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:...
(The entire section is 1,289 words.)