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.
Cummings’s works are testimonies to the self and the natural world which nurtures that self. They speak of the need to experience the world, not control it; they remind their readers of the importance of the present moment. They celebrate the individual over society, the self over selves. They honor emotion over intellect, feeling over thought. In Cummings’s works, one hears a voice that speaks clearly and loudly to the modern world, a voice that both warns and celebrates. That combination of sounds is, in itself, one of Cummings’s most significant contributions.
Edward Estlin Cummings was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on October 14, 1894, the first of two children born to Edward Cummings and Rebecca Haswell Clarke. His father was a Harvard graduate and lecturer, an ordained Unitarian minister, and pastor of the South Congregational Church from 1909 to 1925. Cummings received his degree magna cum laude from Harvard in 1915 and a Harvard M.A. the following year. A landmark in his career came in 1952 when he returned to Harvard to deliver the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures. Subsequently published as i: six nonlectures, all of which are highly personal and autobiographical, the first is of particular interest because of its affectionate, idealized portraits of his parents.
Cummings went to France in 1917 to join Norton Harje’s Ambulance Corps. A combination of unfortunate and nearly ludicrous events led to his incarceration by the French authorities on suspicion of disloyalty. He and a friend were confined in a concentration camp at La Ferté Macé from late September through December, 1917. That experience is the subject matter of Cummings’s first book, The Enormous Room, which has come to be regarded as a classic account of personal experience in World War I. Although prose, it launched the poet’s career and, because of its style, set the tone and, implicitly, some of the basic themes that were to characterize the responses to his poetry for the next two decades. Before 1922, Cummings had published poems in the Harvard Monthly, in The Dial, and six poems in Eight Harvard Poets, but it was The Enormous Room that began his critical reputation. His first book of poems, Tulips and Chimneys, was published in 1923.
In 1923, Cummings moved to Patchin Place in New York City and lived there, spending the summers at his family’s place in New Hampshire, until his death in 1962. Cummings traveled to Russia in 1931 and converted that experience into the second of his two major prose works, Eimi. In 1932, he married Marion Morehouse, a model, actress, and photographer. It was his third marriage and it survived. She died in 1969. The three decades Cummings spent with Marion and the nearly four decades at Patchin Place deserve emphasis in a biographical sketch because they provide a perspective that brings some balance to the poet’s reputation as a bohemian enfant terrible. Although he never lost the cutting edge of his capacity to shock, he lived a relatively settled life devoted to painting and writing poetry.