(E)dward (E)stlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Harvard University. His father taught sociology at the university before leaving it to become a Unitarian minister. The young Cummings’s playmates included the children of other Harvard professors. Cummings later obtained both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Harvard, and his studies there gave him a solid grounding in English and classical literature as well as an understanding of language, all of which proved invaluable to him as a poet.
Just as he rebelled against the traditions of English literature, Cummings rebelled against Cambridge and Harvard, distancing himself from the academic milieu and, except for a brief period as a visiting professor at his alma mater, never again living in Cambridge after 1918. He found himself more at home in bohemian surroundings, including Paris, France, where he often visited, and Greenwich Village in New York City, where he lived for most of the last forty-five years of his life.
Unlike many poets, Cummings was encouraged to devote himself to poetry by his parents, especially his mother, who recorded his first rhyme when he was three and helped him start a diary at the age of six. Over the next few years, Cummings wrote many stories and verses, and by the age of fifteen he was writing one poem per day. He published poems and stories in his high school magazine and at Harvard contributed to the university’s two literary periodicals. Through his literary acquaintances at Harvard, he was introduced to the latest developments in various arts, from Cubism in painting to the musical innovations of Erik Satie and Igor Stravinsky to the literary experiments of Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. Cummings celebrated these avant- garde developments in “The New Art,” his commencement address to the Harvard class of 1915.
After receiving his master’s degree, Cummings took a job for the Collier publishing company in New York City but quit after less than two months. He never held a regular job again. Supported financially by his parents and his friends, he devoted himself to writing poetry and also to painting. Cummings considered himself a painter as well as a poet; he had many of his paintings exhibited and even published a collection of drawings, cartoons, and other art works (CIOPW, 1931), but he did not have the same success with his art as with his literary works.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Cummings volunteered for the ambulance corps and was sent to France. However, he found life in the corps tedious and developed an antagonistic relationship with his commanding officer. When a friend of his was arrested on suspicion of espionage for writing indiscreet letters about army morale, Cummings refused to dissociate himself from the friend and also refused to say that he hated Germans. The result was that he was sent to a detention center in Normandy, France, where he stayed for two months. Oddly enough, Cummings seemed to enjoy this imprisonment more than his time in the ambulance service. Moreover, the experience led to the publication of his first book.
Throughout his literary career, Cummings devoted himself to attacking convention and conformity while celebrating imagination, intuition, and the individual. Signs of both the attack and the celebration can be seen in his first major work, The Enormous Room (1922), a prose narrative of his time in the French detention center. The book contains mockery of the slogans of war and of regimentation, along with a joyful celebration of the value of individuals who can rise above regimentation and be themselves. What is striking about the book is that despite the injustice and suffering that it describes, the emphasis is on the celebration and not the attack. This emphasis is reflected in the exuberant experimentation with language found in the book; Cummings mixes French in with his English and begins his practice of transforming verbs into nouns: For instance, one of the characters in the book, because he is so alive, is, for Cummings, an “Is.”
Before writing The Enormous Room, Cummings had assembled a large collection of the poetry he had written over the years and had tried to have it published under the title Tulips & Chimneys. Several publishers turned the collection down before one finally agreed to publish an abridged version that left out Cummings’s most experimental work and his poems with sexual themes. The publisher also, to Cummings’s dismay, replaced the ampersand in the title so that the book appeared in 1923 as Tulips and Chimneys. Two years later, another publisher agreed to publish forty-one of the omitted poems as XLI Poems, and the same year Cummings had the rest of the poems from the original collection, along with thirty-six new ones, privately published under the title &, using the ampersand the first publisher had denied him.
These three books contained some early poems that were fairly traditional, including numerous sonnets. Indeed, throughout his career Cummings continued to write in traditional forms such as the sonnet, though at times he disguised the fact by playing with spacing, rhythms, and rhymes. The three early books also included works on traditional poetic topics such as love and nature, but there were also ventures into less traditional areas, “low” subjects such as beggars, gangsters, and prostitutes. The collections also included experiments with form and language in which the poet ran words together and used lowercase letters instead of capitals, as in his poem that began “i like my body when it is with/ your body.”
The publisher of Cummings’s next book of poems—Is 5 (1926)—was so concerned about Cummings’s unusual style and the resulting obscurity of some of his poetry that he had Cummings write an explanatory foreword. In the foreword, Cummings explained that his title was an abbreviated form of the statement “twice two is five,” indicating that for him truth was a mystery not reducible to conventional facts (such as “twice two is four”). The book contained several satires directed against conventional thinking, such as the poem that began “next to of course god america i/ love you land of the pilgrims’ and so forth . . .”
Cummings’s dislike of convention, conformity, and authority put him at odds with American culture of his day and made him identify, for a time, with the political left. This led him to make a trip to the Soviet Union in 1931, which he wrote about in his memoir Eimi (1933). However, he hated the Soviet Union, calling it an “Unworld” and comparing it to Dante’s vision of Hell. He found it dirty and ugly and, above all, joylessly conformist and authority-bound. It confirmed in him his dedication to individualism and his opposition to mass society and alienated him from his left-wing friends. In his poetry after this experience, communists and utopian reformers are included among the objects of satire, along with politicians, businessmen, and “mostpeople” (that is, conformists who fail to live as individuals).
