Historical Context

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After he graduated from Harvard in 1916, cummings moved to New York City, where he stayed, with time away during World War I, for most of his life. Cummings probably wrote “i was sitting in mcsorley’s” around 1917, when he was living in Greenwich Village in New York City, part of that time with his friend William Slater Brown, whom he met during the war. Cummings’s biographer Charles Norman notes that cummings frequented McSorley’s, which he describes as follows:

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It has two rooms, each with its individual admonitory sign, “Be Good or Be Gone.” The walls are crowded with photographs and lithographs in which a vanished city dwells, and dead, buxom ladies and derbied men. The room in front has the bar, but the room in back boasts a famous lady of smooth and beautiful nudeness. . . . Here writers, artists, and laborers still meet on equal terms, without distractions, to sluice down amber quarts in the abiding gloom.

Cummings was a flaneur (an idle, man-about-town) of sorts, roaming the city for hours every day, sitting in coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, soaking up the voices and sights of New York City, and using them as fodder for his paintings and poems. The early part of the century was a lively and vibrant time in Manhattan and across the country. Undergirded by a surge in industrial growth, the economy was booming, and politicians announced a New Era in world affairs. Consumerism was on the rise, as people were barraged with products they didn’t even know they needed. Petroleum-based products such as rayon, acetate, and cellophane gave rise to entire new industries. Automobiles, radios, and telephones became must-have items. Americans were experiencing a sea change, or transformation, in the way that they lived. Anti-drinking activists lobbied hard for Prohibition, which took effect in 1920. The Eighteenth Amendment prohibited the manufacturing and selling of alcohol. In big cities such as New York, however, Prohibition fueled illegal activity and made drinking sexy and hip, and underground speakeasies, places where illegal alcohol was sold, sprung up across the country. Speakeasies contributed in no small part to the easing of social barriers during this time, as gangsters, businessmen, blue-collar workers, and professionals all gathered to drink. Ironically, the Prohibition movement, fueled by the fear that hordes of Europeans pouring into the country were polluting American values, helped to bring Americans of different cultures and classes together. Across the country writers such as Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, and Dorothy Parker were helping to define a distinctly American brand of literary modernism and often used the new urban life as the subject of their work. In architecture, Frank Lloyd Wright was contributing to what became known as the international style, as he designed functional buildings of steel, concrete, and glass. In the visual arts Ansel Adams, Edward Hopper, and Georgia O’Keeffe were developing their own American styles. The music world was the site of experimentation as well, as jazz became popular. By the end of the decade, the good times were over, as the stock market crash, in 1929, destroyed the livelihoods and futures of millions of people and set America on a course of a recovery that would take decades.

Literary Style

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Cummings is perhaps best known for his innovative typography and for his experiments with grammar and word form. He routinely uses capital and lowercase letters in unconventional ways, he inserts parenthesis and scatters periods and commas in a seemingly random manner; he uses nouns as verbs and vice versa, and he splits and combines words in unexpected places and ways. All of these devices slow down the poem for readers, asking them to think associatively, as the speaker thinks, and to question the ways in which reality has been described to them. In spite of all this apparent randomness, in general, each of his “stanzas” can be read as separate syntactical units.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Baum, S. V., “E. E. Cummings: The Technique of Immediacy,” in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 1, January 1954, pp. 70–88.

Blackmur, R. P., “Notes on E. E. Cummings’ Language,” in Hound & Horn, Vol. IV, No. 2, 1931, pp. 163–92.

Cummings, E. E., Collected Poems, Harcourt Brace, 1938.

———, The Enormous Room, Liverlight, 1922.

———, Tulips & Chimneys, Liverlight, 1976.

———, “Unpublished Notes,” Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Dendinger, Lloyd N., ed., E. E. Cummings: The Critical Reception, Burt Franklin, 1981.

Farwell, Byron, Over There: The United States in the Great War, 1917–1918, Norton & Company, 2000.

Friedman, Norman, “E. E. Cummings and His Critics,” in Criticism, No. 6, 1964, pp. 114–33.

———, E. E. Cummings: The Art of His Poetry, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1960.

Gorman, Herbert, “Goliath Beats His Poetic Breast, Whilst Critics Gape,” in New York Times Book Review, December 9, 1923, p. 5.

Kennedy, Richard S., Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E. E. Cummings, Liveright, 1980.

———, E.E. Cummings Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1994.

Kidder, Rushworth, “Cummings and Cubism: The Influence of the Visual Arts on Cummings’ Early Poetry,” in the Journal of Modern Literature, No. 7, April 1979, pp. 255–91.

———, E. E. Cummings: An Introduction to the Poetry, Columbia University Press, 1979.

Lane, Gary, I Am: A Study of E. E. Cummings’ Poems, University Press of Kansas, 1976.

Locklin, Gerald, “The Influence of Cummings on Selected Contemporary Poets,” in Spring, No. 2, 1993, pp. 40–7.

Marks, Barry, E. E. Cummings, Twayne, 1964.

Monroe, Harriet, “Flare and Blare,” in Poetry, January 1924, pp. 211–15.

Norman, Charles, E. E. Cummings: The Magic-Maker, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1958.

Oppenheim, James, “E. E. Cummings,” in Men Seen, August 1924, pp. 194–200.

Rotella, Guy, ed., Critical Essays on E. E. Cummings, G. K. Hall, 1984.

Weinstein, Lawrence, “On the Precision of E. E. Cummings,” in Spring, No. 3, 1994, pp.77–9.

Wolf, Robert L., “E. E. Cummings’s Poetry,” in New York World, November 18, 1923, p 9E.

For Further Study
Cohen, Milton A., Poet and the Painter: The Aesthetics of E. E. Cummings’s Early Work, Wayne State University Press, 1987. Cohen explores cummings’s development as an artist and poet by analyzing his notes on aesthetic theory. This is an important study of cummings’s influences and how his theories on writing and painting came together.

Cureton, Richard D., “Poetry, Grammar, and Epistemology: The Order of Prenominal Modifiers in the Poetry of E. E. Cummings,” in Language & Structure Vol. 18, No. 1, 1985, pp. 64–91. Cureton analyzes cummings’s use of adjectives in his poetry, exploring the connection between cummings’s adjectival order and his ideology.

McBride, Katharine Winters, ed., A Concordance to the Complete Poems of E. E. Cummings, Cornell University Press, 1989. This book lists more than 13,000 words used by cumming, including combined words and neologisms (made up words) found in Complete Poems. This is a useful text for those doing a systematic study of cummings’s poetry.

Norman, Charles, E. E. Cummings: The Magic-Maker, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1958. This biography of cummings is thorough and well researched. Norman makes connections between cummings’s emotional development and his development as an artist but does not pretend to be a psychologist.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1925: Harold Ross publishes the first issue of the New Yorker, a weekly magazine for sophisticates that extols urban New York City.

    1985: Conde Nast chairman S. I. “Si” Newhouse Jr. buys the New Yorker for $168 million.

    2000: David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, announces its first venture into television. “Who Wants to Be Us?” a trivia game show, will challenge contestants’ knowledge of the city and the magazine.

  • 1920: On February 1, temperatures in New York City drop to 2 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, a record cold for the date for the second day in a row.

    1989: On February 1, temperatures in New York City reach 67 degrees Fahrenheit, highest for this date.

  • 1925: The United States is in its fifth year of Prohibition, which forbids the manufacturing or sale of alcohol.

    Today: The abuse of alcohol remains a major social problem; drunk driving and binge-drinking by high school and college students are major issues.

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Critical Essays