About Edward Estlin Cummings
Edward Estlin Cummings (October 14, 1894 – September 3, 1962), popularly known as E. E. Cummings, with the abbreviated form of his name often written by others in lowercase letters as e.e. cummings (in the style of some of his poems—see name and capitalization, below), was an American poet, painter, essayist, author, and playwright. His body of work encompasses approximately 2,900 poems, two autobiographical novels, four plays and several essays, as well as numerous drawings and paintings. He is remembered as a preeminent voice of 20th century poetry.
Born into a Unitarian family, Cummings exhibited transcendental leanings his entire life. As he grew in maturity and age, Cummings moved more toward an "I, Thou" relationship with God. His journals are replete with references to “le bon Dieu” as well as prayers for inspiration in his poetry and artwork (such as “Bon Dieu! may I some day do something truly great. amen.”). Cummings "also prayed for strength to be his essential self ('may I be I is the only prayer—not may I be great or good or beautiful or wise or strong'), and for relief of spirit in times of depression ('almighty God! I thank thee for my soul; & may I never die spiritually into a mere mind through disease of loneliness')."
Cummings wanted to be a poet from childhood and wrote poetry daily aged eight to 22, exploring assorted forms. He went to Harvard and developed an interest in modern poetry which ignored conventional grammar and syntax, aiming for a dynamic use of language. On graduating he worked for a book dealer.
In 1917, with the first world war ongoing in Europe, Cummings enlisted in the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps, along with his college friend John Dos Passos. Due to an administrative mix-up, Cummings was not assigned to an ambulance unit for five weeks, during which time he stayed in Paris. He fell in love with the city, to which he would return throughout his life.
During their service in the ambulance corps, they sent letters home that drew the attention of the military censors, and were known to prefer the company of French soldiers over fellow ambulance drivers. The two openly expressed anti-war views; Cummings spoke of his lack of hatred for the Germans. On September 21, 1917, just five months after his belated assignment, he and a friend, William Slater Brown were arrested by the French military on suspicion of espionage and undesirable activities. They were held for 3½ months in a military detention camp at the Dépôt de Triage, in La Ferté-Macé, Orne, Normandy.
They were imprisoned with other detainees in a large room. Cummings' father failed to obtain his son's release through diplomatic channels and in December 1917 wrote a letter to President Wilson. Cummings was released on December 19, 1917, and Brown was released two months later. Cummings used his prison experience as the basis for his novel, The Enormous Room (1922) about which F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "Of all the work by young men who have sprung up since 1920 one book survives—The Enormous Room by e e cummings....Those few who cause books to live have not been able to endure the thought of its mortality."
Cummings returned to the United States on New Year's Day 1918. Later in 1918 he was drafted into the army. He served in the 12th Division at Camp Devens, Massachusetts, until November 1918.
Cummings returned to Paris in 1921 and remained there for two years before returning to New York. His collection Tulips and Chimneys came in 1923 and his inventive use of grammar and syntax is evident. The book was heavily cut by his editor. XLI Poems, was then published in 1925. With these collections Cummings made his reputation as an avant garde poet.
During the rest of the 1920s and 1930s Cummings returned to Paris a number of times, and traveled throughout Europe, meeting, among others, Pablo Picasso. In 1931 Cummings traveled to the Soviet Union, recounting his experiences in Eimi, published two years later. During these years Cummings also traveled to Northern Africa and Mexico and worked as an essayist and portrait artist for Vanity Fair magazine (1924 to 1927).
In 1926, Cummings' father was killed in a car accident. Though severely injured, Cummings' mother survived. Cummings detailed the accident in the following passage from his i: six nonlectures series given at Harvard (as part of the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures) in 1952–1953:
A locomotive cut the car in half, killing my father instantly. When two brakemen jumped from the halted train, they saw a woman standing – dazed but erect – beside a mangled machine; with blood spouting (as the older said to me) out of her head. One of her hands (the younger added) kept feeling her dress, as if trying to discover why it was wet. These men took my sixty-six year old mother by the arms and tried to lead her toward a nearby farmhouse; but she threw them off, strode straight to my father's body, and directed a group of scared spectators to cover him. When this had been done (and only then) she let them lead her away.
His father's death had a profound impact on Cummings, who entered a new period in his artistic life. Cummings began to focus on more important aspects of life in his poetry. He began this new period by paying homage to his father's memory in the poem "my father moved through dooms of love"
In 1952, his alma mater, Harvard University awarded Cummings an honorary seat as a guest professor. The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures he gave in 1952 and 1955 were later collected as i: six nonlectures.
Cummings spent the last decade of his life traveling, fulfilling speaking engagements, and spending time at his summer home, Joy Farm, in Silver Lake, New Hampshire.
