 Poems (1958), extolled the wonders of the natural world, honored a number of very ordinary individuals, recorded Cummings's outrage at the disastrous outcome of the Hungarian revolution, reflected memories of childhood, and meditated on birth, time, and death. It was a fitting close to the poet's career. Cummings died at a hospital in North Conway, New Hampshire, after suffering a stroke at Joy Farm.

E. E. Cummings was a combination of an unabashed Romantic in his view of life and an avant-garde modernist seeking to explore unusual means of expression. His poetry developed from boyhood imitations of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to the linguistic surprises he brought to the literary scene in the 1920s. He continued to write sonnets all his life, often traditional in theme--a tribute to love, an address to the moon, the praise of a church, a prayer of thanks for the ability to respond to life--but sometimes he chose "unpoetic" subjects--a nightclub dancer, the gurgle of water going down a sink, brothels and their customers, a denunciation of salesmen, a politician giving a hypocritical patriotic speech, a mélange of play with advertising slogans.

His visually directed free verse shows an even greater variety of subject and mood. It ranges from children's songs and romantic lyrics through antiwar satires and epigrammatic attacks on his contemporaries to realistic vignettes of city life and delighted responses to the natural objects of earth and the heavens. Cummings produced a large body of work, and although he allowed himself to publish some trivia, he continued to produce poems of wit and ingenuity, of vigorous satire, and of beauty and delicacy well into his seventh decade. He is principally renowned for his linguistic exuberance, which delighted in continual innovation in form and technique. Cummings was a central figure in that remarkable generation of American writers, including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, T. S. Eliot, John Dos Passos, and William Faulkner, who carried out a revolution in literary expression in the twentieth century.


The lines from "wherelings, whenlings" quoted above are used by kind permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation. Cummings's letters, diaries, sketchbooks, manuscripts, personal library, and miscellaneous papers are in the Houghton Library, Harvard University. Additional manuscripts are in the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas; the Clifton Waller Barrett Library, University of Virginia; the Sibley Watson Collection, Rochester, N.Y.; the Beinecke Library, Yale University; and the Princeton University Library. Poems found among his papers after his death are in 73 Poems (1963) and Etcetera (1983). The only collection of his letters is F. W. Dupee and George Stade, eds., Selected Letters of E. E. Cummings (1969). Two important bibliographies are George Firmage, Jr., E. E. Cummings: A Bibliography (1960), and Guy Rotella, E. E. Cummings: A Reference Guide (1979). The definitive biography is Richard S. Kennedy, Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings (1980); see also Charles Norman, E. E. Cummings: The Magic Maker (1958). The best critical studies are Norman Friedman, E. E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry (1960) and E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer (1964), and Rushworth Kidder, E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry (1979). For Cummings's work as a painter, see Milton Cohen, Poet and Painter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings's Early Works (1987). For a linguistic perspective, see Irene Fairley, E. E. Cummings and Ungrammar: A Study of Syntactic Deviance in His Poems (1975). See also Nicholas Joost, Scofield Thayer and the Dial (1964), and George Wickes, Americans in Paris, 1903-1939 (1969). A front-page obituary is in the New York Times, 4 Sept. 1962.

Source:;   American National Biography Online Feb. 2000. Access Date: Sun Mar 18 12:31:47 2001 Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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