All the Advantages

C.H. Sisson

  • Dreams in the Mirror: A Biography of E.E. Cummings by Richard Kennedy
    Norton, 529 pp, £12.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 87140 638 1

The poet E.E. Cummings was born with what are called all the advantages, or with enough of them. It was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in ‘a huge, three-storied, many-roomed structure with 13 fire-places… not far from Harvard Yard’. His mother was so considerate of her son’s future biographer that she recorded hour by hour the stages of her labour. ‘Miss MacMahon saw child’s hair at 4’ – four o’clock in the afternoon of 14 October 1894, and the boy was born at seven. More important than these details – except perhaps to an astrologer – is the fact that the boy’s father was an assistant professor at Harvard, that Cambridge was still thought of as the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, both recently deceased, and that across the river was a Boston which still called itself ‘the Athens of America’. Edward Cummings, the father, was a man of modern outlook, if only in certain respects. A sociologist who had been at Toynbee Hall as well as at the universities of Paris and Berlin, he knew about strikes and lock-outs, arbitration, penal codes, and indeed all that a socially aware person of the Nineties could decently be aware of. He was a Unitarian, but in full Puritan righteousness. True to form, he found that ‘sociology is more religious than most theology’; in due course, he became a minister. He gave his son a Unitarian name, Estlin, which is associated also, though indirectly, with the family of Walter Bagehot. Both father and mother were of old New England stock, the mother the ‘better’ of the two, though her father went to prison for a family forgery. Edward Cummings’s grandfather was a tavern-keeper. However, neither the forger nor the tavern-keeper was spoken of in the Cambridge home: only the ghosts were there.

Mrs Cummings’s diary continued during Estlin’s early life, so Professor Kennedy is able to tell us, for example, that at the age of three the poet uttered his first rhyme:

Oh my little birdie oh
With his little toe, toe, toe!

Stacks of later juvenilia were preserved. Estlin’s first playmate was the daughter of a professor of cryptogamic botany and the granddaughter of a New Hampshire poetess. ‘The area around Irving Street’ (where the Cummingses lived) ‘was mostly settled by Harvard professors.’ The area was not fully built up and there was room to play, and even a tree house built by Estlin’s father, who was a useful man with his hands. All was not idyllic for the little society of professors’ children; there were the working-class boys, the ‘muckers’, given to ‘fighting, rock-throwing and jeering’ as a way of demonstrating what Professor Kennedy elegantly calls ‘upward social mobility’. Summers were spent away from these distractions, in a farmhouse owned by the family in Madison, New Hampshire. It was a well-to-do childhood. At the age of 17, Cummings was able to write:

I am of the aristocracy of the earth, all the advantages that any boy should have are in my hands. I am king over my opportunities. No one can take away from me the possibilities of growth founded on the firm rock of inherent advantage and power.

Seventeen was the age at which Cummings entered Harvard, where he stayed for five years. His biographer tells that this ‘did not make him an intellectual’, but that he was ‘one of the best-educated men in the country’. He graduated ‘magna cum laude in Literature especially Greek and English’ after taking courses which included some comparative literature and Grandgent’s course on Dante. Even then, ‘Harvard had a long tradition of emphasis on writing, especially creative writing,’ and students ‘were encouraged to write verse and fiction as well as good expository prose’. We are told – for what poet’s biography now would be complete without some details of these not exclusively poetic proceedings? – how Cummings took girls out in the family Ford, though he and his friends ‘respected the chastity of the Cambridge and Brookline girls they knew’, as was the custom in those far-off times; how ‘when they wanted more excitement they picked up girls in Central Square’; how he once ‘reached a furtive hand inside the dress of one of these casual partners’: and so on. In fact, although Cummings did not fail in his obvious duty of scandalising his father, his main outbreaks seem to have been verbal, as in informing Spring that

Of the dissolute slobber of thy breasts
And the indecent jostle of thy thighs
I am so very fond.

As Professor Kennedy says, the biographer ‘can only chart the course genius took and describe why some of the changes and developments happened on the way’.

