The poetry of E.E. Cummings* is easily recognizable, even for the literary novice. While many immediately associate the work of Cummings with the liberal use of lowercase letters and acrobatic word arrangement, the depth of his writing goes beyond this, both in form and meaning.
Edward Estlin Cummings was born October 14, 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts to Edward and Rebecca Haswell Cummings. Edward Cummings was highly educated and became the first professor of sociology at Harvard College; his history of divinity school training also groomed him to become a minister of the Unitarian church. Rebecca Haswell Cummings was one of the more socially adept women of her time and came from a distinguished family line of religious, political and even literary importance. Growing up in Cambridge during this time (and having such a strong place in local society) was a definite advantage for Estlin and his childhood has often been described as idyllic. The family spent summers at Joy Farm in rural New Hampshire, where young Estlin became interested in wildlife and the scenery of the countryside. These scenes of a happy childhood and his appreciation for nature would be described in many of Cummings’ popular poems.
Cummings was encouraged to study literature and record his thoughts and stories in a journal. His mother hoped he would become a poet like another famous Cambridge son, Longfellow, and read Dickens and Stevenson aloud to the entire family. He had an education both at school and at home that placed a heavy importance on the arts, and he later recalled memorizing long excerpts from classic stories and poems. During this time, Estlin Cummings also began sketching and painting scenes from tales that he had read or stories he wrote, merging his literary and visual creative abilities at an early age.
Cummings attended Cambridge High School and became heavily involved in the Cambridge Review, in which many of his early stories and poems were published. Many of the early pieces were not extraordinary and did not show the confidence that would exude from his work in later years. Still, the early exposure to the world of public praise and publishing undoubtedly shaped Cummings’ attitude on everything from typesetting to experimentation with form.
In September 1911, Cummings entered Harvard and remained there for five years. He earned degrees in Literature and English and had a mostly classical education. He had an exceptional knack for translating poems and interpreting lyric poetry. He studied under several respected Shakespearean scholars of the time and became skilled in allegory as well as other narrative devices in which he drew on his traditional Cambridge upbringing and the parables of his father’s sermons. Cummings also expanded his writing in other areas, writing many short essays and prose pieces in addition to the works he published in the literary magazines of the school, the Harvard Advocate and Harvard Monthly, of which he became the editor-in-chief.
In 1916, Cummings began to take a more serious interest in modern art styles, studying Cubism and Impressionist artists. In his writing and artwork he demonstrated that he very much wanted to be a part of the modern art movement. During this time he developed the style that he is most known for today. Feeding off the influence of revolutionary artists such as Cezanne and sculptor Henri Gaudier-Breska as well as studying the styles introduced by poets he admired (Pound, Whitman and Sandburg), Cummings experimented with the arrangement of words, syntax and letters to produce a unique visual experience within the lyrical elements of poetry. He became a craftsman of his work, carefully constructing each word and line to perform double duty as verbal expression and art. He often exaggerated sounds by repetition and coordinated lines and words to mimic the actions they described:
Cummings eventually moved to New York and took a job in the publishing division of Collier’s as a desk clerk. The menial tasks the job required didn’t exactly appeal to him but he did find time to create more poetry in this setting, writing on current events and offbeat topics such as the death of Buffalo Bill (“Buffalo Bill’s defunct”). In his spare time, he explored the city and began to paint with a renewed vigor.
When the United States entered the war in 1917, Cummings made the decision to avoid the draft and volunteered to serve with the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Service in France. He was excited by the prospect of adventure and felt this service would best match his pacifist nature and intellectual upbringing. He soon left for France and found himself on essentially a five-week holiday in Paris due to a series of organizational mishaps. Cummings’ experiences in France during this time left an imprint on the young man and became the topic of many controversial pieces. Cummings and his comrade, Slater Brown, found themselves exploring the adventure and sexual freedoms of Paris, attending burlesque shows and delving straight to the heart of the society of prostitution. He and Brown found two companions this way, Marie Lallemand and her partner, Mimi, whom they treated more like traditional dates. These interludes were detailed later in lines such as “the dirty colors of her kiss” and “wanta spendsix dollars Kid”. After some time in the city, they were called back to duty and found themselves in the midst of the tedious routine of life in an inactive military unit.
Perhaps because of his experimental artistic personality or his political beliefs, Cummings did not seem to fit in well with his unit and tension began to develop. Cummings freely spoke of his distaste for the other men in the unit, and wrote numerous letters of complaint to his family back in the US. French authorities censored the letters of both Brown and Cummings and they soon found themselves under the heavy scrutiny of authorities. After being interrogated and refusing to turn his back on Brown, Cummings was detained and eventually interred in a French Prison Camp for three months. Oddly enough, he found that he was accepted into an alternate society and the experience of life at Depot de Triage at La Ferte-Mace would become the basis of his first book, The Enormous Room. Eventually Cummings was set free through the assistance of family friends. He returned to the United States on January 1, 1918.