He died of a stroke on September 3, 1962, at the age of 67 in North Conway, New Hampshire at the Memorial Hospital. His cremated remains were buried in Lot 748 Althaeas Path, in Section 6, Forest Hills Cemetery and Crematory in Boston. In 1969, his third wife, model and photographer Marion Morehouse Cummings, died and was buried in an adjoining plot.
Cummings' papers are held at the Houghton Library at Harvard University and the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
Cummings was married briefly twice. Cummings' first marriage, to Elaine Orr, began as a love affair in 1918 while she was married to Scofield Thayer, one of Cummings' friends from Harvard. During this time he wrote a good deal of his erotic poetry. The affair produced a daughter, Nancy, born on December 20, 1919. Nancy was Cummings' only child. After divorcing Thayer, Elaine married Cummings on March 19, 1924. However, they separated after two months and divorced less than nine months later. Elaine left Cummings for a wealthy Irish banker, moved to Ireland, and took Nancy with her. Under the terms of the divorce Cummings was granted custody of Nancy for three months each year, but Elaine refused to abide by the agreement. Cummings did not see his daughter again until 1946.
He married his second wife Anne Minnerly Barton on May 1, 1929, and they separated three years later in 1932. That same year, Anne obtained a Mexican divorce that was not officially recognized in the United States until August 1934.
The year Cummings and Anne separated, he met Marion Morehouse, a fashion model and photographer. Although it is not clear whether the two were ever legally married, Morehouse lived with Cummings in a common-law marriage until his death in 1962. Morehouse died on May 18, 1969, while living at 4 Patchin Place, Greenwich Village, New York City, where Cummings had resided since September 8, 1924.
According to his testimony in EIMI, Cummings had little interest in politics until his trip to the Soviet Union in 1931, after which he shifted rightward on many political and social issues. Despite his radical and bohemian public image, he was a Republican and, later, an ardent supporter of Joseph McCarthy.
Despite Cummings' consanguinity with avant-garde styles, much of his work is quite traditional. Many of his poems are sonnets, albeit often with a modern twist, and he occasionally made use of the blues form and acrostics. Cummings' poetry often deals with themes of love and nature, as well as the relationship of the individual to the masses and to the world. His poems are also often rife with satire.
While his poetic forms and themes share an affinity with the romantic tradition, Cummings' work universally shows a particular idiosyncrasy of syntax, or way of arranging individual words into larger phrases and sentences. Many of his most striking poems do not involve any typographical or punctuation innovations at all, but purely syntactic ones.
As well as being influenced by notable modernists including Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, Cummings' early work drew upon the imagist experiments of Amy Lowell. Later, his visits to Paris exposed him to Dada and surrealism, which in turn permeated his work. He began to rely on symbolism and allegory where he once used simile and metaphor. In his later work, he rarely used comparisons that required objects that were not previously mentioned in the poem, choosing to use a symbol instead. Due to this, his later poetry is “frequently more lucid, more moving, and more profound than his earlier.” Cummings also liked to incorporate imagery of nature and death into much of his poetry.
While some of his poetry is free verse (with no concern for rhyme or meter), many have a recognizable sonnet structure of 14 lines, with an intricate rhyme scheme. A number of his poems feature a typographically exuberant style, with words, parts of words, or punctuation symbols scattered across the page, often making little sense until read aloud, at which point the meaning and emotion become clear. Cummings, who was also a painter, understood the importance of presentation, and used typography to "paint a picture" with some of his poems.
The seeds of Cummings' unconventional style appear well established even in his earliest work. At age six, he wrote to his father:
FATHER DEAR. BE, YOUR FATHER-GOOD AND GOOD,
HE IS GOOD NOW, IT IS NOT GOOD TO SEE IT RAIN, FATHER DEAR IS, IT, DEAR, NO FATHER DEAR, LOVE, YOU DEAR, ESTLIN.
Following his autobiographical novel The Enormous Room, Cummings' first published work was a collection of poems entitled Tulips and Chimneys (1923). This work was the public's first encounter with his characteristic eccentric use of grammar and punctuation.
Some of Cummings' most famous poems do not involve much, if any, odd typography or punctuation, but still carry his unmistakable style, particularly in unusual and impressionistic word order.
Cummings' work often does not act in accordance with the conventional combinatorial rules that generate typical English sentences (for example, "they sowed their isn't"). His readings of Stein in the early part of the century probably served as a springboard to this aspect of his artistic development. In some respects, Cummings' work is more stylistically continuous with Stein's than with any other poet or writer.
In addition, a number of Cummings' poems feature, in part or in whole, intentional misspellings, and several incorporate phonetic spellings intended to represent particular dialects. Cummings also made use of inventive formations of compound words, as in "in Just" which features words such as "mud-luscious", "puddle-wonderful", and "eddieandbill." This poem is part of a sequence of poems entitled Chansons Innocentes; it has many references comparing the "balloonman" to Pan, the mythical creature that is half-goat and half-man. Literary critic R.P. Blackmur has commented that this usage of language is “frequently unintelligible because he disregards the historical accumulation of meaning in words in favour of merely private and personal associations.”