However, satire became less prominent in Cummings’s later works. He began to focus less on attacking the dull and sterile conformity he saw around him and instead wrote more poems in the spirit of Transcendentalism, talking of how the individual can transcend everyday society and attain a joyful level of existence by rejecting systems, beliefs, and standardization and turning to the imagination and the feelings. This more joyful, loving, and perhaps partly religious mood emerged most strongly in his two poetry books of the 1940’s, 50 Poems (1940) and 1 x 1 (1944), at a time when Cummings said he was trying to cheer up his country.
In the early stages of his career, Cummings did not win widespread recognition from the public or praise from the critics. His works did not sell, and one of his books—No Thanks (1935)—was turned down by fourteen publishers. Some critics said he was not serious or even modern, despite his typographical experiments, or accused him of not developing. However, his reception began to improve with the publication of his Collected Poems (1938) and especially with the appearance of 1 x 1, for which he was awarded the Shelley Memorial Award. Many more awards followed in the 1950’s, and he came to be in constant demand for poetry readings at campuses around the country. He was also granted the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard for 1952-1953, for which he gave a series of six autobiographical talks published as i: six nonlectures (1953).
Cummings published two more poetry collections in his lifetime—Xaipe (1950) and 95 Poems (1958)—and a posthumous collection of new work, 73 Poems, appeared in 1963. His poems in these volumes dealt more with the cycle of life, with age, youth, and death. His typographical experiments continued to the end, as with his poem in 95 Poems about loneliness and a leaf falling, which was laid out on the page so that only two letters appeared on most lines and a parenthetical insertion interrupted the word “loneliness.”
Best remembered as the poet who refused to use capital letters—though in fact he did use capitals, just not in conventional places—Cummings was an important figure in the revolt against poetic convention, encouraging greater freedom among later poets. The American poet Louis Zukofsky said it was thanks to Cummings that he realized there was no need to begin every line in a poem with a capital letter.
Cummings’s revolt against the conventions of poetry was coupled with a revolt against larger conventions, against conformity, dogmas, authorities, and institutions. In his own time, this made Cummings something of an outcast, for he stood against both American capitalism and Soviet communism, the two major belief systems of his day. However, his attitude of irreverent opposition to all authority, no matter what its belief system, and his celebration of love and nature and joy as means of transcending the sterility of society anticipated and perhaps even influenced attitudes that became prominent in the 1960’s and later.
Ahearn, Barry, ed. Pound/Cummings: The Correspondence of Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996. These interchanges cast light on both the poets and their times. Includes bibliographic references.
Cowley, Malcolm. A Second Flowering: Works and Days of the Lost Generation. New York: Viking, 1973. Contains a chapter on Cummings that focuses on his life in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Discusses his philosophy and evaluates his poetry.
Dumas, Bethany K. E. E. Cummings: A Remembrance of Miracles. London: Vision Press, 1974. Contains a chapter on Cummings’s life and several chapters analyzing his poetry, prose, and dramatic works. Includes a bibliography and indexes.
Friedman, Norman. E. E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1960. The first book-length analysis of Cummings’s poetry. Discusses his poetic vision and his techniques. Includes indexes.
Friedman, Norman. E. E. Cummings: The Growth of a Writer. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1964. Detailed discussion of each of Cummings’s major works in order to show his development. Includes index and a brief bibliographical note.
Kennedy, Richard S. Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings. New York: Liveright, 1980. A detailed, scholarly study of Cummings’s life that discusses his poems and his philosophical views. Includes a chronological list of Cummings’s works, a bibliographical essay on secondary works, an index, and illustrations.
Kennedy, Richard S. E. E. Cummings Revisited. New York: Twayne, 1994. Primarily an analysis of Cummings’s major writings but also provides a condensed version of his life interspersed with the analysis. Includes a chronology of the poet’s life, a bibliography of works by and about him, an index, and numerous illustrations.
Kidder, Rushworth M. E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979. Because of the separation in time between Cummings’s life and the appearance of this volume, Kidder had gained some objectivity over earlier critics, enabling him to focus on enduring values in the poetry. His commentaries are fresh and insightful, often correcting existing misconceptions. Includes a bibliography and indexes.
Lane, Gary. I Am: A Study of E. E. Cummings’ Poems. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1976. A good reference for new readers. Reprints selected poems, appending detailed discussions designed to make the obscure and complicated devices transparent. The critical apparatus features complete notes, an index, and a bibliographical note.
Norman, Charles. The Magic Maker: E. E. Cummings. Rev. ed. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972. First written while Cummings was still alive, this combination memoir and critical introduction grows out of a long and intimate relationship with the poet. The personal material bears a rich authenticity, full of telling anecdotes. The illustrations are unrivaled. A good index offers useful cross-references, but there are no notes.
Sawyer-Lauçanno, Christopher. E.E. Cummings: A Biography. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2004. Massive in scope and in number of pages, this biography and literary study of Cummings is readable, comprehensive and highly recommended.
Waggoner, Hyatt H. American Poets from the Puritans to the Present. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1968. Contains a section on Cummings that discusses his transcendental philosophy and evaluates his poetry.
Wegner, Robert E. The Poetry and Prose of E. E. Cummings. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. More than the other sources, this book focuses on revealing the evolution of Cummings’s style and the relationship between his life and work. It includes a chronology of publications rather than of his life. Includes footnotes and indexes of first lines and subjects but no bibliography.