E.E. Cummings decided to make his way back to New York and rented a studio in Greenwich Village. He reconnected with his circle of Harvard friends as well as returning to his university patron, Scofield Thayer, who encouraged Estlin in both writing and painting. Cummings spent more time painting than on his poetry and produced the painting “Traffic” for Thayer who was interested in procuring a cubist piece. Thayer also urged the Dial to publish Cummings’ poetry. The poetry was met with disdain, but the editors published his work after much debate.
In the summer of 1918, Cummings was drafted into the U.S. Army and was sent to Camp Devens, near Cambridge. He was ultimately discharged in early 1919 on the grounds that his occupation was suffering. It was, however, during this time that his love for Elaine Thayer, the wife of his loyal patron, had become too great to ignore. Many of Cummings’ most celebrated poems of erotica and love were written for Elaine during this time period (most notably “I like my body when it is with your”, “along the brittle treacherous bright streets” and “my love is building a building”).
Thayer soon found herself pregnant with Cummings’ child and gave birth to a daughter, Nancy on December 20, 1919. Elaine was still married to Scofield Thayer and Cummings was the father of a child he was not able to acknowledge. After a time, the Thayers divorced and Estlin and Elaine reunited in Europe and were married in 1924, divorcing less than a year later. Cummings spent the next few decades estranged from the child that had become the focus of many sketches and written pieces.
The Enormous Room, Cummings’ account of his wartime experience, was published in 1922 and the book received critical acclaim for its unique handling of such a serious and potentially morose subject. His poetry was also becoming more well known, being featured not only in the Dial, but also in Vanity Fair and other literary and political magazines of the time. In April 1923, a selection of Cummings’ poetry was published under the title Tulips & Chimneys.
Over the next few years he had organized and edited enough of his pieces to produce two new volumes of poetry, XLI Poems and &. His literary success was evident at this time and XLI Poems and & were more popular than his first collection. During the 1920s and 1930s Cummings also wrote comic sketches for Vanity Fair and exhibited his paintings in several independent art shows.
One of the most interesting aspects of Cummings’ work is his versatility. In addition to the works mentioned above, Cummings wrote plays, travelogues, prose pieces and satire. As an artist he was prolific in not only his painting, but also in his sketch work. In many of his poems, it is evident that Cummings had a sharp sense humor. He often used parody, puns and dialect to create humorous, yet scathing social commentary in his work. His art career was not immune to his wry wit. In one art show, he entered a doormat from the front step of his family home.
After a brief marriage to socialite/model Anne Barton, E.E. Cummings became acquainted with photographer, actress and model Marion Morehouse in 1932. The two found a strong connection with each other and while it is uncertain that they were ever legally married, they would remain together until Cummings’ death in 1962. She moved into Patchin Place and accompanied him at Joy Farm in New Hampshire where he spent most of his later years. Cummings’ relationship with Morehouse became the subject of many of his poems and she was often found posing for his paintings and sketches.
Cummings’ writing was not always well received. He was used to getting mixed reviews and strong reactions from the public as well as literary critics. Eimi, a prose collection based on his travel diary in Russia, came out in 1933 and received brutal reviews. The American Spectator declared it “The Worst Book of the Month”. Many of the criticisms focused on the radical style of writing and obscure typography contained in the 432 pages instead of the political sentiments expressed.
Throughout the next few decades, Cummings found a new angle for his career as he began speaking and reading his poetry at colleges around the country. He enjoyed the attention and found that public readings provided a new outlet for his creativity. It is interesting to note that while Cummings was more exposed to the public and his appearances were well-attended, it is during these later years in life that he also gained the reputation of being a curmudgeon and his views became more close-minded and ill tempered. Many times he wrote out his racial and religious opinions, sometimes to the dismay of his editors and peers.
By the mid-50s, Cummings’ osteoarthritis had started to take its toll on his ability to get out and do all of the readings he was requested to do. Much of his poetry in his final years dealt with his views on aging and death in a lyrical, but matter-of-fact manner (“old age sticks”, “Now i lay (with everywhere around”). Aside from his continuing to work on his poetry, Cummings divided his time bewtween Joy Farm and Patchin Place (in Greenwich Village) painting and spending time with Marion and his family. Cummings experimented with form and meaning up until the very end, producing two final volumes within his lifetime: A Miscellany, a collection of short prose pieces and 95 Poems, a book of fresh poetry from the creative veteran.
Edward Estlin Cummings died Sep. 3, 1962 of a brain hemorrhage after splitting wood. His literary style marked him as one of the most revolutionary poets of the twentieth century. He was accomplished as not only a writer, but also as an artist and social commentator. Cummings’ body of work includes several volumes of poetry, two short plays, and prose work in addition to his collection of journals, sketchbooks and letters. A collection of fairy tales by Cummings was published in 1965 and many recordings of his readings are still available.
(NOTE: the common lowercase spelling of Cummings’ name is not used here, as it was largely a convention of editors and publishers. The E.E. Cummings Society has requested that the author’s name be printed with capitalization.)