Many of Cummings' poems are satirical and address social issues but have an equal or even stronger bias toward romanticism: time and again his poems celebrate love, sex, and the season of rebirth.
Cummings also wrote children's books and novels. A notable example of his versatility is an introduction he wrote for a collection of the comic strip Krazy Kat.
Cummings is also known for controversial subject matter, as he has a large collection of erotic poetry. In his 1950 collection Xaipe: Seventy-One Poems, Cummings published two poems containing words that caused an outrage in some quarters.
Cummings biographer Catherine Reef notes of the incident:
Friends begged Cummings to reconsider publishing these poems, and the book's editor pleaded with him to withdraw them, but he insisted that they stay. All the fuss perplexed him. The poems were commenting on prejudice, he pointed out, and not condoning it. He intended to show how derogatory words cause people to see others in terms of stereotypes rather than as individuals. "America (which turns Hungarian into 'hunky' & Irishman into 'mick' and Norwegian into 'square- head') is to blame for 'kike,'" he said.
But readers were still hurt, despite his commentary. Jews, living in the painful aftermath of the Holocaust, felt his very words were antisemitic, in spite of their purpose. William Carlos Williams spoke out in his defence.
During his lifetime, Cummings published four plays. HIM, a three-act play, was first produced in 1928 by the Provincetown Players in New York City. The production was directed by James Light. The play's main characters are "Him", a playwright, and "Me", his girlfriend. Cummings said of the unorthodox play:
Relax and give the play a chance to strut its stuff—relax, stop wondering what it is all 'about'—like many strange and familiar things, Life included, this play isn't 'about,' it simply is. . . . Don't try to enjoy it, let it try to enjoy you. DON'T TRY TO UNDERSTAND IT, LET IT TRY TO UNDERSTAND YOU."
Anthropos, or the Future of Art is a short, one-act play that Cummings contributed to the anthology Whither, Whither or After Sex, What? A Symposium to End Symposium. The play consists of dialogue between Man, the main character, and three "infrahumans", or inferior beings. The word anthropos is the Greek word for "man", in the sense of "mankind".
Tom, A Ballet is a ballet based on Uncle Tom's Cabin. The ballet is detailed in a "synopsis" as well as descriptions of four "episodes", which were published by Cummings in 1935. It has never been performed.
Santa Claus: A Morality was probably Cummings' most successful play. It is an allegorical Christmas fantasy presented in one act of five scenes. The play was inspired by his daughter Nancy, with whom he was reunited in 1946. It was first published in the Harvard College magazine the Wake. The play's main characters are Santa Claus, his family (Woman and Child), Death, and Mob. At the outset of the play, Santa Claus' family has disintegrated due to their lust for knowledge (Science). After a series of events, however, Santa Claus' faith in love and his rejection of the materialism and disappointment he associates with Science are reaffirmed, and he is reunited with Woman and Child.
Name and capitalization
Cummings's publishers and others have sometimes echoed the unconventional orthography in his poetry by writing his name in lowercase and without periods (full stops), but normal orthography (uppercase and full stops) is supported by scholarship, and preferred by publishers today. Cummings himself used both the lowercase and capitalized versions, though he most often signed his name with capitals.
The use of lowercase for his initials was popularized in part by the title of some books, particularly in the 1960s, printing his name in lower case on the cover and spine. In the preface to E. E. Cummings: the growth of a writer critic Harry T. Moore notes " He [Cummings] had his name put legally into lower case, and in his later books the titles and his name were always in lower case." According to his widow, this is incorrect. She wrote of Friedman "you should not have allowed H. Moore to make such a stupid & childish statement about Cummings & his signature." On February 27, 1951, Cummings wrote to his French translator D. Jon Grossman that he preferred the use of upper case for the particular edition they were working on. One Cummings scholar believes that on the rare occasions that Cummings signed his name in all lowercase, he may have intended it as a gesture of humility, not as an indication that it was the preferred orthography for others to use.
Critic Edmund Wilson commented "Mr. Cummings’s eccentric punctuation is, also, I believe, a symptom of his immaturity as an artist. It is not merely a question of an unconventional usage: unconventional punctuation may very well gain its effect... the really serious case against Mr. Cummings’s punctuation is that the results which it yields are ugly. His poems on the page are hideous."
During his lifetime, Cummings received numerous awards in recognition of his work, including:
Dial Award (1925)
Guggenheim Fellowship (1933)
Shelley Memorial Award for Poetry (1944)
Harriet Monroe Prize from Poetry magazine (1950)
Fellowship of American Academy of Poets (1950)
Guggenheim Fellowship (1951)
Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard (1952–1953)
Special citation from the National Book Award Committee for his Poems, 1923–1954 (1957)
Bollingen Prize in Poetry (1958)
Boston Arts Festival Award (1957)
Two-year Ford Foundation grant of $15,000 (1959)