Professor Kennedy has some interesting things to say about the development of Cummings’s style of writing. Pound’s poem, ‘The Return’, impressed the 24-year-old poet less for its rhythm or its subject-matter than for ‘the inaudible poem – the visual poem, the poem not for ears but eye’; and ‘visual poem’ did not mean ‘images’ but the arrangement on the page. From this discovery about the spacing of phrases he went on to a striking economy with capital letters (perhaps the capital key on the family typewriter was stiff), then to the use of capitals for emphasis, as in his favourite comic strip, Krazy Kat. Another source of enlightenment, at the time when Cummings was ‘rebelling against the middle-class style of living’, was the epistolary style of Sam Ward, the odd-job man, with its somewhat impressionistic punctuation and spelling and the small ‘i’ for ‘I’ which Cummings took up and exploited as Sam had not been able to do. Contemporaneous with these novelties, in Cummings’s poetic development, was ‘a kind of romantic Hellenism that,’ Professor Kennedy tells us, ‘would have rejoiced the heart of Keats and his circle’. So in one way and another, the poet made progress, even though – Professor Kennedy again – ‘there was really no sound method of literary analysis before I.A. Richards or the Vanderbilt critics of the 1920s.’

Meanwhile the war had stolen upon him. The Reverend Edward Kennedy was head of the World Peace Foundation; Estlin was not interested in politics and seems to have been slow to understand the drift of events. When he felt himself forced into them by the threat of America’s participation in the war, he stood aside as far as he could, but after America had declared he acted with remarkable speed and volunteered with a Red cross unit serving with the French Army. He wanted to avoid conscription and ‘hoped he would see some real service at the front’. There were some social privileges about the Red Cross service: the members ‘were classed as officers, yet did not have to bear the burdens of command or the responsibilities of giving orders to others’. Cummings and a friend made a start in France by giving the unit the slip and spending some weeks in Paris occupied with what amusements they pleased, which included two beautiful whores with whom they became friendly, though in Estlin’s case there was no actual fornication. Still, he was undoubtedly leading a wicked life, by his father’s standards. When the two Harvard men finally got to their unit, the experience cannot have been quite as had been conceived on the other side of the Atlantic. Cummings was by temperament, social background and (lack of) training ill-equipped for ‘the usual bored and seemingly useless work of an inactive military unit’. Professor Kennedy is judicious on this episode, hesitating between calling Cummings’s behaviour ‘childish petulance or justified outrage’. Cummings got on with no one except his Harvard friend Brown; they treated their chef de section with contempt; they washed and shaved less than they should have done and they got into deep trouble with the censor. In short, they were nuisances, and the fact that it all ended in the internment centre described in The Enormous Room, however absurd, is hardly surprising; nor can Cummings’s sufferings there be considered too seriously, given what his contemporaries had to put up with elsewhere and the fact that the times were singularly inauspicious for his peculiar type of maladjustment. Cummings was not an Isaac Rosenberg or a Gaudier. In due course he was released from confinement through the intervention of the American Embassy, and back he went to America, though not before he had had a long evening of champagne in Paris and had concluded his campaign satisfactorily by losing his virginity.

There was still time do as a private in the American Army, on home service, but soon after the war Cummings was able to begin in earnest his career as a poet and painter. Professor Kennedy documents all this – indeed his whole book – admirably and he has clearly spared no pains to be the master of his subject. Not for nothing was he giving seminars on Cummings at Wichita State University in 1963. The meat of the book, however, has been extracted, since 1969, from the Houghton Library at Harvard, which houses a collection of Cummings papers, ‘perhaps the largest collection in existence of the papers of an American writer’. (Lucky Shakespeare left no proportionate deposit.) Professor Kennedy had hoped to fill two volumes with his biography, and assuredly he would have had matter for it. However, it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and it may well be that a single volume, closely packed as this one had to be, will serve his own and Cummings’s memory better. The general reader will hardly want two volumes on the whole population of 20th-century poets – nor, when one thinks of Johnson’s Lives, can one easily be convinced that they are absolutely necessary.

