E. E. Cummings E. E. Cummings American Literature Analysis

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E. E. Cummings American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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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...

(The entire section is 3,508 words.)