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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 850


This is the grave of E.E. Cummings.

Born in 1894 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Edward Estlin Cummings grew up in the Harvard elite. His father was a professor and quite famous Unitarian minister who was good friends with Henry James and Josiah Royce, among other intellectual giants of the Gilded Age. From his childhood, Cummings liked to write and his parents encouraged the boy, conscious about developing a new generation of intellectual elites. Of course, he then went to Harvard, graduating in 1915 and then with a master’s degree in 1916. His career took a detour with World War I. Like many young Progressive Era elites, Cummings was excited to join the war and prove his manhood. He enlisted in the Ambulance Corps for the French as soon as he could, before the U.S. entered the war. As it turned out, his paperwork got all borked and he spent five weeks screwing around Paris before it was worked out. The city became a touchstone for him for the rest of his life. He also really didn’t care about the war as he entered it. In fact, his disillusionment became so profound that he wrote openly about how he didn’t hate the Germans, caught the attention of military censors, and he and his buddy William Slater Brown were arrested by the French police for espionage and thrown in jail for nearly four months before finally being released, only because of the wealth and power of his father, in December 1917. He came back to the U.S. and then was drafted back into the military, but never got back to France during the war.

Cummings moved back to Paris in 1921 and became a key member of the American literary ex-pat community along with people such as Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway. In 1922, he published The Enormous Room, his fictionalized experienced of his prison experience in France, to widespread acclaim. F. Scott Fitzgerald later stated, “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.” This was his only proper novel however, though much later in life he published a collection of fictional short stories.

Cummings became known for his experimental poetry, especially with grammar and syntax. Of course, he was most known for not capitalizing his name or many words at all. His 1923 collection Tulips and Chimneys brought a lot of this experimentation into the world, even though his own editor hated it. I don’t know, I can’t really blame the editor. Intentionally misspelled words is something that I find pretty irritating. It is worth noting that despite frequently publishing his name in lower case, he almost always signed his name in real life in capital letters and was never consistent about that in his published work either.

Cummings spent the 20s mostly publishing poetry and traveling the world, not only spending much time in Paris, but going to North Africa, around Europe, to Mexico, and a 1931 trip to the Soviet Union. He actually hated that trip. He was not a particularly political writer before 1931, but after, he moved to the right in his disgust with the Soviets, a very different experience than most visitors at the time. What he really, really, really hated was Lenin’s tomb and the hero worship it involved. And honestly, it’s hard to blame him. His book he published on his trip actually made it hard for him to get published for awhile because people were so angry with the politics. He supported himself through becoming a frequent essay contributor to Vanity Fair, as well as painting portraits. His father being killed when a train ran down their automobile in 1926 changed his life and moved him toward more somber topics in his work.

By the 1950s, Cummings had become an active conservative and was a big supporter of Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt trials. Being a bohemian in his personal life by no means one had to be a leftist in politics. It’s easy to say that his hatred of the Soviet Union was good, but in the context of the time, hating the Soviet Union usually did mean supporting the mass suppression of civil liberties in the United States and the overthrow of democratically elected governments overseas.

Despite his experimentation in writing, most of his poems were fairly traditional in structure, particularly using sonnets as his preferred style. He embraced eroticism and sex and wrote quite explicit sexual poems to his first wife that he published and scandalized some, Unfortunately, he also embraced racism and anti-Semitism, frequently using slurs in his work. Cummings wrote a few plays as well. The most well-known is his 1946 work Santa Claus: A Morality, which is an allegory about rising materialism. He also wrote a play based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which has never ever been performed and I suspect there’s a very good reason for this.

Cummings is very much not my thing, even for my extremely limited patience for poetry. But his influence on modern art cannot be overstated. Difficult artists ranging from Morton Feldman to Bjork have either composed works in Cummings’ honor or used his poetry in their work. But on the other hand, to quote the poet Randall Jarrell, “No one else has ever made avant-garde, experimental poems so attractive to the general and the special reader.” On the other hand, many critics have noted that all of his experimentation came in the 1920s and he never advanced in any meaningful way for the rest of his career. The critic George Stade said of him, “intellectually speaking, Cummings was a case of arrested development. He was a brilliant 20-year-old, but he remained merely precocious to the end of his life. That may be one source of his appeal.”

In 1952, Harvard gave Cummings a guest professorship. That year, the school had him give the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, which is perhaps the school’s top lecture series in the art. He published these lectures as essays as i: six nonlectures. Most of his later life was a combination of giving guest lectures and living as often as he could at his home in New Hampshire. In fact, he died of a stroke there in 1962. He was 67 years old.

E.E. Cummings is buried in Forest Hills Cemetery, Boston, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other people who gave the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Aaron Copland, who gave the 1951 lectures is at the Tanglewood Music Center in Berskhire County, Massachusetts and the noted artist and leftist Ben Shahn, who gave the 1956 lectures, is in Roosevelt, New Jersey. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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