When The Enormous Room was first published in 1922, it was viewed as a war book, a “realistic” story exposing the horrors of World War I, as one representative critic put it. The book is indeed about war, but it is also about other things—society, language, and art—and about E. E. Cummings himself. An examination and evaluation of the various aspects of The Enormous Room reveal its strength as an experimental autobiography and as a portrait of modern culture.
Although it is a book about war, Cummings’s work is more a parody than a protest. The tone of the opening paragraph reveals this when the narrator pokes fun at the pompous rhetoric of “Our Great President” and contrasts it with the simple, honest language of a man such as E. E. Cummings, who is in a war started by the rhetoric of politicians. Cummings sustains this tone throughout the book as he contrasts those who are imprisoned with those who are their captors. The prisoners, particularly those whom Cummings calls the Delectable Mountains, are simple, innocent, and naïve victims, whereas the victimizers are ruthless, uncaring bureaucrats. Using Bunyan’s book The Pilgrim’s Progress as his organizing principle, Cummings shows how he, the pilgrim, progresses through the war. He experiences the brutality of such figures as the one he calls Apollyon (named after Bunyan’s devil) and learns that in war innocent human beings battle against manipulative predators.
This context of war is actually a microcosm of society, another theme Cummings develops. The qualities that Cummings the poet pokes fun at and satirizes are the same ones he criticizes in The Enormous Room: the dehumanizing qualities of modern culture, its mechanization, and its substitution of thinking for feeling. Cummings rails against such institutions of culture as religion, education, and government, and he uses the individual prisoners in the French jail as reminders of the power of the self against society.
Cummings uses experimental language in describing the prisoners, showing that a new use of language can be a tool for...
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