Professor Kennedy follows his subject’s career, as well as the sort of life which used to be called private, with sympathy and fair-mindedness and if the reader feels sometimes inclined to make a different judgment on some aspect of the material, he is given the evidence on which to do so. A good deal of attention is given to the ‘three of the most beautiful women in America’, as the publisher unscientifically calls them, who successively became the poet’s wives. There are photographs of them, as well as a number of Cummings’s own drawings of them and others, in this well-illustrated volume. The first of these women had been, before she achieved her second distinction, the wife of a wealthy and broad-minded patron, for whose marriage Cummings had written his longest poem by way of epithalamion. This thread is never quite out of the narrative because by her Cummings had a daughter before he was in a position to recognise the relationship. When it was discovered to the already grown-up Nancy, Cummings was in the keeping of his third wife, who was understandably jealous of the girl because she wanted herself to have a child by Cummings but was not allowed to. The first wife, Elaine, was wealthy and Cummings hovered somewhat uncertainly on the edge of her social world. The second was a piquant young woman whose first extant telegram is signed MIDNIGHT (unless that is the time of an appointment). Cummings regarded this girl as his ‘first real introduction to sex’. She was left in France to have an abortion while Cummings paid the five-week visit to Russia which was the basis of EIMI. She disgraced herself by showing a desire for the family property. The third wife, who finally collected him and kept the rest at bay, was a successful fashion model. It was she who, on 2 September 1962, heard a thud and found the poet dying. The woman who is really the heroine of the whole history is the poet’s mother, the charming and capable Rebecca Cummings, who had the tact to survive into her eighties, until Cummings was 53 and finally settled in the world. Rebecca seems to have been anxious only that her son should be looked after, and to have recognised from the start that this was something he would never do for himself. Her attitude to the women who successively became his wife seems to have been above reproach and she was always ready with a subsidy for her son when all else failed.

Most of Cummings’s career as writer and painter was spent in New York, with a summer refuge which had an important place in his life from boyhood to death. He is an engaging figure in his way, and very much one of his own time and place. He came from a world where the old New England stock still felt themselves to be the centre of things. If, as Professor Kennedy says, ‘it took a trip to Russia to make a full-fledged New England Transcendentalist out of Cummings’, these influences had been within earshot from the beginning. And if he did not enjoy any remarkable personal prosperity, his poverty and his bohemianism were of a kind which could only be enjoyed by someone never too far off the edge of a well-to-do world. He early decided that ‘he wanted to be part of the modern movement,’ and the next stop after Harvard was Greenwich Village. Naturally, with the turn of the years, he found himself in a milieu which took more than an amicable interest in the Soviet Union, and he incurred some unpopularity for seeing what he saw with his own eyes and recording it in EIMI. Later he saw the New Deal as putting America on the way to Moscow, and took various other more or less absurd stances in relation to public affairs. But no one in his senses could have considered looking to Cummings for reflections on such matters; his grasp of any affairs other than his own – and even, often, of his own – was tenuous.

How important a poet was he? Time will settle that, and might be said already to be doing so. He once seemed a slight and rather baroque figure in the literature of the Twenties and Thirties; he seems to have been hoisted to a wider fame during the last dozen years of his life by his performance as a poetry reader, master-minded by an enterprising agent. And of course there were the non-lectures at Harvard, which marked a phase for him and, one supposes, for the University, and gave the Charles Eliot Norton professorship – surely for the first time – to a brilliant and intelligent entertainer who (the words are Professor Kennedy’s) ‘regarded mind and its analytical powers as only a suppressant’. If Cummings had a ‘view of life’, as Professor Kennedy rather insists that he had, it was a fairly superficial and incoherent one – vaguely anti-scientific, and individualistic in the manner of people who have a horror of being disturbed. ‘Generally, he felt that a true artist could do no wrong’; of course, he was one.

Perhaps what will tell against his work most is the poverty of its objective matter, and he seems to have hoped to make up for this by his ingenuity with a typewriter. Professor Kennedy points out, in relation to an early example, that ‘what is surprising is the new interest that the triviality of this talk takes on when it is given this patterned form.’ This is an aesthetic interest of a kind, but it remains a tiny and unsatisfying one. Belonging to a generation much impressed by ‘the unconscious’, though understandably vague as to exactly what that might be, Cummings was himself very much a manipulator of the phenomena of the surface. We are given a ‘working draft’ of a poem of eight lines (made up of a total of 14 letters in all). Twenty-five drafts seem to have been nothing out of the ordinary. He used to remind people that Mallarmé told Degas, ‘One doesn’t write poetry with ideas: one writes poetry with words’ – but Mallarmé did not mean the same thing as Cummings. There is little rhythmic interest in Cummings’s verse. He was a poet of sentiment and ingenuity, of a kind which, in the 17th century, occasionally produced a few neat songs in the conventions of the times. The 20th century is particularly hard on such talents. Professor Kennedy speaks of work which will ‘amuse, titillate, thrill, provoke, enthrall’ the poet’s readers. One need not quarrel with these verbs.