The first of two children born to Edward Cummings and Rebecca Haswell Clarke, E. E. Cummings was raised in a curious milieu for a rebel poet. He virtually grew up in Harvard Yard and was surrounded by the most traditional aspects of Cambridge culture. His father, an instructor in sociology who later became a Unitarian churchman, instructed his son to pass the collection plate during certain church services. One of the few deviations from this elite, exclusive upbringing was E. E. Cummings’s time in public high school, the result of one of his father’s democratic ideas.
In 1911, Cummings entered Harvard University. He lived at home during the first three years of his university education. He wrote for the Harvard Monthly, publishing his first poems in that journal in 1912. He graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in 1915, and he delivered the commencement address, titled “The New Art.” During his undergraduate years at Harvard, Cummings demonstrated a revolutionary and rebellious attitude toward traditional, conventional art and literature, an attitude that would be characteristic of Cummings throughout his life.
After receiving his M.A. from Harvard in 1916, Cummings moved to New York City and spent three months in an office job. The following year he sailed for France as a volunteer in the Norton Harjes Ambulance Corps of the American Red Cross. His four-month imprisonment by French authorities on suspicion of disloyalty provided the basis for his first autobiography, The Enormous Room, published in 1922. Released from prison on New Year’s Day, 1918, Cummings returned to New York City, where he lived in Greenwich Village.
In 1920, Cummings made his first major appearance in The Dial, a literary magazine that was a vehicle for most of the leading artists of the time. From 1921 to 1923, he made his first trip to Paris, where he met many leading avant-garde figures who found Paris to be a lively and stimulating place for art and artists. Cummings lived in Paris intermittently throughout the 1920’s and made numerous trips abroad throughout his life. When he returned to the United States in 1923, he took up permanent residence in New York City, spending the summers at Joy Farm, his family’s summer home, in Silver Lake, New Hampshire. His return to New York coincided with the publication of the first of twelve volumes of poetry, Tulips and Chimneys (1923), all of which revealed Cummings’s effort to experiment with language, structure, and ideas.
Cummings was married three times: first to Elaine On in 1924, then to Anne Barton in 1927, and finally to Marion Morehouse in 1932. While he was dealing with these personal changes, he wrote prolifically: nearly eight hundred poems, plays, ballets, fairy tales, and autobiographies. He also produced a number of drawings and watercolors, having his first major showing of paintings at the Painters and Sculptors Gallery, New York City, in 1931. Other shows were held at the American British Art Center and the Rochester Memorial Art Gallery.
During his life, E. E. Cummings was recognized for both the quantity and quality of his work. He was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, the first in 1933—the year his book Eimi, based on a trip to Russia, was published—and the second in 1951. He was also awarded a fellowship of the American Academy of Poets in 1950 and a National Book Awards special citation in 1955. In 1957, Cummings received the Bollingen Prize in Poetry as well as the Boston Arts Festival Award.
Despite this public recognition of his work and despite his position as the Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard during 1952-1953, Cummings was a private person. Toward the end of his life he made few public appearances except for a series of lectures at Harvard and readings of his poetry to mostly undergraduate audiences. He became partly crippled by arthritis and wore a brace that forced him to conduct these readings while sitting in a straight-backed kitchen chair. He would read for a half hour, rest, then return to finish the program, charming audiences with his poetry and personality. Cummings died in 1962, having worked to the last day of his life.