E. E. Cummings American Literature Analysis
Because of his idiosyncratic punctuation and typography, E. E. Cummings is often labeled an experimentalist, and indeed his art is innovative and revolutionary. One of the most curious aspects of Cummings’s work, however, is that it combines experimentation with tradition, a point Gertrude Stein noted in her book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933):Gertrude Stein who had been much impressed by The Enormous Room said that Cummings did not copy, he was the natural heir of the New England tradition with its aridity and its sterility, but also with its individuality.
In all of his works—prose, poetry, drama, and autobiography—Cummings celebrated this quality of individuality, seeing it as the legacy of his New England upbringing and also as the outstanding characteristic of modernism. For Cummings, individuality was both a theme and a technique. Thematically, it was a faith in a world in which the independent, alive, living individual struggled against the cerebral, joyless nonindividual. Cummings celebrated the existence of the individual and satirized the boring, mechanistic lives of nonindividuals. Technically, individuality was at the core of Cummings’s experiments with word coinings, free verse, innovations with typography and punctuation, and other strategies that make his literature, especially his poetry, look and sound different from almost any other artist’s work, especially those who preceded him. Thematically and technically, then, Cummings was committed to individuality, a dedication he made clear during one of his six “nonlectures” at Harvard: “Let us pray always for individuals; never for worlds.”
The individuals for whom Cummings prays and about whom he writes inhabit a particular kind of universe. It is, first of all, a place that is natural, not created by human beings, and it is a place in which nature is process, not product. To understand this place and the people within it requires intuition and imagination, not mere intellectualizing. Thus Cummings is constantly criticizing those who believe they can rely only upon reason, while he praises those who try to understand with their hearts and their emotions.
Cummings’s true individuals are lovers, artists, clowns, circus people, or adolescents—those who, in his view, challenge both society and labels. They are connected by their freedom—their vital need to be independent—and they typically demonstrate that independence by challenging those who embody convention, tradition, and mechanization. Politicians, soldiers, bureaucrats, and “Cambridge ladies” are targets of their assaults, for all those individuals not only represent categories themselves but they also attempt to label, and thus limit, the freedom of others.
In his poetry, Cummings uses several strategies to explore his ideas about individuality. He coins words so that nouns are made of verbs, creating a sense of nonstop motion and forcing the reader to become actively involved in the poem. He also distorts the syntax of sentences so that it is impossible to read his works in a traditional way of identifying subject-verb-object. Still another strategy is visual—setting up the poem on a page so that it looks different from the traditional, linear lyric, thus compelling the reader to move back and forth within the poem, making meaning out of the motion of reading as well as out of the words being read. Taken together, these strategies emphasize process: the process of being alive—a hallmark of a true individual—and the process of reading.
His other literary forms demonstrate this same celebratory stance. In his autobiographies—The Enormous Room and Eimi—Cummings honors the individuals who transcend the boundaries of society. Whether they are the prisoners in the French army camp or citizens in Russia, individuals who listen to and learn from their hearts and who are independent and self-reliant are the objects of Cummings’s praise. In his plays and ballets and other works, the same kind of people are honored, and, by contrast, their opposites are parodied and satirized.
The Enormous Room
First published: 1922
Type of work: Autobiography
A self-portrait in which Cummings describes his captivity in a French prison during World War I.
The Enormous Room is Cummings’s autobiographical narrative of the time he spent in La Ferté Mace, a French concentration camp a hundred miles west of Paris. Cummings and a friend, both members of an American ambulance corps in France during World War I, were erroneously suspected of treasonable correspondence and were imprisoned from August, 1917, until January, 1918. In this book, Cummings describes the prisoners with whom he shared his captivity, the captors who subjected their victims to enormous cruelty, and the filthy surroundings of the prison camp.
Written in the form of a pilgrimage and modeled after John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), Cummings’s narrative also shows the influence of early American black autobiographies. Like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress and the slaves who wrote their own stories, the narrator in Cummings’s self-portrait faces an arduous journey to freedom, a voyage not unlike the ones described in many early black autobiographies also modeled on Bunyan’s classic. In Cummings’s voyage, the autobiographer emphasizes and celebrates his belief in individuality, especially as it is seen in the characters of the prisoners, including the gypsy dubbed Wanderer, the childish giant named Jean le Nègre, and the clownish captive called Surplice.
In The Enormous Room, the reader follows the enslaved Cummings along three legs of his journey: first, the period before La Ferté Mace; then, the period beginning with the second day in the enormous room; and finally, the departure from the French prison. During the first part of the autobiographical journey, Cummings appears as a rebellious American soldier parodying the rhetoric of wartime communication in his description of dissension within the ranks:To borrow a characteristic-cadence from Our Great President: the lively satisfaction which we might be suspected of having derived from the accomplishment of a task so important in the saving of civilization from the clutches of Prussian tyrany [sic] was in some degree inhibited, unhappily, by a complete absence of cordial relations between the man whom fate had placed over us and ourselves. Or, to use the vulgar American idiom, B. and I and Mr. A. didn’t get on well.
Rebellious and independent, the young Cummings quickly learns the price of asserting these two qualities: He is imprisoned and joins a multitude of other captives who try desperately, and usually successfully, to retain their individuality despite their captors’ efforts to rob them of this quality.
Enclosed in the space he calls “the Enormous Room,” Cummings is entrapped in an oblong room eighty feet by forty feet. This room in La Ferté Mace both restricts and unites an international menagerie of humanity (Dutch, Belgian, Spanish, Turkish, Arabian, Polish, Russian, Swedish, German, French, and English), including the American animal, E. E. Cummings. Among the most memorable of these fellow prisoners is Surplice—the court jester of the enormous room, the fool, the scapegoat, the eternal victim—who occupies an important spot in both the prison and the world, as Cummings notes: “After all, men in La Misère as well as anywhere also rightly demand a certain amount of amusement; amusement is, indeed, peculiarly essential to suffering; in proportion as we are able to be amused we are able to suffer.” Cummings’s description of this classic notion of scapegoating is especially poignant because he is describing himself as well as his readers: “I, Surplice,” says Cummings, “am a very necessary creature after all.”
Another memorable prisoner with whom Cummings shares his space is Zulu, thus called, says Cummings, partly because he looks like something Cummings had never seen, partly because the sounds of the two syllables appeared to relate to his personality, and partly because Zulu seemed to like the name. Cummings is particularly attracted to this prisoner because Zulu embodies the qualities that Cummings cherishes: individuality, vitality, emotion, and timelessness. Zulu is “A Verb; an IS,” according to Cummings, meaning that he is an example of life and action—as a verb represents action—not a victim of...
(The entire section is 3508 words.)
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